By Mari Yamaguchi and Haruka Nuga

Ten years after Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, the lives of many who survived are still on hold.

On 11 March, 2011, one of the biggest temblors on record touched off a massive tsunami, killing more than 18,000 people and setting off catastrophic meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Nearly half a million people were displaced. Tens of thousands still haven’t returned home.

More than 30 trillion yen (US$ 280 billion) has been spent on reconstruction so far — but even Reconstruction Minister Katsuei Hirasawa acknowledged recently that while the government has charged ahead with new buildings, it has invested less in helping people to rebuild their lives, for instance, by offering mental health services for trauma.

The Associated Press talked to people affected by the disasters about how far they have come — and how much more needs to be done.

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Above: Yasuo Takamatsu prepares to take a diving lesson at Takenoura bay, Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan. Photo via The Associated Press/Koji Ueda

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Above: Yasuo Takamatsu speaks with The Associated Press at Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan on Monday, 8 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Eugene Hoshiko

“As long as my body moves"

Yasuo Takamatsu, 64, lost his wife, Yuko, when the tsunami hit Onagawa, in Miyagi prefecture.

He has been looking for her ever since.

He even got his diving license to try to find her remains, and for seven years he has gone on weekly dives — 470 and counting.

“I’m always thinking that she may be somewhere nearby,” he said.

Besides his solo dives, once a month he joins local authorities as they conduct underwater searches for some 2,500 people whose remains are still unaccounted for across the region.

Takamatsu said the city’s scars have largely healed, “but the recovery of people’s hearts ... will take time.”

So far, he has found albums, clothes and other artifacts, but nothing that belonged to his wife.

He said he will keep searching for his wife “as long as my body moves.”

“In the last text message that she sent me, she said, ‘Are you okay? I want to go home,’” he said. “I’m sure she still wants to come home.”

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Above: Michihiro Kono, president of Yagisawa Shoten Co, holds his company's soy sauce bottle, named "the miracle," at his company's new headquarters in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan, in 2015. Photo via The Associated Press/Eugene Hoshiko

“Starting line again"

Just a month after a tsunami as high as 17 metres (55 feet) smashed into the city of Rikuzentakata, Michihiro Kono took over his family’s soy sauce business.

That he was even able to continue the two-century-old business is a miracle, he says. The precious soy yeast was only saved because he had donated some to a university lab.

For the last decade, Kono has worked to rebuild the business in Iwate prefecture, and later this year he will finish construction on a new factory, replacing the one that was destroyed, on the same ground where his family started making soy sauce in 1807. He has even launched a soy sauce named “Miracle” in honour of the saved yeast.

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Above: (LEFT)Workers of Yagisawa Shoten Co, prepare for soy sauce extractor of the company's factory in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan on Friday, 5 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Eugene Hoshiko (RIGHT) A worker of Yagisawa Shoten Co., checks soy sauce tanks of the company's new factory in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan, in 2015. Photo via The Associated Press/Eugene Hoshiko

“This is a critical moment to see if I can do something meaningful in the coming 10 years,” said the ninth-generation owner of Yagisawa Shoten Co. “I was born here, and now I’m at the starting line again.”

But challenges remain: His customer base has been decimated. The city’s population has plunged more than 20 percent to about 18,000, so he is trying to build business networks beyond the city.

Kono often thinks of the people killed by the tsunami, many of whom he used to discuss town revitalisation plans with.

“Those folks all wanted to make a great town, and I want to do things that will make them say, ‘Well done, you did it,’ when I see them again in the next life,” he said.

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“Who wants to come back?”

About 10 kilometres (6 miles) south of the wrecked nuclear plant, rice farmer Naoto Matsumura defied a government evacuation order a decade ago and stayed on his farm to protect his land and the cattle abandoned by neighbours.

He’s still there.

Most of the town of Tomioka reopened in 2017. But dozens of neighbouring homes around Matsumura are still empty, leaving the area pitch dark at night.

