In Fukushima, a land where few return — The Japan Times

” A cherry tree is blooming in the spring sunshine outside the home of Masaaki Sakai but there is nobody to see it. The house is empty and boarded up. Weeds poke through the ground. All around are telltale signs of wild boar, which descend from the mountains to root and forage in the fields. Soon, the 60-year-old farmhouse Sakai shared with his mother and grandmother will be demolished.

“I don’t feel especially sad,” Sakai says. “We have rebuilt our lives elsewhere. I can come back and look around — just not live here.”

A few hundred meters away the road is blocked and a beeping dosimeter begins nagging at the bucolic peace. The reading here is a shade over 1 microsievert per hour — a fraction of what it was when Sakai’s family fled in 2011.

The radiation goes up and down, depending on the weather, Sakai says. In gullies and cracks in the road, and up in the trees, it soars. With almost everyone gone, the monkeys who live in the forests have grown bolder, stopping to stare at the odd car that appears instead of fleeing, as they used to.

A cluster of 20 small hamlets spread over 230 square kilometers, Iitate was undone by a quirk of the weather in the days that followed the nuclear accident in March 2011. Wind carried radioactive particles from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which is located about 45 kilometers away, that fell in rain and snow on the night of March 15, 2011. After more than a month of indecision, during which the villagers lived with some of the highest radiation recorded in the disaster (the reading outside the village office on the evening of March 15 was a startling 44.7 microsieverts per hour), the government ordered them to leave.

Now, the government says it is safe to go back. With great fanfare, all but the still heavily contaminated south of Iitate, Nagadoro, was reopened on March 31.

The reopening fulfills a pledge made by Mayor Norio Kanno: Iitate was the first local authority in Fukushima Prefecture to set a date for ending evacuation in 2012, when the mayor promised to reboot the village in five years. The village has a new sports ground, convenience store and udon restaurant. A clinic sees patients twice a week. All that’s missing is people.

Waiting to meet Kanno in the government offices of Iitate, the eye falls on a book displayed in the reception: “The Most Beautiful Villages in Japan.” Listed at No. 12 is the beloved rolling patchwork of forests, hills and fields the mayor has governed for more than two decades — population 6,300, famous for its neat terraces of rice and vegetables, its industrious organic farmers, its wild mushrooms and the black wagyu cow that has taken the name of the area.

The description in the book is mocked by reality outside. The fields are mostly bald, shorn of vegetation in a Promethean attempt to decontaminate it of the radiation that fell six years ago. There is not a cow or a farmer in sight. Tractors sit idle in the fields. The local schools are empty. As for the population, the only part of the village that looks busy is the home for the elderly across the road from Kanno’s office.

“The village will never return to how it used to be before the disaster,” Kanno says, “but it may develop in a different way.”

Recovery has started, Kanno says, wondering whether returnees will be able to start building a village they like.

“Who knows? Maybe one day that may help bring back evacuees or newcomers,” Kanno says. “Life doesn’t improve if you remain pessimistic.”

Even for those who have permanently left, he adds, “it doesn’t mean that their furusato can just disappear.”

The pull of the furusato (hometown) is exceptionally strong in Japan, says Tom Gill, a British anthropologist who has written extensively about Iitate.

Yearning for it “is expressed in countless sentimental ballads,” Gill says. “One particular song, simply titled ‘Furusato,’ has been sung by children attending state schools in Japan since 1914.”

The appeal has persisted despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that the rural/urban imbalance in Japan is more skewed than in any other developed nation, Gill says; just 10 percent of the nation’s population live in the country.

This may partly explain the extraordinary efforts to bring east Fukushima back to life. By one study, more than ¥2.34 trillion has been spent decontaminating an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island.

There has been no official talk of abandoning it. Indeed, any suggestion otherwise could be controversial: When industry minister Yoshio Hachiro called the abandoned communities “towns of death” in September 2011, the subsequent outrage forced him to quit a week later.

Instead, the area was divided into three zones with awkward euphemisms to suggest just the opposite: Communities with annual radiation measuring 20 millisieverts or less (the typical worldwide limit for workers in nuclear plants) are “being prepared for lifting of evacuation order,” districts of 20-50 millisieverts per year are “no-residence zones” and the most heavily contaminated areas of 50 millisieverts or more per year, such as Nagadoro, are “difficult-to-return.”

In September 2015, Naraha, which is located 15 kilometers south of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, became the first town in the prefecture to completely lift the evacuation order imposed after the triple meltdown. Naraha has a publicly built shopping street, a new factory making lithium batteries, a kindergarten and a secondary school.

