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For 10 Years, Photographer Follows Up on Destroyed Village

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On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and a tsunami struck coastal Japan, killing 200 residents of Kesen, a centuries-old village. Only two of the 550 homes were not destroyed, and most of the survivors moved away. But 15 residents vowed to stay and rebuild the village, and Hiroko Masuike, a New York Times photographer and Japanese native, traveled twice a year from New York over the past decade to chronicle their efforts.

Last month, a photo essay and article told the story of their determination during the past 10 years. In an interview, Ms. Masuike discussed the evolution of her project.

Many cities and villages were devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. Why did you decide to focus on Kesen?

When the tsunami happened, I had to be there because my home country was going through a major disaster. Rikuzentakata, the city where Kesen is, was one of the hardest hit. I had a vacation planned, but 12 days after the tsunami, I landed at the nearest airport. I started to photograph the debris and people at an evacuation center in Rikuzentakata, but I was still numb.

One day, I was driving in Kesen and saw a small temple on higher ground. Ten people were living there, and across the town, there were other people living among the debris. They were very different from any other people living in evacuation centers — they were so energetic. The second day when I visited the people in the temple, they told me, “If you want to stay with us, you can.” I started photographing how they lived: They built a small shack where we ate; they made a bonfire every day; they would try to clean up the place. They were hoping to reunite their community.

How did this go from photographing the aftermath of a major disaster to a long-term project?

When I first went there, everyone opened up to me and put their trust in me. I didn’t want to be someone who goes to a disaster zone and then, when the news fades, leaves and never returns. So I just kept going back, photographing everybody each time and catching up on how they were doing. During the 10 years, I was able to spend plenty of time with survivors and capture the right moment. I tried to be a good listener — I think they wanted to tell someone their stories, feelings and frustrations. So they opened to me even more when I kept returning.

What were you hoping to capture at the outset of the piece?

I was hoping this community was going to rebuild. My first trip back was in October 2011, and the government had started building prefabricated houses, so people were living there — except this guy, Naoshi, who lost his son, a volunteer firefighter, to the quake. He thought that because his son’s spirit might come back, he had to be at the same location, so he rebuilt his house in August 2012. And I was hoping to capture when the temple would be rebuilt, because it had been the center of the community for centuries.

Were there any challenges you faced with this project over the past decade?

Most of the time when I went back, there were no changes in the community. The temple was rebuilt in 2017, but Rikuzentakata told survivors that they couldn’t rebuild their homes where their houses once stood. Authorities worked on raising the level of the land for residential use. But construction took a lot longer than they thought, and many people couldn’t wait that long and moved elsewhere, and the land remained empty. When I went back this year for the 10th anniversary, the construction was complete, and seeing the vacant area was stunning: The village was once full of people and houses, but 10 years later, there was nothing.

Will you continue to photograph Kesen?

I probably don’t need to go back twice a year. But the people I’ve been photographing are making some progress. One person is going to open a dog-friendly cafe this summer. So I would like to keep visiting and photographing their lives. I’ve been seeing them for 10 years. It’s hard to stop.

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A Village Erased

KESEN, Japan — For centuries, this village rode the currents of time: war and plague, the sowing and reaping of rice, the planting and felling of trees.

Then the wave hit. Time stopped. And the village became history.

When a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck coastal Japan on March 11, 2011, more than 200 residents of the village, Kesen, in Iwate Prefecture, were killed. All but two of 550 homes were destroyed.

After the waters receded, nearly everyone who survived fled. They left behind their destroyed possessions, the tombs of their ancestors and the land their forefathers had farmed for generations.

But 15 residents refused to abandon Kesen and vowed to rebuild. Twice a year since 2011, Hiroko Maisuke, a photographer for The New York Times, has visited the village to document the survivors’ all-but-doomed mission of remaking their hometown.

“Our ancestors lived in this village 1,000 years ago,” said Naoshi Sato, 87, a lumberjack and farmer whose son was killed in the tsunami. “There were disasters then, too. Each time the people stayed. They rebuilt and stayed. Rebuilt and stayed. I feel an obligation to continue what my ancestors started. I don’t want to lose my hometown.”

Many of those who remained, including Mr. Sato, lived for months without power or running water. For a year, Mr. Sato camped in the fetid wreckage of his home. For a decade, he has dreamed of Kesen’s rebirth.

Every day of that first year after the tsunami, he trekked into the woods, and by himself chopped the trees that he used to rebuild his two-bedroom house. When only two other families followed his lead and rebuilt their homes, Mr. Sato’s wife and daughter-in-law realized the futility of his plan and left him behind.

Those who chose to stay in Kesen were old in 2011. Now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, they are older still. Slowly, over the past decade, a grim reality has settled over this place: There is no going back. Kesen will never be restored. This emptiness will last forever.

Mr. Sato is resigned that his mission may have been for naught. Three houses have been built and he has kept his former neighbor’s farmlands from deteriorating, but he concedes that without new residents, the village will die.

“I am very sad,” he said. “I regret that people will not come back.”

He blames the government. It took nine years and $840 million for the authorities to complete a project in which the high ground above the village was converted to land for residential construction.