The Fukushima prefecture town’s main train station got a facelift. A new shopping centre was built. But less than 10 percent of Tomioka’s former population of 16,000 has returned after massive amounts of radioactive material spewing from the plant forced evacuations from the town and other nearby areas. Parts of the town remain off-limits; houses and shops stand abandoned.

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Above: Naoto Matsumura speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at his home in Tomioka town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, on Sunday, 28 February, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Hiro Komae

“It took hundreds of years of history and effort to build this town, and it was destroyed instantly,” he said. “I grew up here ... but this is nothing like a home anymore.”

Because it took six years to lift the evacuation order, many townspeople already found jobs and homes elsewhere. Half of the former residents say they have decided never to return, according to a town survey.

This has been true across the region.

In Tomioka, radioactive waste from decontamination efforts in the town are still stored in a no-go zone.

“Who wants to come back to a place like this?” Matsumura asked. “I don’t see much future for this town.”

For company, Matsumura has several cows, a pony and a family of hunting dogs that help him chase away wild boars. The cows are descendants of those from neighbouring farms that he has kept, as a protest, after the government issued an order to destroy thousands because of radiation fears.

This spring, for the first time since the disaster, the 62-year-old farmer plans an experimental rice planting, and to expand his beekeeping efforts.

“I will stay here until the end of my life,” he said.

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Above: Yuya Hatakeyama, a Tomioka town official, walks by a temporary storage location for bags of dirt with possible radioactive waste during an interview with The Associated Press as he guides reporters in a "difficult-to-return" zone in Tomioka town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, on Friday, 26 February, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Hiro Komae

“Their home is still here"

Yuya Hatakeyama was 14 when he was forced to evacuate from Tomioka after the disaster.

Now 24, the former third baseman for the Fukushima Red Hopes, a regional professional league team, is in his first year working at the Tomioka town hall — but he still hasn’t returned to live in the town, joining the many who commute into it from outside.

Hatakeyama has bittersweet memories of Tomioka. The area that’s now a no-go zone includes Yonomori park, where people used to gather for a cherry blossom festival. Decontamination work is being stepped up in the area and the town plans to lift the rest of the no-go zone in 2023.

“I want to reach out to the residents, especially the younger generation, so they know their home is still here,” Hatakeyama said. One day, he said, he wants to see young families playing catch, like he used to do with his father.

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Above: Hazuki Sato, a Futaba town official, visits a playground she used to play daily until she evacuated due to a nuclear scare following a 2011 earthquake, during an interview with The Associated Press in Futaba town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, on Sunday, 28 February, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Hiro Komae

“A place of comfort”

Hazuki Sato was 10 when she fled from her elementary school in Futaba, home of the wrecked nuclear plant.

She’s now preparing for the coming-of-age ceremony that is typical for Japanese 20-year-olds, hoping for a reunion in town so she can reconnect with her former classmates who have scattered.

Despite horrifying memories of escaping from her classroom, she still considers Futaba her home.

After studying outside the region for eight years, Sato now works for her hometown — though from an office in Iwaki, another city in the Fukushima prefecture.

None of Futaba’s 5,700 residents can return to live there until 2022, when the town is expected to reopen partially. An area outside a train station reopened last March only for a daytime visit to bring in the Olympic torch.

Sato has fond memories of Futaba — a family barbecue, riding a unicycle after school and doing homework and snacking with friends at a childcare centre while waiting for her grandma to pick her up.

“I want to see this town become a place of comfort again,” she said.

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Above: Hazuki Sato, a Futaba town official, walks around an elementary school she used to attend until she evacuated due to a nuclear scare following a 2011 earthquake, during an interview with The Associated Press in Futaba town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, on Sunday, 28 February, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Hiro Komae

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Bleed image: Michihiro Kono, president of Yagisawa Shoten Co, stands at his factory under construction on Friday, 5 March, 2021, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan. Just a month after a tsunami as high as 17 metres (55 feet) smashed into the city of Rikuzentakata, soy sauce maker Kono inherited his family's two-century-old business from his father. Later this year the ninth generation owner of Yagisawa Shoten Co. will open a new factory on the same ground where his family started making soy sauce in 1807. Photo via The Associated Press/Eugene Hoshiko