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Remembering 3/11

[3.11 Earthquake: Rebuilding] Bestselling Writer Miri Yu on Listening to Fukushima’s Voices

Preoccupation with the coronavirus might make people forget the rebuilding of lives in Fukushima, says the author of Tokyo Ueno Station and owner of Full House book café.

Misaki Owatari

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Author and businesswoman Miri Yu in front of the New National Stadium built for the Tokyo Olympics.

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This interview is part of a series of articles marking the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. What happened on that fateful March 11, 2011? What has happened since then? What does the future hold? Here we share the thoughts of people from many walks of life about this unforgettable tragedy.

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The Kodaka district of Minami Soma is in an area of Fukushima Prefecture that was declared a disaster zone in 2011, following the meltdown of the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. 

Residents have been slow to return, but it is the town bestselling author Miri Yu calls home. She moved to Fukushima in 2015, and has opened a book café there, where she listens to the concerns of local residents, many of whose former neighbors have yet to return. 

Miri Yu is a bestselling author whose novel Tokyo Ueno Station (English, Tilted Axis Press, 2019/Riverhead Books 2020) recently won the National Book Award for Translated Literature in the United States. Interested in why this prize-winning Japanese author would take such a step, The Sankei Shimbun’s Misaki Owatari recently caught up with her to ask about her thoughts on the region, its survivors, and her own writing. 

Excerpts follow. 

Author and businesswoman Miri Yu
The Fukushima disaster site

You touch upon the earthquake in your prizewinning book JR Ueno Station.

I had just started writing the book when the earthquake and nuclear power station disasters occurred. On April 21, 2011, the central government declared an evacuation zone for a radius of 20 kilometers around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, and prohibited unauthorized entry into this restricted zone from midnight April 22. Hearing that, I set off without delay. That’s how it started. 

Shortly after that, I also went to Tomioka-cho and Namie-cho. I thought that maybe I could do something to help, even if it was only to listen to what people needed to say.

Tell us about the radio show you had called Miri Yu’s Two Persons and One Person that ran for six years on a local temporary radio station in Minami Soma City, in which you interviewed around 600 people.

There had been various confrontations and frictions regarding establishing the damages and other compensation [stemming from the nuclear reactor meltdown]. It was hard to get local people to talk about these things, but I’d been told that since I was an outsider it was actually easier for people to discuss such matters with me. 

Although my program was only scheduled to run for 30 minutes, in some cases the person I was interviewing would talk for two hours. I also recall going out with a person from whom I had received a letter after a broadcast, and listening to what people in the town had to say. 

Everyone had painful memories. They hadn’t really wanted to talk about what had happened to them on that terrible day, but they found that when they spoke of those things for the first time, the weight they had been carrying somehow felt lighter.

What is the situation like in Fukushima now? 

The impact of COVID-19 has been very severe. After the nuclear accident, windows in the schools in Fukushima were kept closed and people wore masks. They experienced something close to lockdown conditions. So you have to realize that this is the second time they have had to go through all this. 

People were evacuated and dispersed throughout Japan following the March 11 disasters and many have yet to come home. After the evacuation order was lifted, the population of Kodaka inched upwards, but the return flow peaked in September of last year and has been trending downwards since then. 

In a place where the community has been devastated by a nuclear accident, there is a feeling that the same thing might happen again before long. 

Author and businesswoman Miri Yu

What has the impact been on restaurants and other businesses? 

There are local businesses that somehow got up and running, but found that there were few customers. The financial reward is certainly not there. Although they might act as small beacons of hope in what is otherwise utter darkness, desire alone will not be enough to help them make a go of it. 

Is there a fear that the disaster is being forgotten? 

I think it is important to draw everyone’s attention to the 10th anniversary of the earthquake, but the COVID-19 situation is awful in its own right. There is anxiety that in their preoccupation with the coronavirus, people will forget Fukushima.

Is there an impact from the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, which were supposed to be the “Recovery Olympics”? 

With COVID-19 having taken center stage, in effect it has taken over the “recovery” title. 

That said, something extraordinary happened in March 2020 when service resumed for all the stations on the Joban Line. People made sure to ride the train on the first day. You could see people crying and waving all along the line, although it wasn’t really reported on. 

Also, Fukushima was hit by Typhoon Hagibis, a major storm, in October 2019. The earthquake, the power plant accident, rumor mongering, population decline, Typhoon Hagibis, flood damage…and now COVID-19. It all leaves me speechless.

What kind of future activities do you plan to engage in in Minami Soma?

There is an old man I know who lost his wife when they were living in temporary housing, and is now living alone. He had to turn in his driver’s license, so he comes to my café by bicycle. There are so many things I would like to discuss with him, but simply can’t. The sadness and pain he has endured is just too much. 

I’d like to try to keep my place open and listen to such people for as long as possible.

What can people outside the disaster area do? 

The most important thing they could do is come here, but we can’t say that at this time [because of COVID-19 travel restrictions].

People end up just looking at the situation based on the information they get in the media. But if they actually came here, they would be able to judge things on the ground with their five senses. Just gazing out at the recovery area from a train on the Joban Line, or getting off at local stations at random and walking around. Those things alone would be good. 

That I can’t just tell people “Come here and see!” is very painful. But at least keep Fukushima in your thoughts.

About Miri Yu:

Miri Yu was born in Yokohama in 1968. After dropping out of high school, she became an actress in the Tokyo Kid Brothers troupe before going on to form her own theater group, Seishun Gogetsudo, in 1987. She later became a prolific writer, winning the Kunio Kishida Drama Award for her play Sakana no Matsuri (The Festival of Fish) in 1993 and the Akutagawa Prize for her novel Kazoku no Shinema (Family Cinema) in 1997. In 2015 she moved to the town of Minami Soma, and in 2018 she remodeled her home to create a bookstore. In 2020, she opened the book café Full House, named after a 1996 short story she wrote. 

Interview by: Misaki Owatari

Other stories in this series:

Ms. Misaki Owatari is a staff writer of the Sankei Shimbun City News Department at the paper's Tokyo headquarters office.