In 2015, novelist and playwright Yu Miri moved to Minamisoma City in Fukushima Prefecture and opened a book café and a small theater. In the summer of 2023, she decided to produce a play based on the effects on young people of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the nuclear power plant accident and COVID-19. She interviews local actors and high school drama club members about their experiences back then, and together they write and present the play.
The Joban Line.
The 351-kilometer-long line connects Tokyo and Miyagi via Fukushima.
It was fully opened more than a century ago, in 1898.
In the 1960s, it supported Japan's economic growth
by transporting people and goods from Miyagi and Fukushima to the Tokyo area.
It has also served as a popular route supporting local people's daily lives.
Part of the line was closed due to the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011,
but it was restored in March 2020.
In the summer of 2023, local people and artists associated with Fukushima
gathered to hold stage and musical events at various venues along the Joban Line.
It was the Joban Line Performing Arts Festival 2023.
Playwright and novelist Yu Miri set the ball rolling to organize the festival.
In 2020, she won the American National Book Award for Translated Literature for her novel "Tokyo Ueno Station."
Her works, written from the perspective of the socially vulnerable, have been attracting attention from around the world.
After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, she began visiting Fukushima
She opened a book cafe and a small theater, and continues her creative activities based in the area.
Yu worked on the production of a stage drama
in which local high school students and actors from Fukushima would perform together.
If you speak normally as the sound starts,
the audience at the back won't hear you.
You can mime with your mobile.
At first, I felt tense to work
with high school students,
but I'm learning a lot.
I'm excited to see new discoveries.
I was uneasy at first, but Yu Miri
and the other actors were friendly,
and that made me look forward
to creating the play.
I feel I'll learn something amazing
working with professional actors.
So I'm really excited about
this special summer.
Yu Miri's scenario looks at two actual events experienced by local people.
One was the Great East Japan Earthquake and its aftermath.
The quake was big and long. 3 minutes?
It seemed like a lifetime to me!
When it finally stopped,
someone cried "Run away!"
Then everyone started shouting.
The other event was the Covid pandemic.
- It's hard we can't meet 'cos of the virus!
Talking only on a chat app is really tough.
Think we'll take our masks off in autumn?
- Could be winter.
- No, I guess next year.
Uh, masks are a real pain!
What do the young people of Fukushima who experienced those periods have to say?
We followed them over the course of one Tohoku summer.
In May, a press conference was held to announce the details of the Festival.
I should say first that I had TMJ surgery
on my jaw at the end of March,
so it's not easy for me to speak.
I run the book cafe
at the front of this building,
so local thoughts and ideas
come directly into the store.
We've finally managed to hold the event
with local push and encouragement.
The Joban Line is the result of
many people's wish to be connected.
It was closed once due to the Earthquake,
but it's now reconnected.
When Yu's team perform,
I believe that for the first time
we can communicate with our past history
and the people who lived here in the past.
This Festival began with an email
sent from me to Hirata Oriza
on January 2, 2018.
Hirata Oriza, a driving force in the Japanese theater world,
has been involved in drama coaching for high school students in Fukushima Prefecture since before the earthquake.
Children who experienced the earthquake
when they were in junior high school
became very sensitive to life.
They faced realities beyond all reason
such as the sudden loss of life.
Moreover, because Fukushima
suffered the nuclear accident,
they had their living environment
taken away all too easily.
So they were made to think deeply about
their community and hometown.
I felt it was probably
the responsibility of adults
to figure out how to make such
experiences a force for recovery.
Prior to this year's G7 summit,
it had taken more than 70 years
for a US president to visit Hiroshima.
This year, world leaders will
finally gather in Hiroshima,
78 years after the end of WW2.
We believe it's the job of artists,
through the power of art,
to shorten the time that might otherwise
take 78 years by even one year
for this shattered Fukushima
area to totally bloom again.
Yu Miri's play is being constructed based on interviews with young people in Fukushima.
The former high school students
and I interview current students.
Conversely, the current students listen to
the experiences of the former students.
I believe that if we listen to others,
their experiences can flow in to us.
Futaba Future School.
Students from the high school's drama club will perform on stage.
Good morning! Let's begin.
Yu Miri's play's about the Joban Line...
