By YUKI KAWANO/ Staff Writer
March 9, 2021 at 18:00 JST
The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami forever changed the life of a 50-year-old man living in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
The pain of seeing the town obliterated drove the man, who we will refer to as Hiroshi, to drink. Yet, he now realizes that the natural disasters also led to new ties with volunteers who came to the Tohoku region and that those bonds were what helped him recover.
The massive destruction from the March 11, 2011, disasters is visible in the physical damage to northern Japan's Tohuku region. It also lies beneath the surface in the deep psychological wounds it inflicted on residents such as Hiroshi who witnessed the devastation of their hometowns.
One result of the psychological problems brought about since the natural disasters has been a major spike in alcoholism among survivors.
HITTING ROCK BOTTOM AFTER DISASTER
As a volunteer with the local fire station, Hiroshi was involved in searching for the missing from the day after the disasters. In the end, Kesennuma would record 1,432 residents either dead or missing.
About 15,000 homes were damaged, including Hiroshi’s family home along the coast. The factory where he worked for 20 years was also swept away.
Hiroshi’s hands began shaking when he went searching in the city that was now covered with debris. When he sipped on shochu spirits mixed with cola, he felt calmer. He worked with volunteers from outside Miyagi Prefecture in delivering supplies and kerosene stoves to evacuation centers.
Hiroshi’s alcohol consumption increased after he and his parents moved into temporary housing provided by the local government.
Typically, he would drink beer out of 350-milliliter cans. But he wouldn't feel tipsy until he had about 10 cans. It only took him about four hours to drain 24 cans.
Hiroshi felt his alcoholism had hit rock bottom about three years after the natural disasters. He would drink “umeshu” Japanese apricot liqueur straight from the bottle that he always kept nearby. He even began spraying alcoholic disinfectant in his mouth.
Feeling worthless, Hiroshi realized he had to straighten out but he was unable to quit drinking.
By the end of March 2014, a total of 1.98 million tons of debris was finally removed from Kesennuma.
BATTLE WITH ALCOHOL FAR FROM UNCOMMON
In October that year, an acquaintance who volunteered to help with reconstruction invited Hiroshi to come with him to Yamaguchi Prefecture where he worked.
But as his friend drove them there, Hiroshi kept on drinking and after arriving in Yamaguchi, he decided to check himself into a hospital for rehabilitation.
At that time, the 167-centimeter tall Hiroshi weighed only about 30 kilograms.
Rehabilitation helped him recover his physical condition and he began riding a bicycle for long distances. He left the hospital after about three months.
Hiroshi returned to Kesennuma and began working again at the restored factory, which had resumed operations. He felt he could not return to his inebriated self.
About a year later, local friends invited Hiroshi to a drinking party where he was told, “We all decided to invite you after waiting for a year. Now may be a time to raise a toast.”
Hiroshi was overcome with tears, but he only drank cola. In a short time, he took on the role of driving his friends home after such parties.
Hiroshi's battle with alcoholism is far from uncommon in Miyagi Prefecture.
NO MORE DROWNING HIS SORROWS
In fiscal 2018, the number of consultations about alcohol problems with local governments along the coast of Miyagi Prefecture averaged 322.7 cases per 100,000 people, a figure more than three times the national average of 97.5 cases.
After he left the hospital, Hiroshi began dating a woman who had also volunteered to help in Miyagi Prefecture.
He opened up to her about his struggles with alcohol when he won a free alcoholic beverage at a convenience store draw.
“I used to be an alcoholic," he told her, "though I don’t feel like drinking now.”
He feared she would look down on his past, but she only said, “It’s no longer a problem if you don’t drink now. You're a new person now.”
They got married in April 2020 and Hiroshi now finds himself engrossed in domestic life, preparing dinner for his wife after she returns home from work. The change has freed him from the burden of his memories of drowning in alcohol.
People he became friends with through their volunteer work occasionally come back to visit, continuing their ties with both Hiroshi and his hometown.
While he might never have become an alcoholic if it wasn’t for the natural disasters, Hiroshi also feels he would never have met such important people in his life without the events of 10 years ago.
His goal from now is just to gradually accumulate happy memories.
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