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Hokkaido town employee looks back at 2 months since quake, vows recovery

ATSUMA, Hokkaido -- Two months since a deadly earthquake hit the northernmost prefecture here, a relatively new resident of this badly hit town has vowed to work for its recovery.

Asako Fujita, 31, originally from the central Japanese prefecture of Toyama, is a resident of Atsuma, where 36 were killed and many homes were destroyed as a result of the quake. She was in her second year living and working in the town when the quake struck.

Following her graduation from Hokkaido University, Fujita initially found employment at a food company in Hokkaido's bustling capital of Sapporo. But she eventually developed an interest in rural communities, where people's lives are closely intertwined with each other's, and started looking for a job in the field of community building.

As she looked into various municipalities, the staff at the Atsuma Municipal Government struck her as especially passionate about wanting to make the town a better place. The town government was enthusiastic about drawing new residents to Atsuma to live permanently, building residential lots for potential transplants. Fujita learned that some 50 new people came to live in Atsuma annually, and she decided to take the bold step herself.

"That the town was very open to those from other places, and that everyone was friendly were deciding factors," Fujita recalled about her decision to move.

In the spring of 2017, Fujita was assigned to the town's industrial economic affairs division. There, she was put in charge of PR for haskap berries -- used to make jam and as an ingredient in baked goods -- for which Atsuma boasts the greatest production area in Japan. With a desire to come into contact with as many town residents as possible, Fujita took the initiative to participate in many town events.

It was when the town government was about to start dedicating more effort into putting out more information about Atsuma that the earthquake struck. Immediately afterward, Fujita was assigned to the day-to-day operation of an evacuation center. As she spent her days with anxious residents who could not see what their future held, the townspeople started to remember her face and her name. "They would look out for me, asking, 'Are you getting enough rest?'" Fujita said. She was reminded of people's warmth.

Last month, Fujita was assigned to the municipal government's division tasked with community building, which she had had an interest in before coming to Atsuma. But now, disaster recovery has become a top priority, and measures to encourage transplants to come live in Atsuma require reconsideration. Fujita herself is not without apprehensions. "Going forward, we'll have to confront more difficult challenges toward recovery," she admitted.

Fujita says that in the past two months, as Atsuma was reported on widely by the media as the town that was hit hardest by the quake disaster, she felt conflicted. She felt her town was reduced to a disaster zone, when there were so many attractive things about the place. At the same time, however, she realizes through her interactions with residents struggling in the wake of the disaster that the townspeople cannot look to the outside world and wholeheartedly say, "We're doing just fine."

Amid such inner struggles, it's the strong bonds that Fujita has formed with the very people who made her want to move to Atsuma in the first place -- its residents -- that help keep her chin up. "The new ties that I've formed with people through my recent experiences will give strength to Atsuma and myself, and lead us to the future," she said.

(Japanese original by Motomi Kusakabe, Hokkaido News Department)

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