A Catholic Monthly Magazine

A Meeting with a Victim of Fukushima

AntoineThis account is based on three meetings with Mr Yoshida. I got to know him in tragic circumstances: a non-Christian, he had come to ask me if I could celebrate a funeral “according to Christian rites” for his wife, a Filipina and Catholic, who had died aged 43, on 30th June, 2013.

For a start, could you introduce yourself?

I am Yoshinori Yoshida, and I am 56 years old. I used to live in Okuma, a town of about 17000 people, about 5 km from the Fukushima nuclear power – station. With my wife, a Filipina whom I married 10 years ago, I ran a small restaurant situated about 300 metres from the Okuma railway station. This restaurant, which could accommodate 15 – 20 people on the ground floor and another 35 on the first floor, did very well, particularly because of my wife’s ability to think up ways of attracting more customers. The customers were mainly from the power-station. The restaurant was open from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day except Wednesday. It was common to see a queue grow in front of the restaurant at lunch-time, which was a good advertisement for us.

Of course, the closeness of the power-station worried me a bit, but I was like many people in the area: we lived well because of it, and benefited from the many sports and cultural facilities provided by Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) which runs the nuclear power stations in the north of Japan, including Tokyo. We had unbeatable electricity charges and superb transport services.. You know, before the power- station,(built in the 1970s), the area was truly rural, and young people, me included, had only one idea – to leave this impoverished area, forgotten by the government, and which was losing population.

 And now, the 11th March, 2011.

We were not affected by the tsunami, the sea being about 5 km away by road. The restaurant had been renovated, and our house , behind it, rebuilt some years before. So we suffered little damage. The shock however was really strong, and everything inside was thrown about. There were no customers at that time
( 2. 46 p.m.), and my wife and I were having a rest in our house.

Others around us were less fortunate and suffered significant damage, but there were only a few injuries, and no deaths. Like everyone else we were without electricity and water, and also had no immediate news of the tsunami. My wife was quite shocked because it was her first experience of a strong earthquake. I went to have a look at the state of the restaurant, and retched on seeing all the food and drinks scattered on the ground. When I went out I was impressed by the silence reigning over the whole town at this time of day. It was a neighbour, a hairdresser, who first drew my attention to the nuclear power-station: had it suffered any damage? A little while later firemen went past to see if there was anyone injured, to check if there were any possible gas-leaks, and any risk of fire. There were no problems like that in our area. They knew nothing about the power station except that they knew that a tsunami has affected the whole coast near the station. To be certain about the situation I called an engineer friend who worked at the power-station on my mobile phone, which was working.kami-fuku-2-DW-Vermischtes-Fukushima

Luckily, he answered me immediately. He told me he didn’t know much about the scale of damage, but that there were “problems”. The Tepco management in Tokyo had ordered that emergency procedure be followed, and to evacuate the site immediately for security reasons. The families of employees living in the villages around the power-station were already leaving. You know, however, that the manager of the station, Mr Yoshida (no relation to the man I was interviewing), refused to obey, and stayed on site with most of the employees to face up to the problems. Imagine what would have happened at the moment of the explosion if no-one had been on site! He really sacrificed himself for us. (NB That manager died from leukemia as a result of radiation he received.)

 What did you do after that?

Because of the continual aftershocks, my wife did not want to stay inside. She also wanted to leave because of the power-station which she feared. I reassured her and we settled for the night in our car which I parked just in front of the restaurant. That allowed me, on the morning of March 12th, without leaving my wife, to sort out some matters, but I didn’t have it in me to clean up the restaurant. It was then that the town’s loud-speakers began to repeat that it was necessary temporarily, and as a preventative step, to leave the town of Okuma and go at least a kilometre inland either in our car or in a bus available at the railway station. Certainly nothing was said, but straightaway we thought that there was a problem at the nuclear plant. so I just pulled the curtain across the entrance to the restaurant, and left in the car with my wife, taking nothing with us but the clothes we had on.

The road was quickly crowded with vehicles. At the end of the kilometre, we were asked to go first 2, then 3, then 4 km from the town, with no reason given but “for security reasons”. That went on for 8 or 10 km until evening, when we again began to “camp” in our car, the people in the bus were put up in public buildings.

Did you hear the explosion which happened on the 12th March about 3. 30 p.m. in reactor 1 near the town of Okuma?

No, nothing at all of that, nor others as well. (NB there were other explosions in the following days, in reactor 2 on the 14th, then in reactor 4 on the 15th.) Like you, we found out about that on the TV... because those who directed the evacuation operation answered none of our questions. On the night between the 12th and the 13th we were asked to go 20 km away from the power-station, and on the 15th. It was 30km.

 How were things organised for the refugees?

Rather well for us: at each stop we received drink and a bit of food. As I had my own vehicle, the successive moves were easy for us- we only had to wait for instructions. For those on the bus it was more restrictive, because they spent their time getting out for a comfort stop, only to have to then get back on the bus, with calls and waiting in queues.

In the nearby town of Futaba things didn’t go so well, and the evacuation of the public hospital, which was also a hospice, went very badly. The buses carrying the sick and especially the elderly had to go from a hospital to a reception-centre, and were turned back each time and travelled several dozen kilometres before finding a place to drop off their passengers. Quite a few people died because of that!

After two days, we ended up staying in the gymnasium of a school near Fukushima: there, there was a radioactivity monitoring point with an apparatus which was passed over our bodies from head to foot, and papers to fill in because we were getting temporary lodgings....Then it was that my wife and I realised we would not be getting back home soon. Now I had taken nothing with me, and I was worried about the restaurant left abandoned with the food, the cashbox, orders on hand. I hadn’t even locked the doors! On the other hand my wife had the inspiration to take away all the receipts for the week, which we had in our house. That was very useful for us later. She had a younger married sister, also married to a Japanese, who lived with her family in the Yamanashi-ken district: she insisted that we go and join them, which we did after a few days, while waiting for the promised accommodation. I was worried about petrol, because the service-stations in the Fukushima and Tochigi areas were cut off from supplies and I queued at all the pumps that I found open to get a few litres, because it was rationed.

I was embarrassed at having to go and stay with my sister-in-law, but it has to be admitted that the FIlipinos have a wider understanding of family than ours, and we lived together, in a fine family atmosphere, for several weeks. The Filipinos also took care of our clothing and our daily food! Then we were told that we would be housed in an apartment in a building belonging to the town of Shirakawa, in the prefecture of Fukushima, on the border of Tochigi. So we went and settled in. It was good, fully furnished, and I am living there still....Everything was and still is taken care of by the town, with the help of the state.

 How has life turned out for you?

We had nothing to do ... except to stay in contact with those responsible for the refugees in Shirakawa, the authorities of Okuma, and the committee of business –people of our district, which very quickly got involved in our compensation. We often went to visit my sister and brother-in-law who lived in the neighbouring prefecture. My wife, on the other hand, found her inactivity hard to bear,, and I suggested to her that she go and spend some time with her children in the Philippines (she had two children from a previous marriage, who had been brought up by her mother and one of her sisters near Manila. They are now at high school, and Mr Yoshida has adopted them.) but she didn’t want to leave me, nor let her children come, because she was afraid of radiation..... As she was under considerable stress, and I was putting on weight, we got bikes and I went fishing... After the intense life of the restaurant, inactivity was not easy to deal with. As well, we were cut off from most of our relations: we were the only people from our part of Okuma who were housed in Shirakawa, and I had no clear idea where our acquaintances, refugees like ourselves, had been scattered.

From “Missions Etrangeres de Paris” November 2013.

(Translated by Fr Brian Quin, s.m.)

To be continued


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