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Up to 20µSv/h at Namie Junior High School, Fukushima

Namie Junior High School, Namie, Futaba, Fukushima prefecture.
Measures taken on February 5, 2017, on March 31, 2017 the japanese government will lift the evacuation order in Namie, for its inhabitants to return….

At 1m above the ground : 3.5μSv/h


At 50cm above the ground : 6μSv/h


At 5cm above the ground 20μSv/h


Measurement location

February 8, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , , | 3 Comments

Only 13% of evacuees in 5 Fukushima municipalities have returned home as of Jan.



FUKUSHIMA (Kyodo) — Only 13 percent of the evacuees from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in five municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture have returned home after evacuation orders were lifted, local authorities said Saturday.

Some residents who used to live in the cities of Tamura and Minamisoma, villages of Kawauchi and Katsurao, and the town of Naraha may be reluctant to return to their homes due to fear of exposing children to radiation, the authorities said.

The evacuation orders to residents in those municipalities were lifted partly or entirely from April 2014 through July 2016. As of January, about 2,500 people out of a combined population of around 19,460 registered as residents of those areas were living there.

Evacuation orders for four more towns and villages in Fukushima Prefecture are scheduled to be lifted this spring, but it is uncertain how many residents will return to those areas as well.

In the prefecture, eight municipalities are still subject to evacuation orders around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant due to high radiation levels. Three nuclear reactors at the plant melted down and the structures housing them were severely damaged by hydrogen gas explosions days after a massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami on March 11, 2011 knocked out electric power needed to run critical reactor cooling equipment.


Fukushima prefecture

January 29, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , | Leave a comment

Evacuees Trapped by the Return Policy

The policy to return the population to the still contaminated areas is in progress in spite of the evacuees’ protests.

In three months, at the end of March 2017, the evacuation order will be lifted except for the “difficult-to-return” zones. In parallel, the housing aid for the so-called “auto-evacuees” from the areas situated outside of the evacuation zones will come to an end. The “psychological damage compensation” for the forced-evacuees will finish at the end of March 2018.

In this context, the local governments’ employees are going around the temporary housing, offered freely to “auto-evacuees” (1), in door-to-door visits to apply pressure to expel the inhabitants. It is difficult to see in this act anything other than harassment and persecution.

In November, Taro YAMAMOTO, Member of Parliament in Japan, posed a series of questions at the Special Commission for Reconstruction. We shall cite some extracts. (See Fukushima 311 Watchdogs for the full translation).

Here are some testimonies.

I am afraid of the investigators of the Tokyo Metropolitan Prefecture visiting door to door. I hide under the cover for fear of hearing the ringing at the door. When I opened the door, the investigator stuck his foot into the door so that I could not close it. With a loud voice so that all the neighbors could hear, he shouted at me “you know very well that you can only live here until March”. I know, but I cannot move. “

The next person. “The Tokyo Metropolitan Prefecture demands that we move out in a fierce and haughty manner. We had to leave our home because of the accident at the nuclear power plant. I do not understand why they are expelling us again.”

Constant phone calls, visits without notice, and they shout at me asking what my intention is. They send documents to file, and leave passing notices in the mailbox. I am completely exhausted, physically and psychologically. “
The same kind of persecution is deployed inside Fukushima prefecture.




You can see the photo of the notice taped on the apartment door of Mr. Yôichi OZAWA in the social housing for job seekers in mobility, used as temporary housing offered free of charge to nuclear accident victims, situated in Hara-machi district of Minamisoma town.

Mr. OWAZA left his home at 22km from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant where the radioactivity was too high. In spite of the contamination, his home was not included in the evacuation zone, which stopped 20km from the NPP. Thus, he is considered as “auto-evacuee”, jishu-hinansha, and as such subject to the same harassment as the “auto-evacuees” in the Metropolitan regions of Tokyo or in West Japan.

Because of this zoning based on the geographic distance from the crippled NPP that divides Minamisoma town, the evacuees of Hara-machi district are subject to expulsion persecution, whereas those of Odaka district are exempt from such acts.

The door picture was posted in the Facebook of Mr. Tatsushi OKAMOTO on December 24th 2016 with the text below.

On the notice we can read:
Please contact us, for we have things to communicate to you.
December 13th 2016
Kuroki Housing Management Office
Cellphone #: XXXX
Manager: XXXX

Here is the paper taped on the door of a house for evacuees.
It is shocking, this way of taping the notice.
They treat us like a non-paying renter or as if we are not paying our taxes!
No consideration of the dignity of the person.
It is like the Yakuza’s way of collecting money!
Currently in Fukushima, the victims are facing a double or triple suffering.
Who is to be blamed? What have we done to deserve this, we, the victims?


(1) Minashi kasetsu jyûtaku. Rental housing managed by private or public agencies offered to evacuees of which the rent is taken in charge by the central or local government.


