10 Years On: Impressions of NHK’s 3.11 Special, “A Compassionate View: The decade since the Great East Japan Earthquake”.

3/11 documentary featuring Ken Watanabe
An excerpt from the NHK Documentary

NHK’s new documentary: “A Compassionate View: The decade since the Great East Japan Earthquake”, presents a poignant depiction of the way life has recovered in the 10 years since the massive earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, or as it’s known in Japan, 3.11.

As part of the 10th-anniversary commemorations in 2021, NHK released a documentary that follows the famous actor Ken Watanabe, as he travels through the affected regions in Tohoku while reuniting with locals that he met in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Watanabe has been extensively involved in the recovery efforts, in particular opening a café in the port town of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture to support the local economy. Similar videos such as this one were made by him in 2011. and in 2016 on the 5 year anniversary of 3.11. This allows viewers to follow the progress of the locals’ lives, see how their children grow up, and watch the struggle and redevelopment of the townships that were reduced to rubble.

Whilst the events of 3.11 brought unimaginable horror and destruction to these peaceful coastal towns, which the documentary vividly shows through Watanabe’s 2011 interviews with survivors, it ultimately leaves a sense of hope and a vision that these places will not be defined by that fateful day. The affected region has not stagnated or died, but instead is resiliently rebounding which in the end makes the bonds, or kizuna, of the local townships even stronger.

People walk at an area that was damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, in Miyako, Iwate prefecture, April 5, 2011. Image Source: Reuters

The documentary begins with Watanabe in the town of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, which was essentially leveled by the tsunami. In a flashback to his January 2012 visit, he recalls the sadness of the sounds of the heavy machinery digging through the heaving piles of rubble where homes once stood. Fast forward to 2021, and that same scene is now one of numerous modern storefronts, with newly planted trees. The only difference is the towering 12m tall tsunami wall built to protect against the next big event like 3.11. He reunites with a local family that he met at an evacuation shelter in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and that he last met in his 2016 documentary. We get to see just how much the children have grown and flourished, and how the family was able to make a good life for themselves and prosper by reopening their apple orchard. They tell Watanabe that they see a bright future for their kids.

Local businesses too have recovered and Watanabe notes the general feeling of optimism that has really started to take hold recently. Fishing has resumed, sake is being brewed again and people live lives that are as normal as those elsewhere in Japan. These achievements suggest that a lot of work and care has been put into reconstructing the town, with future foresight too. The efforts of the local people to work this hard and not abandon their destroyed community shows just how much the people of Rikuzentakata, and all over the affected region, take pride in their towns and refuse to be defined by the events of 3.11.

Ken Watanabe (right) with dairy farmer Tetsuji Sakuma. Image source NHK

In tiny Katsurao Village, Fukushima Prefecture, Watanabe meets a local dairy farmer named Tetsuji Sakuma, who overcame immense odds to open his dream cattle farm, equipped with the latest hi-tech automated milking machinery. In an area that was affected by the radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident, this is a true representation of the difference this past decade has made since 3.11 occurred. Footage from 2012 shows him in a council meeting explaining that he’ll never give up pursuing his dream of opening a local dairy business. 2016 footage shows him with his fledgling farm, struggling over whether to abandon his dream and move elsewhere or stay and persevere. Finally, in 2021, his farm established, he now has 168 cows and has plans to further expand his operation to 400. Thus, proving the power of perseverance of a people who were utterly devastated and still continue to feel the effects of 3.11. With his struggles and successes in mind, Sakuma is truly looking forward to the future.

However it was not without hardship, and that hardship endures to this day and will continue indefinitely. The damage and fallout mostly owing to contamination by radioactive fallout from the nuclear power plant. There were numerous checks and inspections to determine radioactivity levels at his farm, whether the corn being grown for cattle feed was contaminated, whether the barn and machinery were contaminated. and whether the milk itself was radioactive. Finally, after several years it was determined that it was safe, but Sakuma’s income was basically nonexistent during this time. The threat of radioactive contamination is a constant concern and this is true for everyone in the region and will be for many centuries.

In Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, which was completely destroyed by the tsunami, a redevelopment plan was put in place that has essentially fully rebuilt and modernised the city. Watanabe meets a city official who was instrumental in enacting a redevelopment plan for the city, Toshiyuki Kawasaki. He is grateful to everyone who helped rebuild the city but is worried about how many people, especially young people, have moved away with no plans to return. This depopulation is another problem that these towns and cities face, as many people chose to never return after the evacuation orders were lifted. Part of the work of places like Kamaishi is to encourage people to stay or move in from elsewhere. This is why it is so important for the region to shake off its moniker as a place of sadness and hopelessness, and instead become known as a vibrant, modern area that is quickly regaining its former energy.

In all, the East Tohoku of 2021 is not the same as the East Tohoku of 2011, or even 2016. Where once there was hopelessness and death during the 3.11 disaster, now is hope and life. While not without their struggles, the strong people of these Pacific coastal towns have shown resilience and strength beyond compare, and we owe it to all of them to visit their communities, once the pandemic ends, and let them know that we are right there with them every step of the way.

NHK’s “A Compassionate View: The decade since the Great East Japan Earthquake” can be viewed here.

Further NHK documentaries about 3/11 and commemorating the 10th anniversary can be found here.

By searching “3.11” on Yahoo Japan, 10 Yen (roughly USD 10c) is donated by the company for the whole day today (Japan Time) with all proceeds being directed towards victims of the earthquake and tsunami of 3.11. Click here to go to the Yahoo Japan Page


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