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- March 26, 2012
- Vol. 77
- No. 13
One Year Later: After the Tsunami
Lucky to Be Alive-But Forbidden from Going Home-the Igari Family Cobbles Together a Strange New Life in Limbo
Home was the spacious dream house in the small coastal town of Naraha, where four generations of Igaris lived together: Makoto and his wife, Kumiko, both 36, with their three children; Makoto's grandmother; and his mother and father, a master carpenter who built the house himself. But a full year after the record-magnitude earthquake and tsunami in Japan, they are still struggling to piece together a life stuck in idle. Yes, they survived when 19,000 others in Japan perished. But the one-two punch of natural disasters on March 11, 2011 triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant just eight miles from Naraha, and their beloved city has been a ghost town-a contaminated "no-entry" zone-ever since. So while the country has largely moved on, with the Japanese economy and tourism on the rebound, officials admit it could take 40 years to clean up the Fukushima plant, and the Igaris wonder if they will ever return. "We want to go back," says Kumiko. "But we don't know when that might be. And even if the government says it's safe, it will be difficult to judge if that's reliable."
The day the tsunami slammed into northern Japan, Makoto was a hotel front-desk clerk and Kumiko a worker at a welfare center. Ordered to evacuate, the family fled with only a change of clothes and some towels and blankets to nest temporarily, they thought, at a refugee center in Tokyo, where Makoto agonized about two treasures left behind: the family's 15-year-old border collie, Gon, and the brand-new school bag Dai had counted on using once he graduated kindergarten. "It was so important to Dai, but it was buried beneath three fallen chests," the father told PEOPLE at the time.
Since then Kumiko and Makoto have cobbled together a makeshift arrangement to hold the family over the best they can. They settled Dai and daughters Asuka, 9, and Yuki, 11, into a cramped, two-room, 350-sq.-ft. apartment in Aizumisato, where they go to school. Makoto could find only a hotel maintenance job two hours away in Iwaki City. His elder relatives set up house near him in the Iwaki suburbs, but Makoto has been miserable living alone in a one-room apartment, unable to make the trip to see his family more than once or twice a month. "Pain and suffering" payments from the power company and Naraha government offer little comfort. "I don't want compensation," he says, recalling his cozy hometown, where buddies with whom he grew up were still around to play baseball and go out for drinks. "I just want to go back. I miss my life there." On a rare afternoon with his family, Makoto watched a squabble between Dai and Asuka degenerate into hitting and kicking. "Since the disaster, they get angry too easily," says their mother. "They were never violent before." Would going back help? "We don't know what's best for them," says Makoto. "It's scary."
The government provided a bus last year for some of the 7,300 displaced Naraha residents to stop home and hurriedly retrieve belongings. Makoto recovered Dai's bag, but seeing the house left him despondent; the framework showed signs of rot from neglected roof-and-window repairs. "People talk about starting from zero," Makoto says. "But our houses are rotting. We're heading towards worse than zero."
Amid the uncertainty, there was a miracle-reason, perhaps, to hang on to hope. Three months after the Igaris had evacuated, a relative spotted Gon on a dog-rescue website, and he was reunited with the family. Since the Aizumisato apartment building is no-pets-allowed, Gon happily resettled with Makoto's elders. Makoto's father poured his passion for carpentry into a new dream home: a roomy, custom doghouse for Gon. And while the rest of the family adjusts to their own new normal, Makoto's oldest daughter, Yuki, dreams brightly of returning to her little desk she left behind in Naraha. "I will study there again," she promised. "When I am back."
TABLET PHOTOS Life before and after the tsunami
- Michiko Toyama/Aizumisato/Japan.
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