Photo Gallery: Bringing Hope to the Homeless


In the Shadow of Fukushima A Mayor's Battle to Keep His Displaced Town Together

Four weeks ago, the 6,900 inhabitants of Futaba were forced to abandon their homes in the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Since then, the mayor has been governing over a traumatized town on the move -- with a little help from the emperor.

For the people of Futaba, yet another day begins with a little man in freshly washed lime-green overalls telling them about how things are back home. The man's name is Katsutaka Idogawa, and he is their mayor. He is all they have brought with them. The people of Futaba don't have a town anymore; they only have a mayor.

Indeed, Idogawa explains, the situation is so dire that the people of Futaba are going to celebrate Children's Day early. The Japanese usually hold the holiday in early May. But nobody knows what early May will bring. Right now, the people of Futaba need good news and a little diversion. They need to be able to feel that life will somehow go on. So Idogawa has decided to push the holiday forward.

The mayor stands in the dusty playground of an abandoned school in Kazo, a suburb of Tokyo where some 1,400 of his town's residents have found refuge after weeks on the move. Next to him stand the mayor of their host town and the head of the local flag factory. In their hands, each of the three elderly gentlemen holds a large flag printed with brightly colored fish, the kind of flag the Japanese like to fly on Children's Day. Idogawa speaks quietly about hope and a new beginning, of patience and of trust. But only about 60 of the citizens of Futaba have come to hear him speak.


Photo Gallery: Japan's Devastated Coastline

Foto: STR/ AFP

"This is a day of joy," he tells them.

Then he and the other two elderly men try to hoist their flags. For several minutes, they wrestle with their fish flags and the ropes. Since he is small and his fish is very large, it sometimes looks like Idogawa is being swallowed by his own fish. The few onlookers observe the scene in sadness. Some even turn away and wander back indoors.

The Tireless Leader

Over the past weeks, they have watched their mayor desperately trying to battle their dire straits. From their small town of Futaba, which lies in the shadow of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, he has led them through a series of temporary shelters to Kazo. He has fought on their behalf -- for recognition, assistance, money, food, clothing and accommodation. He has tried to keep them together.

This last week, they have been living in an abandoned school. They don't know how long they will have to stay there or what will happen next. But at least they can see their mayor again now that he's won his battle with the fish flag. The flag flutters in the wind. Idogawa takes a step back and looks skyward, his arms pressed to the sides of his overalls.

Children's Day has been officially kicked-off, and now it must somehow go on. The people watch him. He nods. He can't stand still. He is a refugee, just like all the other people of his town; but, as their mayor, he cannot let it show. Though he looks tired, sick and unshaven, he still has his spotless, neatly pressed lime-green overalls and a couple of his business cards from the abandoned town.

The Memories They Carry

Idogawa wears one of the cards in a little plastic holder dangling from a cord on his chest. It has very little empty space. It shows a beach, wicker chairs and a sliver of ocean. There is also a small photograph of the mayor, a rose and a Japanese symbol of good luck that is also the mascot of Futaba. The rose symbolizes the rose garden that is -- or was -- in Futaba. The mayor doesn't know if it survived the tsunami. He didn't check. There simply wasn't time.

Idogawa points to the spot on his business card where his house is. It is slightly higher up, behind a pine forest. His voice falters momentarily as he recounts watching the wave come in from his house. Then he catches himself and says, "The environment ministry named our beach one of the top 50 in all of Japan."

The nomination came as somewhat of a surprise, especially since the beach is right next to a nuclear power plant. The mayor smiles and gently strokes the card with his thumb. "Up to 60,000 people come to swim there in the peak season," he says, looking dreamily at the card, as if wanting to lose himself in it.

A Lack of Direction

Then a man in a tie pulls Idogawa away, and he lets go of the card. A delegation of 30 men, all wearing gray windbreakers, has arrived from Saitama prefecture. The mayor leads them into his office, a small room with a number of tables stacked with papers. An aerial photograph of Futaba has been pinned to the front of the door. You can see the ocean, the beach and the nuclear power plant. His old office, the town hall in Futaba, is marked with a red dot. As the crow flies, it is a little more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the red dot to the stricken reactors.