Reference links
山本太郎公式ホームページの質問書き起こし Texte of questions of Taro Yamamoto in his official HP (in Japanese)

English translation of Taro Yamamoto’s questions

Contamination map used by Taro Yamamoto (in English)

Read also:
Harassment of Evacuees by Prefectural Housing Authorities to evict them for March 2017

Source :

December 28, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , , | Leave a comment

Harassment of Evacuees by Prefectural Housing Authorities to evict them for March 2017


All the people evacuated in 2011 and who benefited of a housing compensation, are now suffering harassment from the various prefectures’ housing authorities, pressuring them to get out of those appartments before coming March 2017

This picture show the notice taped to the entrance door of an evacuee’s appartment, marking and stigmatizing the evacuee’s family to all the neigbors. Those evacuees are victims. Why treat in such manner people who are victims, already suffering plenty enough hardships and losses? What the hell is wrong with you? What are the sins of the victims?

The Japanese government, for the first time, is using state funds for decontamination work in areas affected by the 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima Prefecture.
The environment ministry earmarked roughly 30 billion yen, or about 250 million dollars, in the fiscal 2017 budget plan, which was approved by the Cabinet on Thursday.
The allocation will be for cleaning up no-entry areas where radiation levels remain prohibitively high.
The government had so far made the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, pay for the cleanup, based on the principle that the entity responsible for the contamination should bear the cost.

If the Japanese Authorities can provide funds to help Tepco, the entity responsible for the contamination, why can they provide funds to help the victims, whose rights and needs should prevailed over those of the responsible corporation responsible for that nuclear disaster? Why the Japanese central government can coordinate with those various prefectures housing authorities for those evacuees to continue to live in a free-radiation environmnent?

The Japanese government decided to stop the evacuees housing compensation on March 2017  so as to force the evacuees’ return to live with radiation in the ghost towns now declared “safe” by the Japanese government. In preparation of the coming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, all must be back to normal, and is now declared “safe and clean”. Economics prevailing over scientific realities and people lives.

Japanese culture is looked upon as being a very refined, sophisticated, advanced culture. Is there no place for compassion in Japanese culture? Those victims are suffering from double-triple suffering already. Do you have to turn it into persecution?

Is not the right to live in a radiation-free environment a basic human right? To force them by all kinds of gimmicks to return to live in a contaminated territory, is then a violation of their basic human rights, their right to preserve their own health!

December 25, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , | Leave a comment

Protest at Japanese Embassy in Paris Against Fukushima Evacuees Forced Return and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics


Today October 22, 2016, in Paris, the French Green Ecology Party (EELV), Green Peace France and Réseau Sortir du Nucléaire, joined together to organize a Fukushima protest in front of the Japanese Embassy.

They denounced the Fukushima evacuees forced return by the Japanese government, and insisted that no one should be compelled to live in irradiated town with high level of radiation. That it is plainly criminal on the part of the Japanese Government.

Since Eastern Japan and Tokyo included, have been contaminated by the now five years and a half ongoing nuclear catastrophe at Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, a catastrophe yet neither under control nor resolved,  the 2020 Olympics should be relocated somewhere else.

Some officials of the French Green Ecology Party (EELV) and personalities of Green Peace France and Réseau Sortir du Nucléaire attended the protest.  Among those were also present Yannick Jadot and Michele Rivasi, both Europe Ecology deputies at the European Parliament, one of the two to be the French Ecology Party presidential candidate at the coming French presidential election in 2017. Were also present members of the Japanese community.




Michele Rivasi and Yannick Jadot






October 22, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , , , | Leave a comment

Residents Who Fled Fukushima Meltdown Fear Return to Ghost Town

Japan seeks to lure evacuees back to town near nuclear plant

Abe looks to win support for restarting mothballed reactors

Weed-engulfed buildings and shuttered businesses paint an eerie picture of a coastal Japanese town abandoned after a monstrous earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns in the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Namie, one of the communities hardest hit by the 2011 disaster, had 21,000 residents before they fled radiation spewing from the reactors eight kilometers (five miles) away. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now looking to repopulate the town as early as next year, a symbolic step toward recovery that might also help soften opposition to his government’s plan to restart Japan’s mostly mothballed nuclear industry.

The national and local governments are trying to send us back,” said Yasuo Fujita, 64, a sushi chef who lives alongside hundreds of other Fukushima evacuees in a modern high rise in Tokyo more than 200 kilometers away. “We do want to return — we were born and raised there. But can we make a living? Can we live next to the radioactive waste?”

The main street in Namie, Fukushima.jpg

The main street in Namie, Fukushima

So far few evacuees are making plans to go back even as clean-up costs top $30 billion and Abe’s government restores infrastructure. That reluctance mirrors a national skepticism toward nuclear power that threatens to erode the prime minister’s positive approval ratings, particularly in areas with atomic reactors.

Mothballed Reactors

Officials in his government are calling for nuclear power to account for as much as 22 percent of Japan’s electricity supply by 2030, nearly the same percentage as before the Fukushima meltdown, in part to help meet climate goals. Only two of the nation’s 42 operable nuclear plants are currently running, leaving the country even more heavily reliant on imports of oil and gas.

A poll published by the Asahi newspaper this week found 57 percent of respondents were opposed to restarting nuclear reactors, compared with 29 percent in favor. One of Abe’s ministers lost his seat in Fukushima in an upper house election in July, and the government suffered another setback when an anti-nuclear candidate won Sunday’s election for governor of Niigata prefecture, home to the world’s largest nuclear plant.

Some 726 square kilometers — roughly the size of New York City — of Fukushima prefecture remain under evacuation orders, divided by level of radioactivity. While the government is looking to reopen part of Namie next year, most of the town is designated as “difficult to return to” and won’t be ready for people to move back until at least 2022.