A team of decontamination workers has been sent to every house — in some cases several times. Of the pre-disaster 7,400 residents, about 1,500 mainly elderly people have returned, the local government says, although that figure is likely inflated.

In Iitate, the cost of decontamination works out at about ¥200 million per household. That, and the passage of time, has dramatically reduced radiation in many areas to below 20 millisieverts a year. However, Kanno says, the cleanup extends to only 20 meters around each house, and three-quarters of the village is forested mountains. In windy weather, radioactive elements are blown back onto the fields and homes.

“All that money, and for what?” asks Nobuyoshi Itoh, a farmer and critic of the mayor. “Would you bring children here and let them roam in the fields and forests?”

Itoh opted to stay in one of the more heavily toxic parts of the village after everyone fled, with little apparent ill effect, although he says his immune system has weakened.

One of the reasons why Iitate was such a pleasant place to live before the nuclear crisis, he recalls, was its unofficial barter system. “Most people here never bought vegetables; they grew them,” he says. “I would bring someone potatoes and they would give me eggs. That’s gone now.”

At most, he says, a few hundred people are back — but they’re invariably older or retired.

“They alone will not sustain the village,” Itoh says. “Who will drive them around or look after them when they are sick?”

As the depth of the disaster facing Iitate became clear, local people began to squabble among themselves. Some were barely scraping a living and wanted to leave, although saying so out loud — abandoning the furusato — was often difficult. Many joined lawsuits against the government.

Even before disaster struck, the village had lost a third of its population since 1970 as its young folk relocated to the cities, mirroring the hollowing-out of rural areas across the country. Some wanted to shift the entire village elsewhere, but Kanno wouldn’t hear of it.

Compensation could be a considerable incentive. In addition to ¥100,000 a month to cover the “mental anguish” of being torn from their old lives, there was extra money for people with houses or farms. A five-year lump sum was worth ¥6 million per person — twice that for Nagadoro. One researcher estimates a rough figure of ¥50 million for the average household, sufficient to leave behind the uncertainties and worries of Iitate and buy a house a few dozen miles away, close enough to return for work or to the village’s cool, tranquil summers.

Many have already done so. Though nobody knows the true figure, the local talk is that perhaps half of the villagers have permanently left. Surveys suggest fewer than 30 percent want to return, and even less in the case of Nagadoro.

Yoshitomo Shigihara, head of the Nagadoro hamlet, says many families made their decision some time ago. His grandchildren, he says, should not have to live in such a place.

“It’s our job to protect them,” Shigihara says. He lives in the city of Fukushima but returns roughly every 10 days to inspect his house and weed the land.

Even with so much money spent, Shigihara doubts whether it will bring many of his friends or relatives back. At 70 years of age, he is not sure that he even wants to return, he says.

“I sometimes get upset thinking about it, but I can’t talk with anyone in Fukushima, even my family, because we often end up quarreling,” he says. “People try to feel out whether the others are receiving benefits, what they are getting or how much they received in compensation. It’s very stressful to talk to anyone in Iitate. I’m starting to hate myself because I end up treating others badly out of frustration.”

Kanno has won six elections since 1996 and has overseen every step of Iitate’s painful rehabilitation, navigating between the anger and despair of his constituents and the official response to the disaster from the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (Tepco), operator of the crippled nuclear plant.

He wants more money to complete decontamination work (the government claims it is finished), repair roads and infrastructure. Returnees need financial support, he says. However, it is time, he believes, to end the monthly compensation, which, in his view, induces dependency.

“If people keep saying that life is hard, they will not be able to recover,” he says. “What we need is support for livelihoods.”

A new system gives seed money to people who voluntarily come back to start businesses or farms.

“We don’t want to give the impression that we are influencing people’s decisions or forcing them to return,” the mayor says, using the phrase “kokoro ni fumikomu,” which literally means “to step into hearts.”

Yet, next year, thousands of Iitate evacuees will face a choice: Go back or lose the money that has helped sustain them elsewhere for six years. Evacuation from areas exposed to less than 20 millisieverts per year will be regarded as “voluntary” under the official compensation scheme.

This dilemma was expressed with unusual starkness last month by Masahiro Imamura, the now sacked minister in charge of reconstructing Tohoku. Pressed by a freelance reporter, Imamura tetchily said it was up to the evacuees themselves — their “own responsibility, their own choice” — whether or not to return.

The comment touched a nerve. The government is forcing people to go back, some argued, employing a form of economic blackmail, or worse, kimin seisaku — abandoning them to their fate.

Itoh is angry at the resettlement. For him, politics drives the haste to put the disaster behind.

“It’s inhuman to make people go back to this,” he says. Like the physical damage of radiation, he says, the psychological damage is also invisible: “A lot of people are suffering in silence.”