About 20 people in brand-new blue vests congregate in the long corridor winding through the former school building. Their vests are marked "Kazo City Support Team." Someone in the town managed to get them printed on short notice. Many people seem to be hiding behind their official uniforms like snails in theirs shells. Most of the men wearing the vests look like they don't know what they're supposed to be doing. They are simply on duty. Some sit on window ledges; two have fallen asleep.

Out in the playground, a few children are playing badminton, and a woman is cutting another woman's hair. In front of the school, 63-year-old Toshide Shimizu is waiting for a bus that will take him to a place where he can take a bath. He says he doesn't really want to take a bath but doesn't have anything else to do.

Until a month ago, Shimizu ran a hotel in Futaba. The hotel was near the beach. Inspectors from the national atomic energy authority used to stay at his hotel often, as did senior employees of Tepco, the company that operates the nuclear power plant. Just last year he expanded his hotel because he heard that two more reactors were being planned. He says he doesn't expect much from his mayor. All he can think about is compensation.

Curious Loyalties

Ten minutes later, the 30 inspectors in windbreakers on are their way. The mayor accompanies them out to the school yard.

"What exactly did the men want?" someone asks.
"They wanted to get an overview," Idogawa says.
"Of what?"
"The situation."

Idogawa looks across the playground as people file into the cafeteria. There are strawberries, potato chips, individually wrapped raisin rolls and water, all of them donations. The mayor hops down the steps. He wants to join the 1,400 others -- his people, so to speak. He says he has too little time to look after them. Although he lives among them, he spends most of his time in meetings. But he's happy they're no longer in the gigantic Saitama Super Arena, where he and the others were previously housed. At least here it's just them.

Idogawa moves past the line that has formed by the cardboard boxes holding the food to be distributed. Each person uses chopsticks to pick strawberries out of the boxes. They are allowed four each. The mayor smiles at his people, but they eye him suspiciously.

At the front of the line is a man in a blue laborer's jacket. "Strawberries," the mayor says to the man. The man nods before taking four strawberries and then another four. "For my sister-in-law," he explains. The mayor smiles. "And four more for my daughter," the man adds.

The man is Shinichi Watanabe, a 63-year-old who spent 23 years working for Tepco, along with a quarter of Futaba's residents. His attitude toward his Tepco bosses hasn't changed. He trusts them because they work in a large building in Tokyo. He says he would not have left his house if they hadn't told him to do so. Now he thinks they won't be able to go back for another two years, maybe three.

"And four strawberries for my other daughter," Watanabe says. But the mayor isn't listening anymore. His attention has turned to a delegation from the local school that has just arrived. Japan's new school year began on Wednesday, April 6. The children from Futaba are finally going to start school tomorrow.

Shinichi Watanabe watches the mayor go, then helps himself to two more strawberries.

Looking Forward

After lunch, Mayor Idogawa appears in front of the cafeteria again. About 10 Japanese cameramen and a couple Japanese reporters with bold haircuts, tight-fitting jackets and tape recorders are huddled around a microphone set out in front of the cafeteria. The mayor announces that this is the first press conference in their new surroundings. He stands in front of the microphone holding a list in his hands. He sniffs a little, then coughs. He has hay fever triggered by the fact that everything is blooming in Japan at the moment. He slowly reads off the most important figures: 6,900 people lived in Futaba; 1,413 are here in Kazo; 4,615 people are alive and in contact with him; the other 872 are missing.

"The situation has stabilized. We could even take in more people," Idogawa says, making a sweeping gesture across the school grounds. It almost seems like he would prefer to rebuild his entire town right there in the old abandoned school in Kazo.

In the large school halls, mattresses are laid out row upon row. It will be years before Futaba is habitable again, maybe decades. Idogawa must know that -- or at least suspect as much -- but he doesn't dare voice his suspicions. Perhaps he can't even think that far ahead. Municipal elections are due to be held in two years. But as he sees it, until then, he is the mayor of Futaba.

Plumber, Mayor, Symbol

"School starts again tomorrow," Idogawa says, as a droplet forms on the tip of his nose.

A journalist says that the spokesman for Japan's government has announced that former residents will be allowed to briefly return to the exclusion zone to collect their valuables.