She wants to listen to...
Do you know who Yu Miri is?
Well... I should say, err...
What do you think she does?
She's a playwright and novelist.
What kind of works has she written?
What kind of works?
About high school students...
I want to read her novel.
What's the title? "Anne...?"
"Anne of Green Gables?"
You're meeting Yu for the first time.
She requested us to do three things today.
One is to write memories from
2020 during the pandemic
of when the school was temporarily
closed and of when it was reopened.
Another is memories of the 2011
Earthquake and nuclear accident.
I was in nursery school at the time of
and everyone around me started to cry.
Worried about radiation from the
nuclear power plant,
all my relatives gathered in one house.
I remember that vividly.
We got on a bus and evacuated
to the Saitama Super Arena.
I don't remember anything much, really.
All I remember is crawling away
with my grandmother on all fours.
I was surprised by the sharp
difference in memory of the earthquake
between the 1st-year and 2nd-year
high school students.
The 2nd-year students who were 4 years
old have a clear memory of the disaster,
but many of the 1st-year students who
were 3 years old have no memory of it.
The gap between 3- and 4-year-olds is big.
I also realized that there will soon be no
students left who remember the Earthquake.
That was a shock.
With the August performance just one month away,
Yu and the actors who will take on the challenge of presenting the play visit the high school students.
I see Yu and all of us members are good at
listening and expanding on what others say,
and also that we can probably
So I feel we'll probably be OK.
I'm a bit nervous myself, though!
Is the drama club head only called 'Head?'
I've been swimming ever since I was
a little kid, and I still swim.
I had fun playing a role at the arts
festival of my elementary school.
So I joined the drama club, thinking
it would be great to perform again.
I tried out the drama club one day,
and it was far more fun than I expected.
I've been involved in theater
since I was in high school.
I decided to give up when I found a job,
thinking I could live a life related
to theater without going into theater.
And I've been invited to act
in plays from time to time.
Please call me Nanamin.
There was a gas station on that corner.
It was a privately owned gas station
with a small dog.
When I was at elementary school
it bit me on the hand!
The road in front of me was
my way to school,
and I used to be able to remember
the surrounding scenery easily.
But now I can't remember much of it.
It's kind of covered over by a vacant lot
and no longer visible.
I feel like it's something completely
This is where our house used to be.
Located in what was designated as a "difficult-to-return zone,"
Akimoto's family home was demolished in 2017.
On March 11, after the graduation
ceremony, I came back here once.
I put all my stuff down,
and went out with my friends.
We went into a convenience store
and started browsing for fun.
I was hooked on a manga titled Naruto in
the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump.
I was reading Naruto,
thinking it was the last episode,
when the shelves started shaking
a little bit,
as though a child were shaking them
with his hand for fun.
Then there was a long, very big shake.
The shelves right behind me collapsed
and fell down,
and the window in front of me
Luckily, I didn't get hurt because
it didn't smash inward.
I couldn't let go of the Jump
perhaps because I was so tense.
I thought, "If I take it outside,
I might be accused of stealing it!"
When I calmed down a bit,
I let go and went outside.
I was the last person to leave the store.
For me, the 13 years I spent in this town
before the earthquake
hold a very prominent position.
People's sympathy for me was all
about the disaster.
Their response was far different
from what I actually felt
about 13 years of life in my hometown,
and I couldn't take it very well.
So, thinking it would be better
to keep quiet about it,
I tried not to talk much to my friends.
Some classes and teaching materials
in junior high referred to the earthquake.
I would show my attitude by
not participating in the class,
or sometimes I would just put my head
down on the desk.
Saika, regarding your experience
of the earthquake
and also the evacuation you underwent,
could you please pull out a chair
and tell Megumi all about them?
First of all, I'm from Iitate Village
in Fukushima Prefecture.
It's a rather large village
spread over a huge area.
I attended Haramachi High School,
which is located in Minamisoma.
My journey to school started
with a 50-minute bus ride.
I chose that school because it had
a famous broadcasting club,
and my dream was to become
an actor or voice actor in the future.
The earthquake struck in the middle
of the sixth hour of class
and the lesson would be over in
about six or seven minutes.