“We must make the area attractive, so that people want to return there,” Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura said this week. “I want to do everything I can to make it easy to go back.”



Workers are cleaning by scraping up soil, moss and leaves from contaminated surfaces and sealing them in containers. Still, the operation has skipped most of the prefecture’s hilly areas, leading to fears that rain will simply wash more contamination down into residential zones. Decommissioning of the stricken plant itself is set to take as many as 40 years.

The bill for cleaning up the environment is ballooning, with the government estimating the cost through March 2018 at $3.3 trillion yen ($32 billion). That’s weighing on Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc., which is already struggling to avoid default over decommissioning costs.

They are spending money in the name of returning things to how they were” without having had a proper debate on whether this is actually possible, said Yutaka Okada, senior researcher at Mizuho Research Institute in Tokyo. “Was it really right to spend this enormous amount of money?”

Namie officials, operating from temporary premises 100 kilometers away in the city of Nihonmatsu, are plowing ahead with preparations. A middle school in the town is scheduled for remodeling to add facilities for elementary pupils — even though they expect only about 20 children to attend. Similar efforts in nearby communities have had limited success.

Only 18 percent of former Namie residents surveyed by the government last year said they wanted to return, compared with 48 percent who did not. The remainder were undecided.

Staying Put

Fujita, the sushi chef, has joined the ranks of those starting afresh elsewhere. He opened a seafood restaurant near his temporary home last year, and is buying an apartment in the area. In a sign the move will be permanent, he even plans to squeeze the Buddhist altar commemorating his Fukushima ancestors into his Tokyo home.

Haruka Hoshi.jpg

For those that do return, finding work will be a headache in a town that was heavily dependent on the plant for jobs and money.

Haruka Hoshi, 27, was working inside the nuclear facility when the earthquake struck, and she fled with just her handbag. Months later she married another former employee at the plant, and they built a house down the coast in the city of Iwaki, where they live with their three-year-old son. They have no plans to return.

“It would be difficult to recreate the life we had before,” she said. “The government wants to show it’s achieved something, to say: ‘Fukushima’s all right, there was a terrible incident, but people are able to return after five years.’ That goal doesn’t correspond with the reality.”


October 21, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , | Leave a comment

Long-term stays start in Tomioka



Shizuo Suzuki stands in front of his shop in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, on Wednesday, with the empty shopping street visible in the background.

TOMIOKA, Fukushima — Long-term stays (see below) for residents of Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, started on Saturday. Evacuation orders for the town limits issued after the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant still stand.

The success of the project will hinge on how many residents the town can get back, with a view to having the evacuation orders lifted in April next year.

Shizuo Suzuki, 63, who resumed business 2½ years ago on a shopping street in the town’s Chuo district, which is part of a zone people are allowed to enter during the daytime, is hoping for some of the bustle of the town to return.

Suzuki’s hardware shop is on Chuo shopping street, which is on the west side of the JR Joban Line’s Tomioka Station. Suzuki took over the shop, which was established in 1952, after his father died in 1998. Before the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the shop mainly dealt with materials such as cement, gravel and reinforced steel, supplying local building companies.

Although the earthquake didn’t do much damage to the shop, the nuclear plant accident which followed forced Suzuki and his 58-year-old wife to move out. After they drifted around various places in Fukushima Prefecture, including a gymnasium in Kawauchi, a neighboring village to the west of Tomioka, and a home of their relatives in Aizuwakamatsu, they finally settled in Iwaki.

Entering Tomioka became easier when the government eased regulations in 2013. The area around Suzuki’s shop was designated a residence restriction zone, making it possible for him to resume business there.

Suzuki, who was then working part-time at a construction company in Iwaki, decided to go back to his shop in January 2014. Although he did not know how many customers would come, he was looking forward to working in his hometown again.

I wanted to stay positive and uphold my sense of purpose in life,” he said. Commuting from Iwaki, he cleaned up the shop and resumed business in March 2014, after decontamination of the area was complete.

Suzuki still commutes to Tomioka from Iwaki, which takes about an hour each way by car. The shop is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Five or six workers involved in decontamination work or building demolition in the neighborhood visit the shop daily and purchase items such as shovels, crowbars and ropes. As Suzuki’s shop is the only one to have resumed business in the area, the bustle of the shopping street has not yet returned.

According to the municipal government, shops that have reopened other than Suzuki’s are limited to convenience stores and gas stations. The town plans to open a commercial facility, publicly funded and privately operated, that includes a home-improvement center and restaurants at the end of November, for long-term-stay residents and in preparation for the lifting of evacuation orders.

Streets will come back to life as people start returning for long stays. I hope other shops will resume business too,” Suzuki said. He had his home next to the shop demolished as it had decayed while he was away. He intends to rebuild his house and live in the town when other residents start to return.

Long-term stay

In anticipation of the lifting of evacuation orders, registered residents are allowed to stay in their houses to find out what problems they may face when they return to the town. The number of registered residents in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, as of July 12 was 9,679 from 3,860 households. According to the central government, 119 residents from 56 households have applied for long-term stays as of Thursday.

