Guides Give 3/11 Museum Human TouchDisaster
Sharing Individual Experiences of 3/11
“The exhibits on their own often do not fully convey the sadness and loss we felt at the time. That is why we share our stories in person.”
These are the words of Izumita Jun, chief attendant at the East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Museum, explaining the importance of the museum’s exhibits and the talks given by its guides. “Everyone has a different experience of 3/11 and different ideas about rebuilding,” he adds. “I speak from my experience as a victim, an evacuee, and a teacher. I encourage you to listen to what the different guides have to say.”
Until the March 11, 2011, tsunami and earthquake, Izumita lived in Morotake in the town of Sōma, not far from where the museum stands in Futaba, and taught at Ōmika Elementary School in neighboring Minamisōma. Despite having to flee his home due to the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, Izumita continued to teach and served as principal of Futaba Minami Elementary School, holding lessons in borrowed classrooms in nearby Iwaki until retiring in March 2020.
He began working at the earthquake and disaster museum a month later. Izumita’s teaching experience makes him a good presenter, and some visitors tell him they wished their teachers had been like him, praise that he modestly dismisses. “My teaching was nothing special.”
Since opening to the public in September 2020, the museum has invested its energies in having guides give talks on the disaster. The facility currently hosts four talks a day in a corner of the permanent exhibition area that are free for anyone to join. However, no all visitors take advantage of the opportunity to hear the testimonies, either because they are unaware of the talks or are dissuaded by the length of the sessions, which last around 40 minutes.
Izumita notes that there are challenges for those sharing their stories with the public, saying that “new guides sometimes struggle to get their message across and are obviously better at talking about some subjects than others.” Two years on, though, he praises the progress of his colleagues. “The all-around quality of presentations has improved.” He advises prospective visitors to see the museum’s website for information on the speaking schedule and themes before their visit.
Lessons from Survivors
Kuma Katsuyoshi, a museum guide who was born in Futaba and used to work at the town office, says self-effacingly that rather than listening to his attempts to explain the disaster, visitors would “learn more by driving down to the exclusion zone and seeing for themselves.” He admits that more than 10 years on, he has started to forget some details. However, he says he feels a sense of obligation not to allow the disaster to be forgotten, and it is this that makes him carry on.
Many guides focus on their own experiences and thoughts on reconstruction, but Kuma places importance on describing in detail and in chronological order the disaster and his life as an evacuee. “This approach allows me to properly convey the facts and helps keep the events alive,” he says.
Kuma begins his talks in 1967, the year that construction began on the Fukushima Daiichi reactor. “It’s true that the nuclear plant benefited the town, which had nothing,” he declares. “The plant brought new jobs and new residents, meaning that people no longer had to go to Tokyo to work during the agricultural offseason. While I do feel some resentment toward the plant, my true feelings are more complicated . . .”
Kuma goes onto describe in detail his work at the town office after the disaster and his experience of moving from shelter to shelter. His testimony as someone familiar with the history of the Hamadōri area along the Pacific coast of Fukushima before the nuclear plant was built is incredibly valuable.
Kuma now lives in Iwaki, an hour’s drive south from Futaba. He says that the reason that he continues to work as a guide despite the long commute is that he does not want other people to experience the misfortune that he did. “Japan is prone to disasters,” he explains, noting that the earthquake expected along the Nankai Trough south of the main island of Honshū would be even more devastating than the Great East Japan Earthquake. “Knowing what we had to endure, I don’t want others to suffer in the same way. This is why I continue to warn people about the horrors of natural and nuclear disasters, and the importance of being prepared.”
Many of the guides, like Endō Miku, are younger. A native of Iwaki, she was in her third year of elementary school when the disaster hit. It was a Friday, and Endō was on her way home from school. She had just waved goodbye to her friend, saying “See you on Monday,” when the earthquake hit. Unable to stand as the ground shook, she was terrified, a memory that remains etched in her mind. Her home was in the middle of the town, some distance from the coast, so she never saw the actual tsunami. However, her family fled to Tokyo after the nuclear accident, but returned to Iwaki in time for the beginning of the new school year in April.