I was looking up at the clock
in the classroom for some time,
thinking about joining the club
activity as soon as it was over,
so I remember the time the earthquake
occurred very well.
On March 11, we were all huddled
together in the cold,
hoping to be able to get in touch
with our families.
When all the children from Iitate
returned together by car,
the power was out and it was pitch dark.
When I arrived home,
the house was a complete mess.
My mother suggested staying
in the car, and it was very cold.
We carried the futons and blankets
out of the house and got into the car.
I wrapped myself up with my mother
and stared outside.
The road in front of us was
filled with cars.
Throughout the night, cars kept
moving nonstop towards the west.
The village was very dark,
but taillights were blinding us.
I wondered why all those
people were evacuating.
It was only later that I realized
that everyone was evacuating because
of the nuclear power plant.
Not many people in the village,
including myself, knew about that,
but in hindsight, that was why
they were all evacuating.
I got some great shots!
I think the playground was on this side, the gymnasium was here,
and over there was the main school
At the time of the earthquake, I was in a
classroom on the school building 2nd floor.
I was changing out of my
gym wear before going home.
Then the earthquake struck and we
all evacuated to the schoolyard.
Some students were so surprised by the
ground cracking open they started crying.
There used to be a bridge over
the river from there to here.
But it was destroyed by the earthquake.
There was an old man who
used to fish from that bridge.
On my way home from school,
he'd often throw sweetfish up from below,
saying, "Take them home with you!"
I would thank him and rush home
to get a plastic bag to put them in!
While writing the play, Yu and her team visit a high school in Fukushima that has temporarily been closed.
Where did you have lunch?
I bought something at a convenience store.
Sato Shinya, who used to be a prefectural high school teacher, will show them around.
Boards to keep intruders out?
This place has been left untouched
ever since the earthquake?
Yes, it remains as it was.
So the students were here
on March 11 and 10...
Yes. There were classes in the morning.
And the students left the school early?
Since we're describing students who
were in high school in March 2011,
I wanted to visit high schools
to pay my respects...
or rather, not to trample on people's
So it's not what you would
really call a research visit.
It's not like I'm going to put on stage
what made an impression on me.
Since the earthquake,
the disaster-stricken areas have
received a lot of media coverage.
They are often described in words like
"Time has stopped, just as it was then."
That kind of coverage hurts people.
So can we convey things
in a different way?
I don't have an answer yet, but I
came here to ask that question.
Yu and her team decided to use on stage school uniform samples which had been left on display.
- They've been here since the quake.
- But they're surprisingly clean.
- Was there a designated bag?
- How about shoes?
Usually... sneakers or loafers.
The first half of the first draft script has been completed three weeks before the performance.
It includes episodes obtained through interviews with the high school students and the actors.
The first scene is at Iwaki Station
on May 15, 2020.
It's the day after the lifting of
the state-of-emergency declaration.
The students have been studying
at home for about a month,
and today they're returning to school.
The local restaurants had all gone.
Apparently, there had been a dish
called Meat Donburi, priced ¥600.
If you wanted more,
it cost ¥100 each time.
But in fact it depended on
the proprietress's mood!
Sometimes when you paid ¥800,
the dish was only worth ¥700,
but when she was in a good mood,
it was worth ¥1,000.
There is a serious shortage of masks.
On the train, everyone sits with
their heads bowed,
browsing SNS or YouTube, listening
to music, or playing games.
Thank you for riding on the Joban Line.
This is Haranomachi Station.
Smoking is not permitted on this train.
Reducing train congestion is one way
to prevent the spread of the virus.
We sincerely ask our customers to engage
in telework and off-peak commuting.
Long time no see... No!
We use a chat app every day.
- But face-to-face makes us nervous, right?
- It's hard we can't meet 'cos of the virus!
Talking on a chat app is really tough.
Think we'll take our masks off in autumn?
Yu included my words!
What did you say to her?
Watching COVID news, I hoped
school would be closed!
When it resumed, I felt, "What a pain!
So much time off, I'm tired..."
That's what I told her.
Yu probably used your words
because they were very honest.
- I'm going to perform, too.
She wants me to be in the part
of the class about COVID.
Write your student number and name.
All right? Done it?
During online classes, I secretly played
computer games with a friend.
I skipped half the online classes.