September 18, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , | Leave a comment

Only 28% of Fukushima children returning to former schools


Only 28 percent of children are returning to their public elementary and junior high schools in five towns and villages in Fukushima Prefecture following the lifting of evacuation orders imposed after the 2011 nuclear disaster, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned. The majority of schoolboys and girls are opting to stay out of their hometowns due to anxiety over radiation exposure and resettlement at evacuation sites.

The trend raises concerns that the number of young people in these towns and villages will dwindle and the survival of the municipalities is at stake.

The five municipalities are the towns of Hirono and Naraha and the villages of Iitate, Kawauchi and Katsurao. They set up temporary elementary and junior high schools at evacuation sites after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster triggered the multiple core meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Hirono and Kawauchi reopened their public schools in 2012 and Naraha and Katsurao will follow suit in April 2017. Iitate plans to reopen its schools in April 2018, one year after the evacuation order is lifted.

Once these public schools have reopened, the temporary schools at evacuation sites are shut down, prompting children from the five affected municipalities to choose one of three options — return to their hometowns, commute to their former schools by school bus or other means, or attend schools at evacuation sites.

According to the Mainichi study, 55 percent of 259 pupils and students from Hirono and Kawauchi have returned to their former elementary and junior high schools because the evacuation orders were relatively short. But only 139 students or 15 percent of students from Naraha, Katsurao and Iitate responded to a survey in 2015-2016 that they would return to their original schools. Only three students, or 4 percent, of 74 students from Katsurao said they would return to their hometown schools.

As for students from Naraha, 17 percent of students replied that they would attend their hometown schools but half of them hoped to commute to their hometown schools from outside the town. If young evacuees in Iwaki, a major evacuation destination, try to commute by train and bus, a one-way trip takes one hour. An official of the Naraha board of education expressed concerns that these students are really serious about commuting to their hometowns. A Kawauchi village official says that the returns of child-rearing generations are the village’s lifeline. These municipalities operate school buses to encourage the evacuees to return to their hometowns as a stopgap measure rather than as a permanent solution.

Yusuke Yamashita, an associate professor of urban and rural sociology at Tokyo Metropolitan University, says, ”There are some parents who send their children to temporary schools before eventually returning to their hometowns. If these municipalities reopen their schools hastily, some families may abandon plans to return home (out of safety fears). It is important for the communities to offer as many options as possible by keeping temporary schools.”

September 11, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , , | Leave a comment

10% return to Fukushima town since evacuation order lifted in ’15

naraha 5 sept 2016 return evacuees.jpg

Returnees, mainly older people, attend an event marking the first anniversary of the lifting of the evacuation order in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, on Sept. 4.

NARAHA, Fukushima Prefecture–Only 10 percent of Naraha residents have returned home near the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in the year since the evacuation order was lifted, a rate that could threaten the town’s survival.

More than half of the returnees are senior citizens, and a vast majority of town’s children do not plan to attend school in Naraha next year.

The town set of a goal of having 50 percent of evacuees return home by next spring.

But lingering fears of radiation contamination are keeping many residents away, despite repeated tests effectively showing no danger to health in the town.

Work is still under way at the plant to prepare for decommissioning, and we are concerned about radiation exposure,” said a 67-year-old man who plans to move back to Naraha with his wife. “We cannot encourage our grandchildren to return.”

Naraha’s population was about 7,300 before the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.

As of Sept. 2, the number of returnees to the town was 681.

Naraha, most of which lies within a 20-kilometer radius of the plant, was the first of seven municipalities to have its nearly full evacuation order lifted.

The evacuation order for Naraha was lifted on Sept. 5, 2015.

The central and prefectural governments are closely watching how things play out in the town to carry out rebuilding efforts in other affected communities.

The Reconstruction Agency’s survey released in March found that more than 50 percent of Naraha evacuees are looking forward to their eventual return home.

We expect the town’s population to go up in steps,” said an official with the town’s chamber of commerce and industry.

But the official acknowledged that business activities will not be sustainable with only a 10-percent returning rate.

A senior town government official said, “If evacuees stay away, we would have to think about a merger (with other local governments).”

Those aged 65 or older account for 53 percent of Naraha’s current population, double the rate in 2010.

A total of about 680 students attended the two elementary schools and one junior high school in the town before the disaster.

Although the three schools are expected to re-open next April, a recent town government survey showed that only about 80 of the eligible 450 children plan to attend school in Naraha.

The average radiation dose in front of the Naraha town hall in July was 0.1 microsievert per hour, almost the same as the average dose near JR Fukushima Station in the prefectural capital, which is far from the crippled plant and was never issued an evacuation order.

The Naraha dose is also lower than 0.23 microsievert per hour, the long-term goal for additional radiation exposure, which excludes background radiation.

Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto said he hopes construction of housing and commercial facilities will pave the way for evacuees to move back to their hometown.

With our expectations, we somewhat inflated the repatriation goal,” Matsumoto said. “As housing, commercial and other facilities are put in place, the number of returnees will rise.”

The town is working on a project to build a “compact town,” where shops and housing units, as well as a prefectural government-supported clinic, are located within easy access from each other.

Costs for the project are covered by grants from the central and prefectural governments.

The commercial facility is scheduled to open in spring 2018.

September 6, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , | Leave a comment

Only 10% of population returns to Fukushima town

naraha 4 sept 2016


Monday marks one year since the lifting of an evacuation order for Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, that was imposed following the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

However, less than 10 percent of the town’s registered population has returned.

