Actor Ken Watanabe has expressed determination to continue standing with people of areas devastated by the powerful earthquake and tsunami that struck eastern Japan almost 10 years ago.
Seven years ago, Watanabe opened a cafe that serves as a meeting place for people in Kesennuma, a Pacific coastal city in Miyagi Prefecture that was badly affected by the tsunami.
“For the people who suffered through the disaster, 10 years is just an accumulation of everyday life and nothing changes in a big way,” Watanabe, 61, said in a recent interview. “I will continue my support despite having only little power, with the feeling of wanting to help and console people.”
The actor was undergoing treatment for acute myeloid leukemia during the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, and was out of the country filming a movie during the strong earthquake in Niigata Prefecture in 2004.
“I felt ashamed of myself for not being able to do anything,” he said.
When he saw coastal areas in the Tohoku region ravaged by the March 2011 quake and tsunami, Watanabe pledged to himself that he would do all he could to help.
He set up a website to collect aid funds in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and delivered goods in person to 22 evacuation centers.
During his aid activities, he heard from local residents that they had “lost a place for people to gather.”
After seeing the lights of an izakaya Japanese-style pub that reopened after the disaster, Watanabe felt compelled to revive such gathering places.
The actor opened the K-Port cafe in November 2013. The building was designed by architect Toyo Ito, and includes space for concerts.
The cafe’s logo depicts a lighthouse, symbolizing the light he hopes to shine on the hearts of people in the area.
Watanabe visits the cafe once every month or two when he is in Japan, and helps with serving customers.
He has also proposed dishes, and the cafe offers menu items made in collaboration with a local sweets store.
Ever since its opening, the actor has sent handwritten messages to the cafe via fax almost every day. On Coming of Age Day last month, Watanabe sent a congratulatory message to new adults for whom ceremonies were canceled due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“I want to tell them that, for five minutes every day when I am writing, I am connected” to the people of Kesennuma, he said.
The world-renowned actor played the role of the late Masao Yoshida, head of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, in the 2020 movie “Fukushima 50,” which depicts workers’ efforts to tackle the triple nuclear meltdown accident at the plant following the disaster.
“It’s the same for measures against the coronavirus, and I want people to be at eye level with people who are truly suffering or are on the ground to understand what is needed, instead of looking from above,” Watanabe said.
The K-Port cafe was forced to suspend business last year due to the coronavirus crisis, and Watanabe’s interactions with cafe staff have moved online.
He said that he plans to host a festival featuring local beers once the pandemic settles down.
“I don’t feel like I am giving aid right now,” Watanabe said. “I feel it’s more important to think (about) and discover with everyone what is fun and interesting.”
“I will continue until I am told not to come anymore,” he joked.
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