Excuse me, I'm Watanabe from
Class 1-2. Is Ms. Saito here?
Yes, I'm here!
We don't have Wi-Fi at home and
my mobile has a gigabyte limit,
so I can't take online classes.
I was at the far left at the back, clinging
to my desk and staring at the blackboard.
The biology teacher's mouth was agape,
and she was panicking.
I'll be dying away from my family.
I don't want to die here!
Please God, let me die with my family!
These local high school students have
never had this experience before,
so I'm sure they're very excited about
performing. Their expressions are great.
Some of the participating professional actors have local jobs as well as working in the theater.
I entered high school in Soma City and
my family started living in Minamisoma.
The nuclear accident evacuees
received a lot of compensation
from the Tokyo Electric Power Company,
so harsh words were uttered against us.
That was depressing.
As a junior high school student, I realized
I might be a target of criticism.
Since then, I'd been nervous about
what people around me
would think of me regarding that issue.
Gradually, I became unable to go to class.
But I continued participating in
the drama club in the evening.
Theater was the only thing that I could
face on my own initiative back then.
Sato majored in theater at university, and then in her 4th year, the coronavirus pandemic broke out.
COVID made it even more difficult
to make a living only by theater.
It was my goal in life to be somehow
involved in Okuma,
so if I couldn't work in the theater,
what else could I do here?
Then I found this Okuma Town
Development Public Corporation.
We head to the location of one project that Sato has been involved with.
Our corporation plants and grows
rice in Okuma
with the aim of producing sake
with a brewery in Aizu Wakamatsu,
which is famous for its sake.
The sake's name was chosen from about
400 ideas received from the public.
Various buildings have been
torn down and new ones erected,
so the town looks different,
but I think its roots remain.
The upper flowers may have gone,
but, as a young person, I feel I must
work hard in my own way
so that new flowers can bloom again
from the remaining roots.
I can get that sort of energy from Okuma.
Let's keep up the good work again today!
It's the first time for some of you to
observe the process of making a play.
The performing arts are created
by combining the various strengths
or rather expressions of various people.
I hope you'll be interested in seeing
the process of creating a stage play.
It includes eliciting intentions, tying
them, weaving them, untying them,
or sometimes cutting them into pieces.
My heart has had sunny days,
cloudy days, and windy days...
Can you try talking to the students?
All of you, listen to what Saika says.
I've been hurt, I've cried, I've studied,
I've been active in my club,
I've fallen in love...
My heart has had sunny days, windy days,
cloudy days, and days with pouring rain...
Do it from wherever you feel comfortable.
Suddenly in the classroom, a loud
sound came from everyone's mobile.
I'd never heard it before, so I wondered,
"Hey, is it an alarm?"
Picture frames fell, the glass shattered,
and the girls sitting in front of me screamed.
The biology teacher's mouth was agape
and she was panicking.
Don't look at the lines,
just try talking to me...
I knew that because the shaking
was so big I should get under my desk...
Parents of the students are among the audience today.
I was happy to see them having so much
It was even before he went to
There was a tremor when my son
was taking a nap, and he woke up.
I had to get him to eat his lunch somehow.
I was just recalling that when
they said it was snowing
at the end of today's rehearsal.
Look up, everyone, snow.
The sirens were blaring
and it started to snow.
I also remember the snow
started falling during the shaking,
so I felt like crying watching them.
I really wanted to give it my all,
and I'm glad I was able to do it
without feeling shy.
I was three years old when the
earthquake hit, so I have no memory of it.
Rather than not being able to do it
because I didn't have the experience,
I'll get myself into that character
to convey the message.
When I get home, I'm going
to read the script again
and go over how I would have felt.
We'll do a full run-through today
to get hold of the flow.
We brought in sweets, like slab chocolate
and cookies, and made one big house.
We talked about memories of our ping-pong
club days, our current club activities, and...
Chatting about all sorts of things...
I had to be so careful at home, because
my sister also had remote lessons.
I hate them!
Do you ever get very angry?
So you never tell people you hate them?
Looking back on recent incidents,
have you ever felt in your heart
that you hate yourself?
...It's a private matter.
Oh, okay, so it's going to be a private
conversation, but there is something?
