By KOICHI TOKONAMI/ Staff Writer
March 11, 2019 at 18:15 JST
TOMIOKA, Fukushima Prefecture--As she nears the first anniversary of her relocation to a town near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Megumi Higashiyama remembers how fear almost kept her away.
But the 28-year-old librarian visited Tomioka and saw library workers cleaning books and discarding other ones in the closed library.
“I thought Fukushima’s issues are not what only the local people should tackle,” she recalled.
Witnessing their efforts made Higashiyama determined to move from Tokyo to the town, about 10 kilometers south of the nuclear plant.
She had been working as a non-regular employee at libraries in Ome and Fussa, both western Tokyo, after graduating from college and gaining a librarian's license.
She decided a year ago to seek employment at a library in Tomioka that was opening last spring after being closed for seven years.
“I wanted to walk along the path where the town is getting back to a normal daily life,” said Higashiyama, who was born in Tokyo and has loved books since childhood.
She first learned in 2016 that some libraries in regions that had been devastated by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and its aftermath, were expected to reopen. The book-lover visited Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, and Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, where local people were working to resume the operation of libraries saying, "We want to hand over books to people."
Through such encounters, Higashiyama started considering becoming involved with reconstruction efforts as a librarian.
She found a help-wanted ad posted on Tomioka’s website in autumn 2017 seeking a librarian who would work at the library in Tomioka, which was reopening in the spring of 2018.
Higashiyama, however, could not quickly decide whether to apply because there were still some "difficult-to-return zones" due to high radiation levels despite an evacuation order being lifted in a majority of the areas in the town in spring 2017.
She checked the radiation doses via the Internet, which did not reassure her about her safety concerns.
Higashiyama visited the town for the first time in December 2017 in her friend's car and looked around the town a week before taking the recruitment exam, seeing for herself what was going on.
She found demolished buildings along the town's shopping avenue, many vacant lots and very few people walking around, which bewildered her.
But the sight of staff members working in the library, which was closed at that time, touched her. They were checking on the status of books and materials left after the disaster, carefully wiping them clean and disposing of moldy books, prior to resuming operation of the library.
In a job interview with the mayor, Higashiyama said, “I will value each one of the library users who are in front of me.”
Higashiyama works with four librarians at the library that reopened in April 2018. Right after reopening, a space for relaxation was set up so visitors could have tea or coffee and snacks, and also chat.
The town’s population used to exceed 15,000 before March 11, 2011. Less than 10 percent of the residents have returned to Tomioka even though an evacuation order has been lifted.
The library started offering an on-site service where librarians visit by car a housing cluster in Iwaki, also in the prefecture, to lend books to evacuees with the concept of "Let's get on the road and provide," because many residents still live outside the town for safety, as well as within Tomioka.
“I want to make the library a bustling place,” Higashiyama said referring to the facility, whose average number of visitors per day is 60 or so, and is not increasing as expected. There are some time slots when few people are visiting the facility and it is very quiet inside.
However, Higashiyama is optimistic saying, “We are still halfway through reconstruction from the earthquake.”
Higashiyama’s mother, Akiko, 67, and father Shinichi, 69, plan to visit their daughter during cherry blossom viewing season in April.
Eight years ago, on March 11, 2011, the then-college sophomore felt the strong temblor when she was at her home in Hamura, western Tokyo, with Akiko.
In the aftermath of the quake, they struggled to reach Shinichi to ensure his safety, as he was not expected to return home soon. They also experienced uncertainties due to planned power outages, which were part of energy-saving efforts after the loss of the Fukushima plant.
Her parents supported their daughter’s desire to take the librarian job in Tomioka, as she had told them, “I want to see that an ideal library is being created.”
Higashiyama is looking forward to showing her parents around the town, which has just started recovering, and how much she has matured with her career.
The library, located at the center of Tomioka, which was built before the disaster by using grants for hosting the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant, currently houses about 85,000 books including volumes on the production of energy.
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