The number of new housing built in the town this year reached 296 in June, 4½ times more than last year’s total. However, among Naraha’s registered population of 7,300, only 681 people had returned to live there as of Friday, according to the municipality.

Residents who have resumed farming, the town’s key industry, are also limited in number.

According to the Naraha government, about a quarter of the households were involved in farming before the accident. However, planting has resumed in only about 20 hectares of rice paddies this year, about 5 percent of the town’s farming area before the accident.

Shuko Watanabe, a 55-year-old cattle breeder in the town, restarted work in July, becoming the first farmer to start breeding for beef among the about 40 farmers who used to be in Naraha.

He breeds five Japanese black cattle while continuing to mainly live in Iwaki, also in the prefecture. Although he only has half the cattle he did before the accident, Watanabe thinks resuming work will encourage others to return to the town.

According to a Reconstruction Agency survey, about 8.4 percent of the 2,000 households that responded said they intend to return early. About 34.7 percent said they will return when certain conditions are met.

Combined with the 7.6 percent of the town’s population that has already returned, about half of the households intend to return.

September 5, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , | Leave a comment

Home at last, but little joy as evacuee picks up pieces of her life

3 km’s up the coast. 1.8 miles to Minami-Soma from fuk. …. “The Japanese government steered displaced people toward their return by repeating that an annual exposure of up to 20 millisieverts poses little health risk,”


Tomoko Kobayashi, right, prepares with a volunteer worker for the reopening of her Futabaya ryokan in the Odaka district of Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on July 11.

MINAMI-SOMA, Fukushima Prefecture–It was no ordinary homecoming for Tomoko Kobayashi, after an enforced absence of more than five years due to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

She says she is “in no mood for celebration” given the daunting task facing her: having to start from scratch at the traditional ryokan inn that has been in the family for nearly 70 years.

The community that Kobayashi had called home was overrun with rats, wild boar and palm civets, and she struggled to protect the family business from that nightmare.

Kobayashi’s journey home to start afresh took her via Ukraine, which she visited in 2013 to learn how victims of the world’s worst nuclear accident–the Chernobyl disaster in 1986–were coping after all those years.

Kobayashi, 63, was shocked by the different approach authorities there had taken compared with that of Japan.

She said Ukraine takes a more cautious approach toward radiation risks.

Kobayashi returned to Minami-Soma’s Odaka district on July 12 after the central government lifted a ban for 11,000 or so evacuees from the district, which is within a 20-kilometer radius of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Her initial concern is living with low-level radiation.

She also worries for her future and whether she can get the business up and running. With her husband, Takenori, 67, Kobayashi has reopened Futabaya ryokan. The inn that she took over from her mother 10 years ago has 15 guest rooms and is located in front of JR Odaka Station, which is 16 km from the plant.

Another of her concerns centers on whether her return home to reopen the inn could play into the hands of the authorities.

The central government is eager to wind up the program that compensates the victims,” she said, alluding to a sense that evacuees are being encouraged to return so that financial redress can end.

On the plus side, the radiation level in her neighborhood has dropped to below 0.2 microsievert per hour. Although it is three times the level before the triple meltdown in March 2011, the figure is significantly lower than in the immediate aftermath.

Since the disaster, Kobayashi has closely monitored the radioactivity of food, drinking water and soil by working with a local citizens group. In one instance, radioactivity registered more than 10,000 becquerels per kilogram when she measured the levels of the dust and dirt sucked up in a vacuum cleaner at her home.

Returning home means she still faces the risk of exposure to long-term, low radiation. How this could affect her health is not understood by scientists.

Odaka was previously designated a “zone in preparation for the lifting of the evacuation order,” where an annual radiation dose is estimated at 20 millisieverts or below.

Extensive decontamination work over the past three years paved the way for the evacuees’ return.

Despite the lifting of the ban, only 10 to 20 percent of the residents from Odaka and other parts of Minami-Soma are expected to go back.

Evacuees are reluctant because of the potential hazard of the long-term, low radiation exposure and the new living and social networks built during the five years they were away.

They are also wary of the risks of moving back in the vicinity of the nuclear complex where the unprecedented scale of work to decommission the damaged reactors is under way amid a host of challenges, including an accumulated buildup of highly radioactive water.

Before the nuclear accident, Kobayashi had a staff of five that washed and starched the linen. It was a hallmark of her ryokan’s hospitality. With only one staffer coming back, however, Kobayashi has to forgo the starched sheets.

At one point, more than 60,000 of the city’s 72,000 residents evacuated, including those who left voluntarily.

After she moved into temporary housing in Minami-Soma in 2012, Kobayashi occasionally visited the inn to clean up. The dark waters of the tsunami, spawned by the magnitude-9.0 tremor on March 11, 2011, almost reached the front door of her ryokan, even though it is situated 3 km from the coast.

Her neighborhood, which was blessed with a wide array of edible wild plants, mushrooms and freshwater fish, was transformed into a “gray ghost town.” The landscape became increasingly bleaker as gardens of homes were occupied by piles of black plastic bales containing radioactive waste from the cleanup operation.

Kobayashi had many sleepless nights. She wondered whether she could ever pick up the threads of the existence she led before the catastrophe.

