” FUTABA, Fukushima Prefecture–A daily calendar pad on a living room wall in a private home in this northeastern community still showed the fateful date: “March 11, 2011.”
All of Futaba’s 7,000 or so residents left the town after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, which struck on that date, triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant it partially hosts. The residents remain evacuated because of high radiation levels.
I was accompanying Kazuo Sato, a 73-year-old evacuee, during a temporary return to his home in Futaba along with staffers of TV Asahi Corp.
Trees in his yard were found uprooted by wild boars. Rat droppings were seen littering his home floors. A wardrobe closet and a TV remained toppled.
Sato said he doesn’t feel like making repairs to his dilapidated home, although he comes to visit it several times a year.
At any rate, the area in which his house stands has been designated a site for an interim storage facility, where radioactive soil and other debris, contaminated by fallout from the nuclear disaster, will eventually be collected. When he thinks about that, he almost feels flattened by the weight of reality, which dictates he will never be able to return to his former peaceful life, Sato said.
He said he was used to seeing his town ebullient with the construction and operation of the nuclear plant since he was in his 20s.
“I never imagined the nuclear plant, which brought liveliness to our town, could bare its teeth and turn on us this fiercely,” Sato said with a sigh. “During the last four years, we have literally been trampled upon and kicked around”–a Japanese idiom for a string of misfortunes.
120,000 STILL EVACUATED
Sato fled to the nearby town of Kawamata immediately following the quake, with little more than the clothes on his back. He was unable to contact his son, then a 41-year-old post office worker, who was likely swept away by the tsunami. The son remains unaccounted for to this day.
That was the end of a joyful life for his family of six, comprising Sato and his wife, his son and his wife, and two grandchildren.
His son looks down at Sato and his wife from a photograph in a corner of a room in a temporary housing unit in the nearby city of Iwaki, where they have lived for three years.
“The winter cold is hard on me because the walls and the floors are so thin,” Sato said. “We go shopping at a supermarket, but when we stock up on a lot of things, people view us temporary housing occupants as ‘nuclear disaster upstarts’ who are profiteering from compensation payments. That’s also sad.”
He added, “We have lost our home and our son and, as if that were not enough, our hometown is being turned into an accumulation site for radioactive soil. I just hope people will understand, if only a little, about how we feel.”
The town government of Futaba has been relocated to Iwaki. Futaba residents currently remain evacuated in 39 prefectures across Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, according to Shiro Izawa, the 56-year-old mayor of the town.
Izawa made what he described as a “heart-rending decision” in January when he agreed to accept an interim storage facility in Futaba following talks with the central and prefectural governments.
“I made that decision out of the belief that one community or another in Fukushima Prefecture has to take in the radioactive soil and other debris collected within the prefecture,” he said. “A law has been enacted to the effect that the debris should be taken out of the prefecture for final disposal in 30 years or less. I will definitely make sure the central government keeps its word.”
Izawa said he is being disquieted by the fading memory of the nuclear disaster.
“Some 120,000 residents of Fukushima Prefecture remain evacuated,” the mayor said. “That reality is likely being left to oblivion, while nuclear power plants in other parts of Japan are moving toward restarts, even though host local governments remain underprepared for emergency evacuations.”
It came to light recently that Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, kept the public in the dark about a long-running leak of radioactive water into the ocean outside the crippled plant. Izawa described that as a telltale sign of the way the memory of the disaster is fading away.
‘FEMA’ NEVER TOOK SHAPE
There are also disquieting signs in the Nagatacho political district of Tokyo.
During the early phase of the nuclear disaster four years ago, Japan’s central government fell into a great confusion over which organization–the Self-Defense Forces, police or firefighters–should take the lead in dealing with the situation. Some politicians argued that a powerful organization should definitely be established to deal with emergencies.
That led ruling and opposition party members in the Upper House to approve a supplementary resolution when a decision was made in June 2012 to establish a new Nuclear Regulation Authority.
The resolution said the government should refer to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and other examples to fundamentally review its organization for dealing with large-scale disasters, including nuclear disasters, and should take necessary measures on the basis of the review.
In reality, however, the creation of a new organization for crisis management barely gained any traction, partly because of a turf war between government departments. Politicians today seldom speak about a Japanese version of FEMA, although another nuclear disaster could cause similar chaos to be repeated.
That also illustrates the sad reality of the fading memory of the disaster. ”