The following is an excerpt from “Hisaichi no Hontou no Hanashi wo Shiyou” (Talking About What Really Happened in the Disaster Area) by Toba Futoshi, the current mayor of Rikuzentakata. Mayor Toba lost his wife in the tsunami.
I became the mayor of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, on February 13th, 2011.
And then, less than a month after coming to office, the Tohoku Earthquake struck right as I was beginning my journey as the mayor of the city.
Rikuzentakata is at the southern most point in the prefecture, facing the Sanriku sea, and took the most damage out of any other place in Iwate. As of today, July 5th, there were 1,526 deaths recorded. The only town in Iwate that had more than 1,000 deaths was Rikuzentakata. Even though it has been 4 months since the earthquake and tsunami struck, there are still 543 people missing. Rikuzentakata is already a small town of only 25,000 people, so the scale of loss is just devastating.
I think many people have now seen on television and in newspapers the images of our town now destroyed by the tsunami. Of course, before the disaster, we had a JR train station, a city hall, a large hospital, hotels, and many other buildings. All of those buildings were swallowed up by the tsunami.
I was born in Kanagawa Prefecture and lived in Machida, Tokyo until I was 28. After that, I moved to Rikuzentakata and started working as a city council member in 1995. I’ve lived half of my life in this city, and I will probably live here for many years and decades to come.
And I saw, with my own two eyes, my homeland, my children’s homeland – our furusato – disappear in an instant.
At that moment, I could only think about protecting the lives of the townspeople, but watching all of the town – things that had been standing since the day before – wash away and then disappear was a chilling, horrifying moment.
One of the things swept away was my house, and my wife who had been staying at home that day. She is no longer with us.
And so on that day I became the mayor of the largest disaster area of Iwate Prefecture, and a survivor.
There are many things that have to be done. First, after we remove all of the debris and wreckage, we have to walk down the path to reconstruction that is the only chance for Rikuzentakata’s future. That’s why, when I was approached to publish a book, I almost refused, thinking, “This is not the time for that.” However, as the days since the disaster pass one by one, I’ve begun to think that it would be worthwhile to write a book, because now is the time to write it; now is the right timing. No matter how shocking the news is about the disaster, as time passes, our story will stop being told. And to the people outside of the Tohoku area, the tv broadcasts are the only news they have about us. They might begin to think that reconstruction is going smoothly and that there is no news to be had.
However, that is not true. There are large mountains of debris piling up just waiting to be disposed of, and the large hollowed-out buildings that will eventually be destroyed are just sitting there, abandoned.
The reason they haven’t been cleaned up yet is because we simply have no way to do it. There may be people shocked by this, but even at this stage in July, we still have areas that don’t have their utilities and lifelines back up running. The station and the tracks are destroyed, so the trains are still down. The roads are still only for emergency vehicles, and the scars of the disaster still remain.
Even if just one person reads this, I want people to know about what’s really happening in the disaster area. That’s why I decided to publish this book. If and when some other large incident happens in Japan, the television stations are going to stop showing the situation in Rikuzentakata. And then the disaster area will start to be forgotten…
What will that mean?
The donations will probably stop being collected; volunteers will stop coming to help. If that happens during this time of reconstruction, it will truly make things difficult. And what’s more frightening is the possibility that people will start thinking that Rikuzentakata has already been rebuilt, even though we have so much ahead of us.
If the survivors who have lost their houses and are now living in shelters and temporary housing are forgotten about, what will happen to them?
The reason we have been able to withstand these long, awful days is because Japan and the rest of the world has been supporting us. We’ve not been forgotten about. We’re not alone. These thoughts and hopes have kept us feeling like we’re alive, and given us the energy to face reconstruction.
Of course money is important, but the most important thing is mental care for survivors. The Rikuzentakata City Government has received letters and words of encouragement from so many different places. One elementary school had an entire class write us letters and send them in a huge envelope. I’m sure the teacher of that class told the children about what was really happening in Rikuzentakata. And if in the act of writing those letters, those children were able to remember those four characters – 陸前高田 (Riku-zen-taka-ta) – then I am truly happy. That heavy stack of letters felt like they represented the sympathy the teacher and students had for us, and my eyes began to water.
I am so grateful for all of the letters and words of encouragement that we received from everyone. They gave us so much courage.
It would not be strange for a disaster like this to happen again at some other place, some other time. But we are continuing to fight for our homeland here in the disaster area.
I hope that you will read this book and feel like the survivors of Rikuzentakata are not strangers, but your friends, your brothers, your sisters, your family.
– “Hisaichi no Hontou no Hanashi wo Shiyou” (Talking About What Really Happened in the Disaster Area) by Toba Futoshi