Her turning point came in September 2013 when she joined a tour to the region in Ukraine devastated by the Chernobyl accident.

I was curious to know how victims of a nuclear accident considered more serious than Fukushima’s are faring nowadays,” Kobayashi said.

Kobayashi also wanted to convey her gratitude to those affected by the Chernobyl explosion in Zhytomyr province for sending 150 dosimeters to Minami-Soma. The devices proved to be invaluable at a time when the city badly needed them.

When her tour group visited Zhytomyr, the residents there shared their experiences and answered questions sincerely.

What struck Kobayashi during the trip was the disparity between Ukraine’s local government and Japanese authorities in their handling of radiation risks and programs made available to help the victims.

In Ukraine, authorities are more hands-on.

No Trespassing” and other warning signs were put up in communities, although their doses of radiation were lower than that in Odaka. Ukraine authorities issued a warning on the basis of radioactive contamination in the ground as it could lead to internal radiation exposure of residents through the spread of radioactive dust.

She also learned that a large number of people in Zhytomyr have developed health problems, not just cancer, but also a wide variety of diseases.

But they are guaranteed by law the right to receive treatment or to take refuge.

That is in sharp contrast with the Japanese government briefings with evacuees, which barely touched on the long-term, low radiation risks.

Kobayashi is outraged by this.

The Japanese government steered displaced people toward their return by repeating that an annual exposure of up to 20 millisieverts poses little health risk,” she said.

Kobayashi said she would have been less suspicious of the intention of Japanese officials if they had candidly admitted that they didn’t know about the possible effects on health.

She is also angered about the way authorities treated evacuees in light of the July 12 lifting of the ban.

Evacuees from Minami-Soma’s Kawabusa district, a mountainous area that fell in the “residence restriction zone,” were also allowed to return. The zone is defined as one registering an estimated annual dose of between 20 to 50 millisieverts.

Although a dose in Kawabusa was confirmed to have dropped to less than 20 millisieverts, the clearance came as a surprise to many locals since it ran counter to the government’s previous policy of designating such an area first a zone in preparation for the lifting.

Kawabusa is home to about 300 people, including many children.

Despite a drop in radiation readings in her community, Kobayashi said she cannot ask her grandchildren, who are 8 and 2, to come visit her and her husband yet.

But she is determined to make an effort for rebuilding.

I don’t know how many more years it will take to bring back the happy sounds of children to our community, but I am determined to do what I can do now,” Kobayashi said.


August 5, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , | Leave a comment

Fukushima banks hope to lure nuclear evacuees back by reopening branches

FUKUSHIMA – Regional banks in Fukushima Prefecture are reopening outlets in radiation-contaminated areas to help lure residents back more than five years after the triple core meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant laid waste to the region in March 2011.

Residents have been slow to return despite the phased lifting of evacuation orders in cleaned-up areas, so regional banks are eager to play a trailblazing role by allowing residents to use their branches as places to socialize.

Abukuma Shinkin Bank, based in Minamisoma, reopened its Odaka branch there in March 2013 and the branch in the town of Namie on July 12.

The evacuation order for the central part of Namie is expected to be lifted by the end of next March, but there are still structures that collapsed from the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake.

We’ll put the light on in the town where people do not live,” said Yoshihiro Ota, president of Abukuma Shinkin, stressing the significance of reopening the Namie branch.

Abukuma Shinkin became the first financial institution to reopen a branch in Namie, which sits next to the town of Futaba, one of the two municipalities that host the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant, which lost all power after being swamped by tsunami spawned by the temblor. The plant is run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc.

We hope our branch, where local people can stop by freely and enjoy chatting, will become a place that can console them,” said Takahiro Abe, chief of the Namie branch.

Being the first to reopen a branch in the town will hopefully allow us to attract people and see rises in deposits and loans,” Abe added.

In April, Toho Bank, based in the city of Fukushima, restarted its branch in Naraha, another town close to the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Although the evacuation order for Naraha was lifted last September, only 8.1 percent of its residents had returned as of July 4.

Financial institutions are indispensable regional infrastructure,” said Hiroshi Yamaka, chief of Toho Bank’s Naraha branch. “Regional banks have a major role to play in helping residents return home.”

But it is not easy to achieve industrial revival in contaminated areas neglected by the long evacuation.

A male business owner who visited Abukuma Shinkin’s Namie branch on the day it reopened said, “The bank told me that they will lend me money, but I can’t decide on new investment because I’m old and there’s no one I can hand over my business to.”

July 27, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , , | Leave a comment

The Ghosts of Fukushima


ABOVE: Radioactive waste from the evacuation zone is stored at massive dump sites. In Naraha, thousands of decontamination workers dug up and disposed of a two-inch layer of soil around every building in town.

Hisao Yanai, a one-armed, chain-smoking, retired yakuza boss, stands alone behind the bar at Ippei, the restaurant he owns in the Japanese town of Naraha. There are no customers today. The streets outside the restaurant are deserted. Five years ago, on March 11, 2011, a powerful earthquake and tsunami triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, located ten miles north of Naraha, forcing the evacuation of roughly 160,000 people. Half of them still cannot go home. Last fall, Naraha became the first town in Fukushima’s mandatory evacuation zone to reopen fully, allowing all 7,400 residents to return. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before. Could a town despoiled by radiation be summoned back to life?