"In principle, everything is possible," Idogawa responds, as he discreetly tries to sniff up the drop on the end of his nose. He says he would also like to go back himself to rescue things like his family altar. But, he adds, none of his town's residents will be allowed back until their safety can be guaranteed.

"But the government spokesman says they can," the journalist insists.

"The government spokesman is the government spokesman," Idogawa replies, Coming from this small, elderly gentleman, the words sound surprisingly feisty.

By trade, Idogawa is actually a plumber. Before being elected mayor of Futaba six years ago, he ran a small plumbing business. But in the weeks since the earthquake, he has lived through things that the government spokesman could only imagine. He has watched his people gradually lose hope. He wants to keep them alive. He has become more important for his people and his country. He has become a symbol, a mayor without a town.

And what the journalists don't yet know is that the emperor is coming to visit tomorrow in person. The emperor of Japan.

Idogawa excuses himself and steps to one side to blow his nose. His Japanese colleagues wait in silence. When he returns to the microphone, he announces that the emperor will be visiting the next day between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Rumors of the Hopeless

In the background, a small yellow-and-brown delivery van pulls up. It's painted to look like a cat in a Japanese cartoon, and it's bringing crêpes. Children and adults hurry over to its back end. The emperor may be coming tomorrow. But, today, there are pancakes. Idogawa walks over to the van and bows to the deliveryman.

His assistant reminds him about the arrival of some women who have collected diapers, towels and toiletries for the displaced citizens of Futaba. "Ah, yes!" he says, before walking over to a car park, where the elderly ladies from Kazo wait behind plastic bags filled with second-hand children's clothes and family-size packs of Kleenex tissues, toilet paper and diapers. He bows in front of each and every one of them, handing out his business cards with the picture of the town that now looks completely different.

Over in the smokers' corner, toothless men with wasted faces stand looking disinterestedly at the mayor and the women. They tell stories of dead bodies lying on the streets of Futaba and of thieves plundering abandoned homes. The thieves are from China, they say.

These are bitter, evil stories -- and, of course, they aren't true. If they need proof, they only have to ask Akihide Abe, a 23-year-old who worked as an electrical engineer at the power plant until the earthquake struck. He fled the very first night and has been following the mayor from camp to camp ever since.

Though he had heard the warnings, he and a friend returned to Futaba two days ago to collect his guitar. He didn't want his family's altar, just his bass guitar. Abe did not see dead bodies in the streets or Chinese thieves. Instead, everything was completely empty and silent.

Still, the men over in the smokers' corner don't ask him. He doesn't smoke, and they're not interested in the truth. He is young. Sooner or later he will leave the camp. But they must stay. And for that they need their stories.

The Emperor's Visit

During the night before the emperor's visit, a severe aftershock rattles the school housing the displaced people of Futaba. The next morning, the streets between Tokyo and Kazo must be cleared. Police officers stand at every corner, and between them are security officials. Helicopters buzz overhead.

When Emperor Akihito slowly emerges from his black limousine, he seems unspectacular, quiet and gentle; a stooped elderly gentleman in a green windbreaker. Indeed, he looks more like a park ranger than an emperor. At first glance, he doesn't look all that different from the mayor. And he has no more to offer than his presence. He has simply come to bring hope.

For a minute or so, the two men stand face-to-face. They do not speak; instead, the plumber and the emperor take turns bowing to one another, over and over again.

For the next 90 minutes, the imperial delegation makes its way through the corridors of the former school. A meeting with refugees has been arranged in two smaller classrooms. The emperor kneels in front of them, asking them about their names and occupations. He also smiles at the people waiting in the hallways, bows and allows himself to be photographed on cell-phone cameras.

More refugees have appeared than took part in the Children's Day celebrations. But by no means all of them. The large halls are packed with people lying side-by-side on mattresses, staring at the ceiling. The emperor casts a friendly glance into the sports hall and the auditorium before moving on.

Idogawa hovers a few steps behind him. His face is clean-shaven and momentarily worry-free. He finally has somebody that he can follow. But, if you look really close, you can just see a stain on the back of his lovely lime-green overalls.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.