Living in the aftermath of the apocalypse

Minamisoma City was left to fend for itself after the tsunami. But now it is slowly returning to life. David McNeill reports
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Like most Japanese men, Katsunobu Sakurai, mayor of Minamisoma, read apocalyptic comic book stories about the future when he was a child. A common plot sees a modern city reduced overnight to a ghostly husk as fears of nuclear contamination empty it of people. Businesses shut and food, water and petrol run out. Old people left behind begin dying. The city mayor makes a desperate televised appeal for help.

But this is not the storyline of one of Mr Sakurai's boyhood comics – it is real life in his city of Minamisoma.

More than 71,000 people lived here before 11 March. One month on, there are fewer than 10,000. About 1,470 are dead or missing, the remainder are scattered throughout Japan in over 300 different locations, says Mr Sakurai, who took over as mayor in January. Dangling from his neck are two radiation counters, a reminder that the nightmare that descended on his city a month ago has yet to end.

Mayor Sakurai briefly became one of the most famous faces of Japan's disaster when he posted an 11-minute video on YouTube pleading for help. The earthquake and tsunami – which left 28,000 people dead or missing in the stricken areas – had pulverised the city's coast, but it was its proximity to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant about 15 miles away that transformed the city's predicament into an existential crisis.

As a series of explosions ripped through the plant, the government told its citizens to stay indoors to avoid radiation. Journalists fled, deliveries stopped coming and the locals were left to fend for themselves. "Everyone who could leave left. We were not getting food or fuel. Life was unbearable," recalls Mr Sakurai.

Exhausted, he sat in front of a digital camcorder in his office and recorded one of the most haunting dispatches from the disaster zone, reaching outside Japan's borders and rounding on Tokyo and the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) for abandoning Minamisoma. "With the scarce information we can gather from the government or Tepco, we are left isolated. I beg you to help us," he said.

The video scored more than 200,000 hits and sparked a worldwide relief effort that continues to send aid flooding into Mr Sakurai's office. But he remains angry at how his citizens were treated. "The video put pressure on the government. But there was not a single phone call from Tepco for 22 days," he says, still wearing the same grey boiler suit he wore in the YouTube video. "They gave us no information at all."

Today, Issei Takaki, a Tepco official, is permanently seconded to the Minamisoma office. His job is to report on the frantic daily fight inside the Fukushima plant to stop radiation leaking from its damaged reactors. "We have a 7am meeting with the mayor every day where I report the reactor temperatures, pressure, contamination levels and anything else he wants to know," explains Mr Takaki.

One of the hundreds of workers at the nuclear facility when the quake and tsunami struck, he spent 10 days locked down inside during the worst of the crisis, when he often thought he was going to die. But the last few days in this town have been almost as difficult. "People are angry," he accepts. "They stop me to say they want the plant fixed so they can return to their old lives." In the last week, some of Minamisoma's citizens have begun drifting back to the city just outside the evacuation zone, while warily watching the wounded plant up the coast.

Supermarkets, restaurants and most of the bigger companies remain shut, but some of the smaller shops in the city are reopening.

"I left my daughter in Tokyo to come back to work," explains Mayumi Hayashi, who serves customers in a half-empty 7-Eleven convenience store about a kilometre from the Tepco office. "I told her to stay there until the end of the month, at least until we see if the plant is safe."

Few profess much faith in Tepco, which has dumped almost 8,000 tons of toxic water into the local seas in recent weeks. The company has admitted that the level of highly radioactive water inside concrete tunnels in the No 2 reactor is rising. Engineers are trying to prevent a build-up of hydrogen inside reactor No 1, the prelude to another possible explosion. Nobody believes the crisis is over.

"The radiation doesn't seem so dangerous now but who knows what will happen?" frets Rikio Watanabe, a truck driver who returned from an evacuation centre this week to his home on the city outskirts. The plant is never far from their minds, he says, recalling how they felt the ground tremble when the explosions began there three weeks ago. His wife Miyoko can no longer work at a local food co-operative since sales of mildly radioactive potatoes, cabbages and other vegetables have been banned. "Life is difficult but it's better to be at home," she says.

Mr Sakurai is concerned that the plant will hinder the town's return from the brink. There are concerns that the government could expand the evacuation zone even further, emptying Minamisoma of its last 10,000 citizens.

As the mayor speaks, the tap-tap of a house being repaired drifts in from outside. Life is returning to the city centre. But many people are keeping their children far away. He has heard reports that some are being bullied because of fears about contamination. His parents are among the evacuees.

"The radiation here is low," he insists, showing one of his counters, which reads 0.9 microsieverts. The second shows he has accumulated 16 microsieverts in four days. At its worst, he says, it was about 10 microsieverts an hour.

He says he has never despaired.

"On the surface, we're starting to move forward and radiation is falling slowly but by far the biggest problem is the Fukushima reactors. I think the accident shows we have to stop building nuclear plants. The radiation doesn't stop in Japan; it goes all around the world."