Itoh believes the government wants to show that the problems of nuclear power can be overcome so it can switch the nation’s idling nuclear reactors back on. Just four are in operation while the fate of 42 others remains in political and legal limbo. Public opinion remains opposed to their restart.

Many people began with high hopes in Iitate but have gradually grown distrustful of the village government, says Kenichi Hasegawa, a farmer who wrote a book titled “Genpatsu ni Furusato o Ubawarete” (“Fukushima’s Stolen Lives”) in 2012. Right from the start, he says, the mayor desperately tried to hide the shocking radiation outside his office.

“Villagers have started losing interest,” Hasegawa says.

Meetings called by the mayor are poorly attended.

“But they hold meetings anyway,” Hasegawa says, “just to say they did.”

Kanno rejects talk of defeatism. A tourist shop is expected to open in August that will attract people to the area, he says. Some villagers are paving entrances to their houses, using money from the reconstruction budget. As for radiation, everyone “has their own idea” about its effects. The lifting of the evacuation is only the start.

Itoh says he once trusted public officials but those days are long gone. By trying to save the village, he says, the mayor may in fact be killing it. ”

by David McNeill and Chie Matsumoto, The Japan Times

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Inside Fukushima’s Potemkin Village: Naraha — David McNeill, Androniki Christodoulou, The Asia-Pacific Journal

” Twice a year, journalists are taken on guided tours of the ruined Daiichi nuclear plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO). The drive there from the southern outskirts of the 20-kilometer exclusion zone imposed in 2011 took them through the nearly empty towns of Hirono, Naraha, Tomioka, Okuma and Futaba. The state of neglect could be measured by the encroachment of weeds and wild animals, and the slow decrepitude of housing and infrastructure.

Despite the decline and the still urgent beeping of Geiger counters nearer the plant, there has never been any official talk of abandoning the area. Instead, it was divided up into three zones with awkward euphemisms to suggest just the opposite: communities with radiation of 20 millisieverts (mSv) or less (the typical worldwide limit for workers in nuclear plants) are “being prepared for lifting of evacuation order;” 20-50 mSv are “no-residence zones;” the most heavily contaminated (50mSv) are “difficult-to-return.”

A vast public-works project was started three years ago to decontaminate an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island, at an estimated cost of $50 billion. Compensation by TEPCO was explicitly linked to the possibility that many of the 160,000 nuclear refugees would return, and any hint otherwise was controversial: When new trade and industry minister Hachiro Yoshio called the abandoned communities “towns of death” in September 2011, he was forced to quit a week later.

In September 2015, Naraha, 15km south of the plant, became the first town in Fukushima Prefecture to completely lift the evacuation order imposed after the Daiichi plant’s triple meltdown. At a ceremony to mark the town’s reopening, Mayor Matsumoto Yukiei declared the nightmare that had descended nearly five years ago officially over. “The clock that stopped has now begun to tick”, he said. Explaining the decision, Takagi Yosuke, state minister of economy, trade and industry, said contamination was “not dangerous enough to continue forcing evacuation on residents who want to return home.”

That explanation somewhat inverts reality. A Reconstruction Agency survey conducted last year of evacuees from Okuma, Tomioka, Futaba and the town of Namie, northwest of the plant, found that just one-fifth wanted to go back to their homes. Thousands of refugees have reluctantly made lives elsewhere and fear that their nuclear compensation, amounting to a monthly stipend of 100,000 yen ($837), will be terminated if they refuse to go back to areas declared safe. Many feel they’re being pushed back, not invited.

Naraha is almost entirely state-funded. It has a publicly built shopping centre, a new kindergarten and a secondary school under construction. A new factory on the outskirts of town will design and test robots for use in decommissioning the ruined plant. A team of decontamination workers has been sent to every house – in some cases several times. Free dosimeters are distributed to residents who return, so they can measure airbone radiation. Water at the local water filtration plant is tested hourly, says Igari Yusuke, a local government spokesman. “We probably have the safest tap water in Japan,” he says.

All that’s missing are people: fewer than 200 of the town’s 7,400 residents have returned, admits Igari. Locals say the real number is much smaller. “Some came and left again,” says Yamauchi Kazuo, who is visiting relatives nearby. “There’s nothing here for them.” The town is bustling with men in uniform, mostly construction workers or local government officials who will eventually move on. The returnees include a single young local family, says Igari, but he declines to introduce them, citing privacy issues. Instead, we find the farmhouse of Yamauchi Kohei (79) and Tomoko (75), who say they have come back for good.