When I visit Naraha in the fall of 2015, not long after it reopens, only 150 residents have returned. (The number has since risen to 500.) Most are elderly. The town seems abandoned, like a seaside resort in the off-season. With no functioning banks, schools, or even a post office, Naraha has reverted to the rural backwater that Yanai escaped 50 years ago as a high school dropout. At 15, he ran off to Tokyo and learned to drive a dump truck during the construction boom leading up to the 1964 Olympics. At 16, he lost his left arm to a conveyor belt at a quarry. Eventually, he returned to Naraha and went to work at Fukushima Daiichi, which was flooding the area with high-paying jobs and government subsidies. Naraha, once known in Japan as “the Tibet of Fukushima,” had suddenly been thrust into the nuclear age.

“The nuclear plant changed the history of this town,” Yanai says. “They told us it was 100 percent safe.”

Naraha still has the outward appearance of a sleepy farming community, with tidy neighborhoods separated by rice paddies, fruit orchards, and two rivers tumbling to the sea from the nearby Abukuma Mountains. Since decontamination began about 18 months after the disaster, thousands of workers equipped with little more than garden tools have cut down trees, power-washed streets, and peeled off a two-inch layer of radioactive soil in a 65-foot perimeter around every structure in town. Vast fields and mountainsides have been left largely untouched, save for large burial mounds of black plastic bags filled with low-level radioactive waste that metastasized across the landscape as the work progressed.

There’s no blueprint for remediating a radioactive town and then moving people back into it. After the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, the Soviet Union simply abandoned scores of towns. But in a country as densely populated as Japan, abandoning an area the size of Connecticut wasn’t an option. In a concerted push to resettle all but the most severely contaminated areas, the government has spent $31 billion on the cleanup effort, and a staggering $58 billion in compensation payments to evacuees.

The government maintains that it is safe for residents to return to Naraha. Radiation levels in the central part of town average less than 1 millisievert per year—the maximum allowable exposure for ordinary citizens under guidelines set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. An annual dose of 1 millisievert would increase a resident’s risk for cancer by .005 percent. For a smoker like Yanai, cigarettes pose a far greater threat than radioactive fallout.


Hisao Yanai, a retired yakuza boss, returned to Naraha without his wife and daughter.

Like many residents, however, Yanai distrusts the government. Surveys indicate that half of all evacuees don’t plan to return home. The cleanup effort is widely viewed as political theater, designed to whitewash Fukushima in time for the 2020 Olympics. Encouraging evacuees to return home now would also put an early stop to some compensation payments, which aren’t set to expire until 2018. The government, in short, has a financial incentive to strong-arm mayors into reopening towns before they’re ready, or even properly decontaminated.

“The central government pressured us to lift the evacuation order,” Yanai says. “Nobody in town wanted it, because nothing is prepared.” His restaurant remains the only place in Naraha where you can get a beer. In the two weeks I spent in town, I saw only two people dining at Ippei. Behind the bar, the hands on the clock are frozen at 2:47, the moment when the earthquake hit. Yanai has vowed not to reset it until life in Naraha returns to normal.

One day, Yanai invites me to his home, to see the results of the government’s decontamination program. His house sits on a hilltop, ringed by a concrete wall. When I arrive, Yanai is sitting at a picnic table, smoking. Thick weeds mark the border of the decontaminated buffer zone around his house. Before it was decontaminated, radiation levels in Yanai’s yard measured 10 microsieverts per hour—nearly 50 times higher than the government’s allowable limit.

“There are still places in town that measure 10 micro-sieverts,” Yanai says. He walks over to the corner of his garage, which houses a dusty Mercedes resting on flat tires, and points to a patch of gravel beneath a downspout. This particular spot, he says, was decontaminated three times, because rain kept washing radioactive particles off the garage roof. Government contractors excavated the hot spot each time, but only after Yanai filed a request through the town office.

“If you don’t ask,” Yanai shrugs, “they won’t do it.”

The government has strict decontamination guidelines, but in the field practices are often improvised. At Yanai’s house, contractors dumped wheelbarrow-loads of contaminated dirt in a corner of his garden.

“Look, I’m a nice guy,” says Yanai, grinning. He crushes a cigarette butt into the gravel with his heel. “I said, ‘Fine, if you want to dump it there, I’m not going to say anything. But if you do the same thing in the neighbor’s yard, they might shoot you.’ ”

Yanai is keen to show me his menagerie. His prized specimen is Boo, a boar named for the sound, in Japanese, that a pig makes. After the Fukushima disaster, wild boars came down from the mountains and roamed the evacuation zone, tearing up gardens and ransacking houses. They can still be seen in Naraha, trotting along the road at night. Boo is the size of a small, snaggle-toothed dog. He snorts and gnaws at Yanai’s shin. “They’re not very friendly to people,” says Yanai, shooing the pig away with his foot. “But I’m determined to make him my pet.”


Of the 500 villagers who have returned to Naraha, most are elderly. It is a town without children.

Although Yanai professes to be retired from the Japanese Mafia, his years as a yakuza boss have left him with wealth, influence, and a fearsome reputation. It was rumored that he’d served time in prison for assault. After the nuclear disaster, he used his mojo to force the big construction companies in charge of the cleanup to hire local firms as subcontractors. “In a way,” he says, “the disaster was a good thing.”

