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Fukushima taxi firm shares lessons from 2011 disaster with passengers

Baryo Taxi President Sadaaki Hirasawa cleans his cab in the city of Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on Feb. 28, 2020. (Mainichi/Ayaka Morita)

SOMA, Fukushima -- A taxi company in this northeastern Japan city has been passing down lessons from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis to passengers.

Baryo Taxi drivers mainly take tourists on trips around places in Fukushima Prefecture, including coastal areas devastated by tsunami and fishing grounds still suffering from harmful rumors over the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident. They also offer information about damage in the area and their own disaster experiences.

The firm hopes for passengers to see with their own eyes what happened in Fukushima and gain an understanding of the destruction.

"Before the disasters, there was a settlement here. In an instant, it was washed away by the tsunami and about 200 people died," said company president Sadaaki Hirasawa, who stopped the cab on the side of the road and pointed his finger to the former location of the site. The 56-year-old then slowly drove by the coast, and provided more information.

There is no set route for the tours. Drivers ask passengers where they want to go, what stories they want to hear, and create their own course. It costs 5,900 yen for a 1-hour trip and almost all of the company's 30 drivers can conduct such tours.

After a campaign urging taxi drivers to provide information on damage caused by the 2011 disasters spread in the neighboring prefecture of Miyagi, Baryo Taxi received a request from the Fukushima Prefectural Government to do the same. It accepted the offer for the benefit of the region and began efforts to share disaster experiences in 2013.

While driving, employees also talk about their individual experiences at the time of the disaster. The earthquake completely destroyed Hirasawa's home, which doubled as his workplace. After confirming that his family, employees and taxis were safe, he felt relieved and thought he could somehow continue his business.

But on the next day when he went out to the coast, he saw that a whole settlement had been swept away. Hirasawa recalls thinking, "It's become a city where no one can live for at least 10 years." And then, the nuclear incident occurred.

He encouraged all employees to evacuate and entrusted the company's cabs to each worker. "I'd rather have you operate a one-man taxi business outside of the city than have the cars get contaminated. You can keep what you earn," he told his workers. In response, around half of his employees evacuated to areas outside of Soma.

Hirasawa began to rebuild his business about a month later. Basing his work in a prefabricated home, he contacted his employees, though he expected they wouldn't return. But he was pleasantly surprised to see all his drivers come back in the taxis he had entrusted them with.

Nine years has passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake. Compared to municipalities near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, Hirasawa feels his city is recovering faster. He commented, "I don't want anyone to forget about that day. I hope to continue driving taxis for the region."

(Japanese original by Ayaka Morita, Tsu Bureau)

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