By then, he said, it was too late. Almost everyone who left a decade ago has made a new home elsewhere. Unlike other nearby towns within the city of Rikuzentakata, which have also received government funding, the new elevated area above the destroyed village lacks amenities, including shops and a supermarket.

“Right now, given the coronavirus pandemic, I’m lucky to live here,” Mr. Sato said. To make sure his wry joke was understood, he added, “The air is clean and there are not too many people.”

On the high ground, a handful of newly constructed houses have sprung up around Kongoji Temple. Like the mythic Ship of Theseus, whose component parts over time were all replaced, Kongoji is both the same temple that has been in the community for 1,200 years and an entirely new one built in 2017.

For centuries, the temple has served as a community calendar, marking time with 33 events a year. Those rites have effectively come to a halt, but on Thursday, Nobuo Kobayashi, Kongoji’s chief monk, will welcome the scattered members of the community to Kesen for a memorial service.

Mr. Kobayashi has worked tirelessly to make sure the families have a place to mourn their loved ones, but he is realistic about the temple ever again echoing with sounds other than lamentations of grief.

“Of course, I would like to rebuild the kind of temple we had before the tsunami,” Mr. Kobayashi said. “But people don’t want to come back to the place where they lost friends and family. And there’s the fear; people are afraid of another tsunami.”

An anniversary is an arbitrary but useful reminder of how time passes. Ten years is a satisfyingly round number, but it’s just one of many figures by which to measure the tragedy.

A decade feels like an eternity for those who lost a child in mere seconds, but it’s a brief moment in Japan’s history. It’s an even shorter blip in the billion-year history of the tectonic plates, whose grinding shifts triggered the earthquake and tsunami.

It’s that long view of history that gives the holdouts hope that Kesen will again rise from the wreckage.

Mr. Sato, the logger, will turn 88 next week. He awakes each morning at 6 and places a cup of green tea on his home altar — an offer to the spirits of his son and ancestors. And then, like his forebears, he tends to his rice field and vegetable patch.

“I’d like to see how this place will look 30 years from now,” he said. “But by then, I’ll have to see it from heaven. And I don’t think that will be possible.”

Reporting by Hiroko Masuike in Kesen, Japan.

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Fukushima Photos: 10 Years Later

Ten years after a devastating earthquake and tsunami led to a nuclear meltdown in northern Japan, residents are readjusting to places that feel familiar and hostile at once.


FUKUSHIMA, Japan — After an earthquake and tsunami pummeled a nuclear plant about 12 miles from their home, Tomoko Kobayashi and her husband joined the evacuation and left their Dalmatian behind, expecting they would return home in a few days.

It ended up being five years. Even now — a decade after those deadly natural disasters on March 11, 2011, set off a catastrophic nuclear meltdown — the Japanese government has not fully reopened villages and towns within the original 12-mile evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. And even if it did, many former residents have no plans to return.

Some of those who did return figured that coming home was worth the residual radiation risk. Others, like Ms. Kobayashi, 68, had businesses to restart.

“We had reasons to come back and the means to do so,” said Ms. Kobayashi, who manages a guesthouse. “It made sense — to an extent.”

one million tons of contaminated water into the sea has riled local fishermen, and cases against the government and the plant operator are winding through the country’s highest courts. The issue of nuclear power remains highly fraught.

And for miles around the plant, there are physical reminders of an accident that forced the exodus of about 164,000 people.

crashed ashore, flooding his auto body shop in the industrial city of Koriyama.

It can feel that way in the town of Namie, where bags of radioactive waste have piled up.

new schools, roads, public housing and other infrastructure in an effort to lure former residents back.

Some residents in their 60s and beyond see the appeal. It can be hard for them to imagine living anywhere else.

“They want to be in their hometown,” said Tsunao Kato, 71, who reopened his third-generation barbershop even before its running water had been restored. “They want to die here.”

One upside is that the threat of lingering radiation feels less immediate than that of the coronavirus, said Mr. Kato, whose shop is in the city of Minami Soma. In that sense, living amid the reminders of nuclear disaster — in towns where streetlights illuminate empty intersections — is a welcome sort of social distancing.

At a Futaba nursery school, umbrellas have sat untouched for a decade, protecting no one from the rain.

Nearby, a collapsed house is still waiting for a demolition crew.

Mr. Kato said that while he was happy to be back, he struggled to balance a desire to stay with the knowledge that living somewhere else would probably be safer.

“Logic and emotion can’t mesh,” he said, “like oil and water.”

Like Mr. Kato, Ms. Kobayashi had been running a family business, in her case a guesthouse, when the magnitude-9 earthquake struck. The guesthouse in Minami Soma has been in her family for generations, and she took it over in 2001 when her mother retired.

The guesthouse sustained significant water damage from the tsunami. But Ms. Kobayashi’s family restored and reopened it. (Their Dalmatian, who survived the nuclear accident, died just before the renovation was completed.)

They did not expect a surge of tourists, she said, but hoped to serve people who wanted to return to the area and had nowhere to stay.

“There’s no town left,” she said. “If you come back, you have to rebuild.”

