Konno Yoshiki stepped into the van carrying a heavy stake. He wanted to check in his lemon tree in Odaka-city. Prior to March 11, 2013, Odaka was home to 13,000 residents. Konno-san said we had to hurry as the time was 1400 and no one can be in Odaka after sunset.
Typhoon had just passed through the Fukushima coast, and there was spotty flooding as we entered Odaka. Konno-san wanted to take us up to a temple overlooking Odaka so we could get a bird’s-eye view of the town. As we drove past dark homes, there was no life except for the changing traffic lights that flashed in empty streets. Bicycles were perched on doorsteps and cars were parked in driveways. At the Odaka train station, racks overgrown with weeds were filled with bicycles waiting for commuters that would never return. The payphone still worked and vending machine offered drinks outside the waiting room.
Since the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and failure of Daiichi nuclear plant, Odaka has been a ghost town. The government shut down the town because of its proximity to the nuclear reactor, and blocked entrance to Odaka to prevent looting. The irony is that because of wind patterns, the radiation was blown toward Fukushima-city, and Odaka remained mostly radiation free. For 400 days, the town was locked up. In the spring, the government began allowing residents to return to Odaka during daylight hours, and Konno-san began organizing clean-up of the city that still looks much like it did the day after the tsunami swept through.
Residents cannot return to live in Odaka, and have no idea when they will be allowed to return. Although there is electrical service, water and sewer lines were destroyed by the tsunami. Today, residents are either living in 31 scattered temporary housing settlements or have relocated throughout Japan. They are among the 160,000 still displaced by the disaster.
Konno-san took us to where the tsunami breached the seawall and scrubbed houses off of their foundations. The wall of water over 31 meters high swept over a nearby cliff, taking Konno’s home with it. Konno-san is a local hero – he was driving to warn his neighbors of the tsunami when he saw the wave approaching him. He was caught in his car in the tsunami and the car was crushed with only the driver’s seat left intact. He was buried in his car under the debris of houses. He considers it a miracle that he is alive, and dedicates his life to the care of his homeless community.
Konno-san visits the area three times a week even though his return triggers memories of March 11. He is in charge of clean-up, and a neat stack of concrete is a monument to his work. But work here is far behind other prefectures which are already in recovery mode. Cars, cargo containers, and boats sit in fields where the water left them.