Friendship: “Truck drivers were unwilling to enter Soma and Iwaki. Since no one was bringing us fuel, stocks were running low. Convenience stores and supermarkets, a few of which tried to open had to close because without deliveries they could not re-stock. Without gasoline and daily necessities, ordinary life was disrupted.”
This was Soma City Mayor Hidekiyo Tachiya’s email newsletter titled State of Siege depicting the tense situation in the city and neighbouring areas post the Great East Japan Earthquake and the subsequent tsunami.
The fear of radioactivity spreading to Soma, which is part of the Fukushima prefecture, from the damaged nuclear power plant compounded their fears.
“But it did not deter a young Royal Couple from reaching those of us undergoing huge suffering, for which the people remain grateful to Their Majesties The King and Queen of Bhutan,” a Soma city council official said.
As much as it is difficult to forget the incident, the local townsmen have afresh in their minds the visit of the Royal Couple who uplifted their spirits and gave them hope.
The town lost 458 lives as tsunami waves flattened 1,341 homes, and other infrastructure on its 3.7km inland journey.
As the news of the nearby nuclear accident spread in the media, the Japanese government ordered a 20km radius evacuation.
The people of Soma city also felt threatened and more people felt the urge to leave.
His Majesty The King and Her Majesty The Queen visited the city on November 18, 2011 and interacted with children at the Sakuragaoka Elementary School in the city. A story about a Dragon, His Majesty narrated to the students rings popularly among the youth and elderly alike.
The schedule and route of the entourage was kept secret. However, locals queued along the streets with flags, elderly and children, for hours hoping to greet Their Majesties.
“It was a difficult time for us,” the Soma City council official said. “Most people, even locals, avoided the city for fear of radiation from the nuclear accident. A lot of things changed after the Royal visit.”
He said that His Majesty conveyed the sympathy and solidarity of the Bhutanese people towards those who suffered as a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Speaking to the fishing families brought cheer and hope into their lives.
The Royal Couple interacted with elementary school students and offered a prayer for the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake who were devastated by the disaster.
Local media covered the Royal visit extensively and introduced Bhutan to a wide audience. The coverage led to a heightened affinity for and greater understanding of Bhutan among the Japanese people.
A portrait of the Royal Couple hangs in the memorial hall at the port near the site where Japan’s emperor, and Their Majesties prayed for the lives lost in the disaster.
The Royal visit touched hearts and emboldened many including the residents of neighbouring town, Miharu to build on the existing friendship.
Miharu International Friendship Association president and resident, Naoko Ishikawa said: “Since then we’ve been sending their most prized Taki Sakura saplings, a national treasure of Japan as a token of goodwill and friendship.”
Residents and city council officials visited Bhutan three times and planted 52 saplings since February 2013, one of the highest number of saplings sent abroad. The saplings were grafted from a 1000-year-old cherry tree.
“The tree is a symbol of peace,” she said, as she walked through the International House where a large collection of pictures of Bhutan and other instruments are on display.
An exhibition on Bhutan at the Museum of Art, Ehime witnessed a huge turn out since it opened in July 30, despite mega sports events in Brazil and summer vacation underway in Japan.
Leki Dema from Sakteng, Trashigang helps the museum occasionally in preparing Bhutanese dishes. She is married to a Japanese former volunteer and has three children.
She said Bhutan became hugely popular after the Royal visit. “Earlier people in this part of Japan didn’t know about our country at all,” said Leki, who has been living in Japan for the past 11 years. “Now I’m proud to call myself a Bhutanese and there is lots of interest among Japanese.”
There are about 30 Bhutanese living in Japan and married to Japanese.
One of the old friends of Bhutan, Watanabe Chiiko, whom Bhutanese in Tokyo fondly called Ama started an exclusively Bhutanese restaurant in Tokyo 10 years ago. Her friends operate it now.
“It remains always booked and more people over the years have developed a taste for your kind of food,” she says, while nibbling on steaming momo from a small wooden sauce-like plate. “The visit had a lot of impact on the business I think,” said Ama, who has visited the country more than 40 times in the past 35 years. The restaurant serves phaksha and norsha paa, AWP rum, whisky, imported dried Bhutanese chillies and suja, among others.
An official with Japan’s foreign ministry said Bhutan remains a close and friendly country. “We’ve a long history of friendship and we’re interested in the development of Bhutan,” a foreign ministry source said.
The students of Sakuragaoka Elementary School had sent letters to Their Majesties to congratulate Them on the Birth of His Royal Highness the Gyalsey.
“They are still hoping to see the Royal Couple at least once before they graduate,” the school’s principal, Kenichi Murata said.
More than five years since its disastrous tsunami, Soma city in Fukushima prefecture is close to restoring its former glory.
The city today bears very little resemblance of a place devastated by a tsunami. Even the fishing market at the Soma Port Haragama will open this month.
Tshering Palden | Japan