Prayers and promises—After 10 years of hardship, Ms. Watabe still thinks of her hometown after moving to Hiroshima prefecture’s town of Saka-cho

by Mitsuhiro Hamamura, Staff Writer

“It was a decade of emotional conflict,” said Keiko Watabe, 62, on March 11 this year, 10 years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, as she reflected on the passage of time. She evacuated from the town of Namie, Fukushima, where she was born and raised, to the town of Saka-cho, in Hiroshima Prefecture. In the interim, she had to demolish her house in Fukushima. She had wanted to return home but that proved impossible. Her husband of more than 40 years also died during that period. “Nevertheless, I have no choice but to move forward with my life,” said Ms. Watabe with conviction in Namie dialect.

On March 11, at 2:46 p.m., the time ten years ago when the massive earthquake occurred, Ms. Watabe put her hands together quietly in prayer at her home in Saka-cho. Mourning those killed in the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, she recalled her friends living far away. On the television in front of her, footage of that day was shown repeatedly. To a photograph of her husband next to her, she said “10 years have passed.”

On March 11, 2011, when an earthquake with an intensity on the Japanese seismic scale of more than 6 (magnitude of around 9.0) hit off the coast of eastern Japan, she and her husband were at home. She suffered a severe burn on her right leg from a fallen kettle’s boiling water. In the early morning on the following day, when looking out over the town from an elementary school on high ground where they had evacuated, she found that the scenery of her town had completely changed. People around them were talking about how the plant was about to explode and warned them to run. Heeding the warnings, they moved to another elementary school and spent a few days there.

Their house was located about eight kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Encouraged by her second son living in Hiroshima City, she fled with her family to prefectural housing in the town of Saka-cho. She was anxious about leaving Fukushima, but in the hopes that they would be able to return one day, they continued to pay their mortgage.

The reality, however, was harsh. When she later paid a visit to her home, she learned that the radiation levels were still high and a return home would be difficult. In 2016, after the home mortgage was paid off, they reluctantly decided to demolish the house.

She still considers as invaluable the daily activities she enjoyed before the earthquake such as sharing food with her neighbors and having conversations with them over tea. When she was able to meet up with her friends in Fukushima again, she was delighted. Parting from them, however, was in equal measure extremely hard. They told her, “Come back. We’ll help you do it.” These words from her friends moved her greatly.

However, there was no guarantee that the life she knew before the disaster would return. With time, her husband developed dementia, she herself became elderly, and a burden was placed on her children. After deliberation of such issues, she decided to remain in Hiroshima.

Her husband died one year ago, at the age of 76. While alive, he said many times with tears in his eyes, “We have no home there, but I’d like to go home,” She remembers her husband with a big smile on his face when he used to invite his coworkers to his house and share meals. She imagines that his soul has returned to Namie.

With the support of so many in Hiroshima and Fukushima, she has made it through the past 10 years. She now lives alone. She still enjoys speaking with friends in Fukushima over the phone and always looks forward to eating local foods they send to her. She said while gazing into the distance, “I’d like to visit my hometown to breathe the air there. That’s what I always think about.”

(Originally published on March 12, 2021)