3.11 EXPLORING FUKUSHIMA: This feature is part of an original Milwaukee Independent editorial series that documented the 13th anniversary of the "Great East Japan Earthquake," tsunami, and nuclear accident, including the conditions of both the people and places that remain affected by the disaster across the Tōhoku region. mkeind.com/exploringfukushima

In the heart of Fukushima Prefecture remains silent and haunting reminders of a tragedy that reverberated around the world. The catastrophic events following the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, led to the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown released significant amounts of radiation into the environment, prompting the immediate evacuation of tens of thousands of residents. Many of them have yet to return to their hastily abandoned homes.

While some cities like Okuma, Futaba, and Namie have been cleared for residents to return after a decade, as of March 2024 there remain large swatches of abandoned areas. For all the homes that were demolished after the tsunami erased towns along the coast of Japan, many still stand in the same condition they were left in March of 2011. Other than weathering and neglect from time, some homes still had a nearly pristine environment. It was as if the occupants had only just stepped out. But no one was coming back, at least any time soon it seemed.

The ghost towns are now pockets with towns that are trying to revive and thrive. The inadvertent relics symbolize the sudden loss that swept over the region 13 years prior when radiation forced mass evacuations. They remain as eerie time capsules of homes and businesses.

Amid the desolation is also a strange tranquility. Japan has been known for its “akiya,” often referred to as ghost houses. But they are not haunted, simply abandoned by an aging population and left behind for municipalities to demolish or resell. As young residents flock to major cities, the glut of ghost homes has grown exponentially in recent years.

Regarding the Fukushima region, the Japanese government and various organizations have undertaken significant efforts to decontaminate the affected areas, with the goal of allowing residents to return to their homes. While progress has been slow and the future remains uncertain, the determination to reclaim and rehabilitate these lands speaks to the Japanese will to overcome adversity.


Renowned for its Sakura trees, Yonomori now presents a surreal landscape covered in cherry blossoms. The beauty of these fragile pink flowers, once a vibrant symbol of life and renewal, casts a hauntingly beautiful backdrop for the deserted streets, abandoned homes, and vast swatches of empty land.

Walking through Yonomori, it was easy to imagine the families who once gathered under these very trees, celebrating the beauty of life together. As trees began to bloom again to usher in spring, they did so with a profound sense of loss. Silence had replaced the past’s vibrancy, but nature presented its beauty regardless of having an audience.


Tomioka could have been easily mistaken as just another rural town. Signs of redevelopment were everywhere but the streets were not bustling. Abandoned homes overgrown with weeds, frozen in time when the inhabitants abruptly fled, had long ago been razed. The land was either left empty or replaced with a new dwelling, but the result was the same. The face of Tomioka would have been hard to recognize for anyone who lived there before 2011.

Relics did still remain. Some were picked over, others avoided with disinterest along silent avenues. A child’s toy, a family photo covered in dust, a calendar that still marked March 2011 were reminders of the day when time stopped for Tomioka.

In the home of Toshiyuki Takemoto, a letter of thanks still hung proudly from November 28, 2008 in the empty family room.

“You have contributed to the safe and stable operation of the power plant by working hard to control the quality of work in your position of command and management at this power plant for many years. Therefore, during Quality Month, we would like to present you with a commemorative gift in recognition of your efforts. I would like to express my gratitude.” – Akio Komori, Executive Officer of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Tokyo Electric Power Company


Closer to the epicenter of the disaster, Futaba offered a tangible sense of devastation. The damage was not just physical but deeply emotional. The parts of the town stood as a stark reminder of the nuclear disaster’s catastrophic consequences. Yet, amidst the spots of desolation was an overwhelming trend for revitalization. Artistic murals covered many empty buildings in the downtown area, projecting a creative spirit and message of hope. It was a place determined to both rebuild and remember.

> READ: Déjà vu of Photojournalism: Forced progress, brutal invasion, mother nature, and the detritus of life

In April 2023, senior photojournalist Lee Matz wrote about the power of images to capture the detritus of life, and his personal experiences with the aftermath of natural disasters, economic progress, and war. His photo essay covered two decades of his work, from the ruins of Antakya, Türkiye following an earthquake, to the demolition of neighborhoods in China for economic development, and the devastation in Ukraine due to the brutal invasion by Russia.

After another assignment to cover Ukraine’s counter-offensive in June and July 2023, Matz returned to Japan with a Milwaukee Independent team for the 13th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake in February and March 2024. For Matz, it was his first time returning to the country where he had previously lived twice. It was during his second residency that he was displaced due to the devastating tsunami in 2011 that washed away his home.

3.11 Exploring Fukushima

MI Staff (Japan)

Lее Mаtz

3.11 Exploring Fukushima: The Tōhoku region of Japan experienced one of the worst natural disasters ever recorded when a powerful earthquake was followed by a massive tsunami, and triggered an unprecedented nuclear crisis in 2011. With a personal connection to the tragedies, Milwaukee Independent returned for the first time in 13 years to attend events commemorating the March 11 anniversary. The purpose of the journalism project included interviews with survivors about their challenges over the past decade, reviews of rebuilt cities that had been washed away by the ocean, and visits to newly opened areas that had been left barren by radiation. This special editorial series offers a detailed look at a situation that will continue to have a daily global impact for generations. mkeind.com/exploringfukushima