Busy with schoolwork, Endō says that initially she did not think much about the disaster. This changed, though, when she started attending the Futaba Future School in Hirono. There, she began to recognize that the disaster was not over. Evacuation orders in Hirono were lifted about a year after the meltdown, and since then 90% of residents have returned. However, the area is suffering the demographic woes of an ageing population and declining birth rate. Many of the older residents Endō met through her extra-curricular activities told her that their grandchildren had left for the city for good. Hearing this strengthened Endō’s resolve to give something back to the community and help rebuild the area, leading her to take a job at the museum.
In her second year working at the museum, her supervisor expressed that he wanted younger employees to start acting as guides as well. On hearing this, Endō admits that she did not know what to think at first. Her family had not suffered to the degree as those people who had lost family members or been forced out of their homes, and she wondered how she would respond if museum visitors were to comment that she is not from Futaba. All this made her feel somehow guilty and she wondered if she was really the right person for the job.
Sharing Her Own Story
Endō persisted, however, telling herself there were things that she could do to keep the memory of the disaster alive. A significant turning point for her was meeting a guide from Nagasaki. There, atomic bombing victims are ageing, and there are efforts underway to train younger storytellers to share the testimonies of victims. Endō says that people encouraged her to share her experience, which gave her confidence. In fact, she has come to feel that her youth gives her an advantage when sharing her story to junior and senior high school students.
“That friend I waved goodbye to just before the earthquake,” she recounts. “I didn’t see her for twelve years after that as she moved to another prefecture.” She reconnected with her on social media after graduating from high school and were making plans to meet, but then COVID-19 came along. “When people hear my story, it makes them realize that something similar could happen to them.”
While it is unlikely that all of the area’s residents will return, Endō says that an influx of young people would make it easier for evacuees to come back. To this end, she makes certain to share not just her disaster experience, but also what Fukushima has to offer. “I tell visitors about Hamadōri’s abundant nature, good food, and friendly people.”
A Conversation About the Future
Adjacent to the museum’s permanent displays is an exhibit that shares information on the Fukushima Innovation Coast Framework. The space, which features futuristic themes like flying cars, might appear out of place to visitors who have just viewed exhibits on the horrors of earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear disasters.
However, Izumita says that staff do their best to help visitors understand that Hamadōri needs new industries. For instance, Minamisōma is home to the Fukushima Robot Test Field, which includes a drone range, and Namie is investing in hydrogen infrastructure. He strikes a note of caution when talking about such endeavors, though.
When talking about the Fukushima Innovation Coast framework, Izumita is sure to show his audience a large sign that hung in Futaba proclaiming “Nuclear Power: Energy for a Bright Future.” The slogan was thought up by townspeople in the late 1980s, showing how many in the community eagerly welcomed nuclear energy as the way of the future. He is always certain to ask visitors what they think of the sign.
Izumita has confidence that the initiative will play a major role in rebuilding Hamadōri, but warns of the lessons of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. “It taught us that there is a limit to what we can imagine and what we can achieve,” he says. “Promising new technologies need to be properly monitored, rather than accepted without scrutiny. I want this museum to be somewhere that not only tells people about things that happened in the past, but also makes visitors think together about themselves and the future of Japan and the planet.”
Reverting to his teacher’s voice, he adds approvingly that “the children who have survived the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster have all grown up to be fine adults. That is why I tell older people to put faith in the younger generation.”
He stresses that, like it or not, Futaba will never return to what it once was. “We need to make it attractive for new residents. Rising from the disaster, we can transform it into a fantastic place.”
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Guide Endō Miku on the roof of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum. All photos by Hashino Yukinori of Nippon.com, unless otherwise noted.)