3.11’s Legacy of Loneliness

Life in the town of Namie was good for Ambe Hiroshi. He had retired from his job as a postal worker, and was making best use of Fukushima Prefecture’s verdant golf courses. Things couldn’t be any more different now. Ten years after the March 11 triple disaster tore his community apart, the 85-year-old stares from the window of a cramped Tokyo apartment to fend off the loneliness.

Namie lies just seven kilometers away from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which suffered a triple meltdown following the massive quake and tsunami. Taking heed of the government’s evacuation order, Ambe and his wife fled to the capital.

But city life has destroyed his sense of self. "These past 10 years have been hell,” Ambe says. “In this small space, my legs and lower back have become weak, because I don't move so much now. There's been nothing good about evacuating here. I don't even have friends."

Ambe Hiroshi
Ambe Hiroshi was forced to evacuate from the town of Namie in Fukushima Prefecture.

Even after Namie’s evacuation order was partially lifted, many people haven't returned. Reconstruction has been sluggish at best. The town still does not have a hospital or other essential services. Ambe has abandoned his house, even though it sustained no physical damage. He’s also had no choice but to give up his ancestral grave and find a new place to rest in Tokyo.

Ambe’s wife has been his only real companion, but she is currently in hospital with knee and hip problems. He is alone now, and says he often finds himself gazing longingly at passersby. "I wonder if this is what life is like. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but I have to accept it.”

Pandemic worsens isolation

Ambe was among about 120 people from Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures who evacuated to Arakawa Ward in Tokyo. Currently, about 38 remain there. For the past decade, social welfare worker Sakuragi Hiroko has been helping them feel less isolated.

She says the group had forged a close bond, but the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a huge blow to the progress they’ve made. Monthly gatherings and house visits are impossible now. Instead, Sakuragi makes weekly phone calls to check on their physical and mental wellbeing.

"On top of being evacuees, they are now forced to live under restrictions,” she says. “In some cases, they become weaker and weaker, and will eventually die. The pandemic has had a severe impact on the elderly."

Evacuees had gathered every month until before the pandemic. This footage is from 7 years ago.
Watch Video: 4:15

Matsui Kazuhiro, a professor at Niigata University and a specialist on the experiences of evacuees, shares similar sentiments. But he’s also calling for a more concerted effort from those with the power to act.

"As time passes, I think their problems are becoming more complicated, but more invisible,” he says. “We need thorough investigations to identify those who are struggling. They need support, which should be conducted by the government."

A decade on, there are still about 33,000 people living as evacuees outside their prefectures. There has been progress at times, and setbacks at others, but the overall picture is one of disappointment and a yearning for home. As they advance in age, many will be asking how much longer they need to suffer.