For one Japanese neighborhood, a tsunami and radiation end a way of life

For 43 years, Nobukiki and Sakiko Araki lived in a farmhouse about three miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. They raised two children there and tended to their rice paddies and vegetable and flower gardens, just down the road from one of the prettiest beaches in Japan, Nobukiki said.

But on March 11, a 20-foot tsunami swallowed their house and washed away their neighborhood. The nuclear disaster that followed chased the Arakis, both nurses, off the land their families have tilled for generations.

“I feel I may never set my foot back on the soil,” said Nobukiki, 61, wearing a tired expression and a donated jacket. He and his wife are living in a shelter with 1,200 former neighbors, all of whom lost their homes and community in a single afternoon.

On that day, Sakiko Araki, 62, was reading a magazine magazine in her living room when her cellphone chimed with a government-issued advisory about an earthquake. But before she had time to check the message, the walls were shaking. The rocking became so violent, it knocked over tables and tipped the refrigerator.

“I couldn’t stand,” she said. She staggered into the hallway and grabbed hold of a wooden pillar in the hallway.

“I thought, ‘When will the house collapse?’ ” she said.

Nobukiki was nearby at a hardware store, shopping for gardening shears. The first blooms of the season — plum blossoms and Christmas roses — were appearing, and the couple were preparing for the long growing season. In addition to their two large bonsai trees, the 200-square-meter rose garden spanning the east side of the house was a particular point of pride.

“It made a magnificent sight, which our guests truly admired,” Nobukiki said.

The quake shook everything off the store shelves. When the shaking began to subside, he got in his car and drove five minutes home. Inside, his wife was still standing in the hallway, clutching the pillar.

“Only after I saw his face did I feel relief flow through me,” Sakiko said.

In that moment, the petite, fast-talking woman sprang into action. Sakiko had been through disaster training and was accustomed to handling crises as the head nurse at a hospital.

She had played out multiple disaster scenarios in her mind, talked them over with her less interested husband, and fretted about what to do about the elderly and physically disabled people in the neighborhood.

Long ago, she had prepared a bag with survival essentials, including a blanket, thermal insulation, cash, identification. She had set aside certificates of their insurance.

She started loading the car.

While she packed, her husband went to change his clothes so he could begin cleaning the house. He didn’t hear the messages from roadside speakers warning that a tsunami was coming and ordering people to evacuate. He only heard his wife screaming to him: “Forget about the house! We have to go.”

“My whole mind was preoccupied with fixing the house,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to be so serious. . . . If not for her, I would have died.”

Sakiko drove. They followed directions from the speakers sending them to a shelter at a senior center a few miles away. On the way, Sakiko navigated the car around dozens of new cracks in the road. Nobikuki looked back and saw a spray of water rising above the arching pine trees that lined the coast.

The couple were spared the sight of their house — and their neighborhood — being engulfed by the waves. Nor did they hear the crunching, creaking sound it made. A neighbor described both in detail to them later that day.

“Nothing left, not even a piece of wood,” Nobukiki said.

When they got to the shelter, they found about 100 people gathered. Nobukiki went around counting heads and trying to account for neighbors who weren’t there. Were they at work? School? Had anyone seen them that day?

Sakiko said people at the shelter were shocked but spoke optimistically at first, cheering one another by saying that everything would be okay, that they would start over in a few days.

The first signs of trouble at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant came that night around midnight.

The plant had been a welcome addition to their depressed farming community when it opened in 1975, Nobukiki said. “There were no jobs and people used to go to Tokyo to find work,” he said.

Some opponents of the plant warned that the earthquake could trigger a catastrophic nuclear accident, he recalled. “But Tepco said there was not even a one in a million chance” it could happen, he said.

Now Nobukiki and Sakiko stayed up all night watching television and listening to the radio with their neighbors.

“Every minute, only bad news,” Nobukiki said.

They learned about the broad sweep of the destruction around northern Japan and the rising temperature inside the reactors a few miles away.

No one knew what to do. Sakiko said it was a relief the next morning at 8 a.m. when police arrived wearing gas masks and hooded jackets and told everyone to evacuate. They organized rides to another shelter, at a primary school in Kawamata, about 30 miles away.

The Arakis drove themselves in their Toyota Vitz, which, by luck, had a full tank of gas. As they drove out of town, Nobukiki said he had a fleeting thought that they might never return.

Because of the mass exodus, the normally hour-long trip took them six hours. They arrived hungry and tired at the shelter, where they made up their beds with borrowed camel-brown blankets on the floor of the gym surrounded by 800 others.

Food was scarce. Nobukiki recorded in his calendar, “dinner: one rice ball.”

More than a week later, the foundation of their house was a bright orange borrowed blanket in another shelter, this one just north of Tokyo at a giant arena in Saitama prefecture.

Government officials arranged for the residents to be taken south in dozens of buses about a week after the accident. The town hall also moved its office into a series of folding tables in the hallway of the arena.

At the new shelter, Sakiko helped take care of the elderly and disabled. They played cards and watched TV. They read five newspapers a day, hungry for any information about the plant, their home town, their missing friends.

As they told their story, the voice of the mayor came over the loudspeaker. He encouraged neighbors to help one another solve their problems and to thank the legions of volunteers for supporting them.

“Let’s make other people say, ‘The people of Futabamashi are well-mannered,’ ” the mayor said.

As the status of the nuclear plant has become increasingly dire, town officials have been looking for a place where residents from Futabamashi can live after the shelter closes March 31.

Nobukiki and Sakiko plan to move in with their son, who lives near Tokyo, in dormitory-style housing provided by his company, which arranges for shipment of nuclear waste. The company is moving him into a larger apartment that he can share with his parents.

“Normally when the water recedes, you can go back,” Nobukiki said. “People can go back to their broken houses and rebuild them. But in our case, because of the radiation, we cannot.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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