By Guadálupe Gonzalez
He is a big guy with broad shoulders and a posture that makes him look younger than he is. He has a stern, yet friendly face that smiles gently. His hair and goatee are starting to show signs of gray. You might think he was in his late thirties, but he is really in his mid sixties. When he speaks, he has a strong, deep voice, that goes well with his firm handshake. His name is Akira Fukuda, and he is a “rock star” in Soma, says his wife with a wide, sincere smile. She is equally as friendly and youthful looking. They are our host family, inviting my colleague and I to their small, beautiful two-story home near a Buddhist shrine out in the country in Soma, a city in the Fukushima prefecture that was devastated after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. Since then, the city’s image, along with most cities in the Fukushima prefecture, has been tarnished due to the fear of radiation from Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown 28 miles away.
“Why are you hosting us?,” I get to ask him curiously during our stay.
“I want foreigners to come to Soma,” he says. He doesn’t elaborate; he speaks limited English he learned the little time he spent in San Francisco many years back. But he does not need to elaborate. Fukuda and his wife are part of the effort by Fukushima’s residents, universities, and representatives to get rid of the stigma of radiation that makes them feel like they have been ostracized. Over the next two days of our stay, I come to understand why he has opened his home to us and why loves this place.
Fukuda is originally from Tokyo and still has family there, but he prefers Soma, the country. He is now retired but stays busy by caring for his family. His wife runs a spa out of their house, and he helps her with that. He has two children, both of them married with children. He loves his family, you can tell, and is proud of them by the way he speaks about them.
Our first evening with them we went to his son’s house for a barbeque they threw in honor of our visit. It was a small gathering with his children, their spouses, his grandchildren, and his son’s long-time friend who seemed to be part of the family by default. Fukuda hugged his grandchildren and played with them, but he still maintained his stern posture.
When one of the toddlers cried, he joked around: “He’s…he’s not a man.” But even men cry, as he would prove himself during the following days, when he would recount the devastation he and his community went through three years ago.
The first glimpse of emotion Fukuda showed was the following day at Onodai temporary housing. There are 44,589 households still living in prefabricated temporary housing units that were built in settlements to relocate people who had to evacuate their homes due to the disaster. My colleagues and I went to a few of these temporary housing sites to speak to evacuees and ask them about their current condition three years later after the earthquake and tsunami. Fukuda’s daughter is one of those families, living in the Onodai temporary housing settlement. She and her husband willingly volunteered to share their story with us. For most of the interview, Fukuda, who arranged the interview, sat there, sitting on his legs without saying much. But at certain times his face would become more stoic than usual, holding his hands in front of him as if in prayer, deep in thought. When his daughter would talk about the hardships of raising their 1-year-old child in a space with little play room, or when she expressed her frustration about the lack of housing available in order for them to move into a home of their own, his eyes would water and I can see he was fighting back the tears. He even joined the conversation, asking his son-in-law how long it took for them to recover his grandfather’s body after the tsunami swept their home away. It was evident through his questions and compassionate emotions that this was the first time he heard parts of their story as well.
The following day, Fukuda took us to another nearby different temporary housing settlement. He was volunteering at the settlement’s Obon festival (a Japanese custom that honors one’s ancestors), and, as his guests, we tagged along. As he drove us to the settlement that wet afternoon, I asked him why he volunteered. He did not mention any obligation to an organization or an affiliation with any of the residents. His response was the same to most of all the other volunteers I met that day: “It makes them happy.” The more I got to know this man, the more I admired his citizenry and understood his appreciation of his community. His commitment and solidarity was heedlessly displayed not by his words but his actions, especially as he danced so gracefully during the Obon dance. His stiff position loosened up as he joined the communal circle of dance. He seemed to want to dance, as much as he seemed to want to be there and volunteer. He moved swiftly, without duty, until the dance ended.
The most emotion he revealed on our short stay was when he gave us a personal tour of the disaster areas in Soma. It was our last day in his household, and after breakfast, before dropping us off to join the rest of our group, he drove us to some location that were special to him. There was this place on top of cliff that once had a tract of homes, he told us, but all we saw was nothing; it looked like a regular cliff with grass growing tall. He told us that the people who lived on here did not expect the water to rise about the cliff so they did not evacuate. Everything and everyone was washed away. There was a memorial there, a statue of Buddha, standing by itself. A spent candle was there as well as spent incense sticks; they had not been forgotten. As my colleague and I observe the memorial, he is looking around, as if trying to picture the homes still there. He told us he knew some of the people who were washed away with their homes.
Fukuda spoke very little, as if lost in thought, as he drove down the cliff and to another site on the shore. The weather was very suiting that day for the commemoration. It was before nine in the morning, and the sky was gray and a light drizzle fell. There was somber silence in the hybrid car he was driving. The little noise would come from the windshield wipers swiping every couple of seconds and the constant sound of water being kicked up by the wheels. I wanted to get some video footage, but at the moment, it seemed too intrusive. I waited until we arrived near the beach to start recording.
But there was not much to see here. If I tried, I can picture neighborhoods where now these empty fields lay with tall grass growing. I can make out a street that divided the block, but aside from that, had he not told me I would not have been able to guess what existed there before. This is what a lot of Soma looked like, empty lots of overgrowth that once held entire neighborhoods. But he brought us specifically here to show us a tree. It was the only thing that stood after the tsunami. He said the townspeople saw it as a sign of hope. Not all is lost. As we stood and observed the sight, Fukuda looked around as in disbelief. He looked in one direction, then at another as if he couldn’t believe that everything, save that tree, was gone. This is three years later, and he is still in mourning.
Back in the car I continued recording and focused my camera towards him; he quickly broke his mood when he noticed. “Did you record some of that back there?” he asked me with a smile.
“Yes, I did,” I replied. That’s when I realized he wanted me to see this, the Soma he loved, and share it with others. Just like that tree that stood, not all was lost in Soma.