Like thousands of other evacuees, the elderly couple fled on the freezing night of March 11, 2011. In the subsequent months, they changed address six times, living for a while with their daughter in Nagano Prefecture , southwest of Tokyo before eventually – like many local people – ending up in temporary housing in Iwaki City about 30km south of Naraha. It was a difficult experience, they recall: apart from the disruption, the walls of their temporary-housing unit were paper thin and they could hear everything said and done by the noisy family next door.

They returned to their home periodically on government-sanctioned visits, wearing masks, gloves and Hazmat suits, eyeing in despair the impact of the elements on their beloved house. Last year, they were allowed to return during the daylight hours to work on making it livable again. Months of backbreaking work and decontamination later, the weeds are gone and the radiation is down to livable levels – about 0.1 mSv per hour, they say.

The Yamauchi home has been in the family for seven generations. In the room off the genkan or foyer, portraits of Kohei’s ancestors decorate the walls. “I couldn’t just abandon it”, he says. In any case, he adds, he and his wife are too old to care about cancer. Life is not the same as before, of course, but perhaps, little by little it will return to normal, he says. “If we return, perhaps the children will see that everything is alright and they will follow us.”

A few miles up the road, closer to the Daiichi plant, communities are still considered uninhabitable. Local police officers wear dosimeters pinned to their chests in case they stray into danger zones.

Hundreds of fields around the prefecture host stacked rows of black 100-kg bags of contaminated earth, stripped from the ground; Naraha alone generated 58,000 such bags, says Igari. Many locals are skeptical that the earth will ever be removed. Though the radiation levels are technically low, mothers are determined to keep their children away, says Kanai Naoko, an evacuee.

The goal of all this work is normalisation. Naraha is a showcase for post-Fukushima Japan, says Igari. “If people won’t return to live here, they won’t return anywhere. We feel a heavy sense of responsibility”. Nobody wants Fukushima mentioned in the same breath as Chernobyl: almost three decades after the world’s worst nuclear accident, life there is still frozen in time, a snapshot of the mid-1980s Soviet Union, complete with posters of Vladimir Lenin on school walls. “The key objective is to communicate to the public that Japan can overcome a nuclear accident,” says Jan Vande Putte, a radiation specialist for the environmental watchdog Greenpeace International. “It’s not economical; it would be a lot cheaper to give people enough money to leave and buy new houses. The goal is political.”

So far, most former residents are not buying it. One element of doubt is radiation. The best result of decontamination is a 50-percent reduction in contamination levels, “sometimes less,” says Vande Putte. The other issue is linked to infrastructure, particularly hospitals, doctors and shops. Within a year, Naraha will have a new government-funded clinic, the new school will have opened; radiation in most places will have fallen to near-normal levels. But will families return? Igari smiles uncomfortably. “We like to think they will,” he says. “Perhaps it will take five or ten years. We hope it will happen sooner but it’s difficult to tell.” There’s no question of forcing people back by cutting off their compensation, he insists. But without an extension, the trickle of money is due to end in 2018.

Following the 2011 triple disaster, Japan closed all 53 of its nuclear reactors. A month before Naraha reopened, it fired up a reactor in Kyushu – the first under tougher safety rules introduced after Fukushima. Operators of another two-dozen reactors have applied to restart — the government’s latest energy plan assumes they will eventually provide more than 20 per cent of the nation’s energy mix. But the restarts are unpopular and virtually every one is the focus of a potentially long-drawn out legal dispute over safety. A survey by Reuters, published after the Kyushu restart said that of the other 42 operable reactors in Japan, “just seven are likely to be turned on in the next few years.” Nine reactors are likely to stay off for good and the future of the rest is “uncertain.”

Many of the roughly 120,000 remaining nuclear evacuees, meanwhile, have built new lives elsewhere and are reluctant to return to communities that have fallen into ruin. Worries over radiation complicate an already difficult decision, particularly for those with young children. Though scientists have repeatedly said the decontaminated areas are safe, many distrust those reassurances, says Kanai. Such worries are highlighted by a hotly contested report claiming that rates of thyroid cancer in Fukushima since March 2011 are 20 to 50 times the national level.

Small signs of life give the returnees hope: newspaper deliveries recently restarted and the post office will reopen shortly. Trains are arriving at the local station again – a digital readout displays the radiation level over the ticket counter.

Do locals bear a grudge about what happened? No, says Watanabe Seijun, who manages a local restaurant. When he was a boy, he recalls, his father worked in the summer but had to travel all the way to Tokyo for seasonal work in the winter. The power plant came along in the 1970s and provided a living for many local people. “There’s no point in blaming anyone for what happened, he says.” Yamauchi Kohei agrees. “We just have to look ahead and try to improve our lot. What else can we do.” ”

by David McNeill and Androniki Christodoulou

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