Hikari Hida reported from Tokyo, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.

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The Mayor’s House Was Firebombed. The Message: Keep Our Town Nuclear-Free.

SUTTSU, Japan — It seemed like easy money. The Japanese government was conducting a study of potential locations for storing spent nuclear fuel — a review of old geological maps and research papers about local plate tectonics. It put out a call for localities to volunteer. Participating would commit them to nothing.

Haruo Kataoka, the mayor of an ailing fishing town on the northern island of Hokkaido, put up his hand. His town, Suttsu, could use the money. What could go wrong?

The answer, he quickly learned, was a lot. A resident threw a firebomb at his home. Others threatened to recall the town council. A former prime minister traveled six hours from Tokyo to denounce the plan. The town, which spends much of the year in a snowbound hush, was enveloped in a media storm.

There are few places on earth eager to host a nuclear waste dump. Only Finland and Sweden have settled on permanent repositories for the dregs of their atomic energy programs. But the furor in Suttsu speaks to the deep anxiety that remains in Japan 10 years after an immense earthquake and tsunami caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima Prefecture, the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

promise that the country made late last year to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

Even before the Fukushima calamity, which led to three explosions and a release of radiation that forced the evacuation of 150,000 people, ambivalence toward nuclear energy was deeply ingrained in Japan. The country is haunted by the hundreds of thousands killed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Still, most Japanese had come to terms with nuclear power, viewing it as an inevitable part of the energy mix for a resource-poor country that must import about 90 percent of the materials it needs to generate electricity.

government’s plan to release a million tons of treated radioactive water from the site into the ocean.

The government says it would make small releases over 30 years with no impact on human health. Fishermen in Fukushima say that the plan would wreck their long journey toward recovery.

“We have this potentially dangerous technology and we still rely on it and we need to have a long-range view on nuclear waste and decommissioning, so we better think about a much more democratic way to handle the cost associated with it,” Mr. Miyazaki said in an interview.

Critics of nuclear power in Japan frequently point to the decades of failure to find a solution to the waste problem as an argument against restarting the country’s existing reactors, much less building new ones.

In November, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took his campaign against nuclear energy to Suttsu at the invitation of local activists. Speaking in the town’s gymnasium, he said that after visiting Finland’s underground waste storage site — a facility much like the one proposed by the Japanese government — he had decided that Japan’s active geology would make it impossible to find a workable location.

Japanese reactors have generated more than 18,000 tons of spent fuel over the last half-century. A small proportion of that has been turned into glass — through a process known as vitrification — and sheathed in giant metal canisters.

Almost 2,500 of the huge radioactive tubes are sitting in temporary facilities in Aomori and Ibaraki Prefectures, waiting to be lowered 1,000 feet beneath the earth’s surface into vast underground vaults. There, they would spend millenniums shedding their toxic burden.

It will be decades — if ever — before a site is selected and the project begins in earnest. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan, known as NUMO and represented by a cartoon mole cautiously sticking its snout out of a hole, is in charge of finding a final resting place.

Long before he took NUMO up on its offer to conduct a study in his town, Mr. Kataoka, the Suttsu mayor, had taken an entrepreneurial view toward government subsidies.

Suttsu has a population of just under 2,900, spread thinly around the rocky rim of a deep cerulean bay, where fishing boats prowl for mackerel and squid. Beginning in 1999, with government-supported loans, Mr. Kataoka championed an initiative to install a stand of towering wind turbines along the shore.

Many in the town were initially opposed, he said during an interview in his office, but the project has delivered handsome returns. The town has spent the profits from selling electricity to pay off debts. Townspeople have free access to a heated pool, a golf course and a modest ski slope with a rope tow. Next to a sleek community center is a free day care for the few residents with children.

The facilities are not unusual for small-town Japan. Many localities have tried to stave off decline by spending large sums on white elephant projects. In Suttsu, the effect has been limited. The town is shrinking, and in early March, snow was piled to the eaves of newly built but shuttered stores along the main street.

Mr. Kataoka nominated Suttsu for the NUMO program, he said, out of a sense of responsibility to the nation. The subsidies, he admitted, are a nice bonus. But many in Suttsu doubt the intentions of both Mr. Kataoka and the government. The town, they argue, does not need the money. And they question why he made the decision without public consultation.

At a meeting of the town council on Monday, residents expressed concern that once the process had begun, it would quickly gather momentum and become impossible to stop.

The plan has fiercely divided the town. Reporters have flooded in, putting the discord on national display. A sign in the hotel by the harbor makes it clear that the staff will not accept interviews.

In October, an angry resident threw a Molotov cocktail at Mr. Kataoka’s home. It broke a window, but he smothered it without any further damage. The perpetrator was arrested and is now out on bail. He has apologized, Mr. Kataoka said.

The mayor remains bewildered by the aggressive response. Mr. Katatoka insists that the literature review is not a fait accompli and that the townspeople will have the final say.

In October, he will run for a sixth term. He wants voters to support his proposal, but whatever the outcome, he hopes the town can move forward together.

Losing the election would be bad, he said, but “the saddest part of all this has been losing the town’s trust.”

Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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