OK. You should take out that feeling
and put it into your voice,
and then project your voice.
I went back to basics and worked hard.
The most enjoyable moment is when
I suddenly feel that I am acting.
I do part-time work so I can eat
shrimp curry and pilaf at Rainbow.
Our club teacher sometimes takes
us club members to Rainbow
and treats us to a hamburg steak
or something like that.
And the Rainbow owner says,
"Hungry, boys?" How about
fried potatoes? My treat!"
Shu, truly the drama club head!
- How long is your career, Kurubi?
- 10 years.
- How about you, Udai?
- 20 years.
20 years... Competitive!
Keep it up!
In this play, I don't just want to act,
but become like a real person.
It's a true story, full of the thoughts
and feelings of many people.
If you can't tell anyone
about your sadness or pain,
you become depressed,
so you really want someone
who has the ears to hear you.
And I think that by having them heard,
their inner wound can be stitched,
and, by listening,
we can offer something like treatment.
The high school students must be
nervous, but I am, too.
When the local people see the performance,
if they don't feel it's their story,
then there is no point.
A play is the creation of another world.
It's such a big event that a new planet
could be born.
Let's make another planet!
When I evacuated to Saitama,
several students ordered me
to buy juice for them because
I was getting compensation.
I went to school in Saitama for
the first semester of the 5th year.
I have no good memories.
There was quite a lot of bullying.
"You're so slow, we're late for
So pay us compensation! You had
lots for the nuclear accident.
Get down on your knees!"
To identify bodies, the police have
started collecting DNA samples
from family members of missing persons
at evacuation centers and morgues.
I've provided cells from my mouth
as though offering up a prayer.
At the time of the disaster, I was
in India, not in Japan.
Even though I'm from Fukushima City,
I have wondered why I couldn't regard
what happened in Fukushima
as my own personal matter.
But thanks to theater I have developed
a desire to do something for Fukushima.
I want to try chicken 'Konikudon'
before I graduate.
I want to try minced pork 'n chicken!
I'm leaving the drama club as of today.
We've set drama club goals, right?
- A jersey again!
- I like to be different!
Creating something together has been
like a process of healing for me.
Theater is all about pauses,
and everywhere is a stage...
the club room, the classroom,
and the Joban Line.
Some people say they can't take it yet,
and that's fine as we're all different.
After several days, electricity was restored.
I saw on the TV that the
nuclear power plant had exploded.
Residents within a 20km radius
of the plant were ordered to evacuate,
and those within a 30km radius
to take shelter indoors.
I thought we were OK as we lived
35km from the plant,
but on March 15 the government
announced that Iitate and Iwaki
would be included in the 'Shelter indoors zone.'
We were all scared of something
we can't see, worrying about radiation,
and afraid that we'd never be able
to return here to Iitate.
I just thought about how to stay
for even one day longer...
After all I'm still attached to
the broadcasting club,
- so I'm quitting today.
I met two of my four friends in Chiba
six months later.
I was evacuated to Chiba,
so we were reunited at Disneyland!
Let's go home together...
See you tomorrow!
Suddenly you can't see the friends you
really thought you would meet forever.
I thought I would see them again tomorrow.
That tomorrow never came in the usual way.
For the first time in my life, I was
subjected to a screening test.
To protect people from Okuma
evacuees like me,
I was measured from head to toe with a
strange machine by staff in white...
Why should other Fukushima natives
treat me like this?
There's the feeling that Sato Makiko,
who was in junior high then,
and Sato Makiko, who is now 25,
are talking to each other,
and today's Sato Makiko can help her
through her past difficulties.
I used to work for a company in Okuma,
but I resigned at the end of June.
From now on I want to live in Okuma
as an actor and as a stage crew member.
It's my hometown, so I'm determined
to do my best here.
It's very strange, but on the morning of
March 11, I woke up and cried a little
because I was shaking all over, thinking
I didn't want to drown to death.
My friend told me she'd also
had a strange dream.
At first, I felt nervous to work
with professional actors.
But now I think I'm doing a good
job of showing what I can do!
I don't want to just act in a formal way.
I want to fully convey what that person
was actually going through then.
With the memories of all that was there in the past firmly secured in their hearts,
the young people of Fukushima stride forward to the future.