Stepping onto the patio in back of his house, Yanai reaches into a galvanized steel tub full of water and pulls out a goldfish as big as a grapefruit. There is a technique to feeding them, he observes. “Do it too quick and they die.”

It’s obvious that Yanai misses being a yakuza boss. He is still bending creatures to his will, only now it’s a quirky hobby. He has a wife and daughter, but they live in Tokyo.

“It must get lonely here,” I venture.

“That’s true,” says Yanai, releasing the goldfish back into the tub. He watches the fish rejoin its companions. “When I get home they’re waiting for me. They don’t complain if they’re hungry, but they’ll die if I don’t take care of them.”

At the ceremony to mark Naraha’s reopening, Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto performed the banal civic rituals required of mayors everywhere. He planted a tree using a gold shovel, celebrated with a group of children, and projected confidence while posing next to a brightly colored illustration of Naraha’s future. “The clock that was stopped,” he declared, “has now begun to tick.”

A few weeks later, I meet Matsumoto at the town hall. Scattered among the office’s sober furnishings are stuffed toys portraying Naraha’s mascot, an anthropomorphic yellow citrus fruit named Yuzutaro. Between sips of green tea, Matsumoto speaks in a soft monotone. To hear him tell it, running a radioactive ghost town for more than three years was marginally more eventful than a meeting of the zoning commission. He attended countless meetings with government officials and oversaw infrastructure repairs. When he speaks of the town, the word “radiation” rarely crosses his lips. Instead, he prefers vague euphemisms like “environment.”

I ask him to describe what evacuees are most concerned about. At first, he says, they were “quite angry” about “the environmental conditions of the town.”

“And now?” I ask.

“Now there are no problems,” he says, “and people have become tranquil.”

Later, as I talk to more residents, it becomes clear that this characterization is a vast overstatement. It’s obvious to even the most casual observer that only old people are returning to Naraha. If young people are afraid to raise children here, I ask Matsumoto, what kind of future is there for Naraha?

“Naturally we want everybody to come back,” he says. “Elderly people are coming back first.” He places his teacup on the table. “But if the children do not come back here, the town cannot exist.”

For a moment, Matsumoto seems surprised by his own candor. Then he hastens to obfuscate it. Leaning forward in his chair, he redefines Naraha’s existential dilemma as a simple misunderstanding. Naraha is completely safe, he asserts. Parents with young children just need a little more convincing to return. One thing his office could do, he suggests, is to “make the environment around the schools better. Also we need to do something to make the parents understand.”

“Understand … what?”

“Regarding the issue of—radiation,” says Matsumoto, searching for a more diplomatic word. “People have their own ideas about what’s safe. But actually, in Naraha, it’s lower than 1 millisievert per year, which is what the government set for exposure to the public. That’s the reality I want people to understand.”

I ask him if he is happy with the government’s decontamination efforts. Matsumoto chuckles. “Let me say I’m not 100 percent satisfied,” he says. For further details, he refers me to Hiroyuki Igari, the town’s director of radiation measurement.

A week later I speak to Igari, a churlish man with a dosimeter badge—a device that measures a person’s cumulative radiation exposure—hanging on a lanyard around his neck. If anything, he insists, the government is actually overstating the amount of radiation that residents are being exposed to. “I live in Naraha,” he says. “I commute to work. Sometimes I stop by the store. Then I go home. That’s my routine.” He yanks on the dosimeter. “After two weeks, it’s obvious from this dosimeter that my exposure won’t exceed 1 millisievert per year.”

While Igari doesn’t put any stock in the notion that the government is pressuring towns like Naraha to reopen prematurely, he acknowledges that the cleanup is imperfect. In his view, the government has done a poor job of educating people about radiation, and its standards for mopping up recurring hot spots like the one in Yanai’s yard are nonexistent. But he believes that radiation isn’t a determining factor in whether people choose to return.

“People who were stressed in the temporary houses, they just want to come home. They don’t care about dose rates,” Igari says. “People who don’t return are used to their new lives. They’re used to living under one roof. But now they’re split up, and they don’t want to leave their families again.”

But dosimeter readings and official reassurances have done nothing to alter a more fundamental reality: In post-Fukushima Japan, nuclear safety is a bankrupt concept. Officials like Mayor Matsumoto who use the word “safe” in an absolute sense echo the corporate propaganda of companies like Tokyo Electric Power Company, the disgraced utility that owns Fukushima Daiichi. As the son of a TEPCO salaryman, Matsumoto has spent his career working the levers of a political machine that is oiled with money from the nuclear industry. Yet in the aftermath of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, he still believes himself to be a credible authority on the relative safety of low-dose radiation.

The truth is that there’s no such thing as a “safe” dose of radiation, only gradations of risk. Epidemiological studies show that cancer risk increases in tandem with radiation dose, but we know very little about the risks associated with doses below 100 millisieverts per year. Denying that risk contradicts most people’s inherent understanding of safety as a cost-benefit equation. A patient who agrees to a CAT scan of their head, for example, knows that the diagnostic benefit outweighs any increased risk for brain cancer.

Matsumoto prefers to focus on the benefit side of the equation, which doesn’t require him to invent new euphemisms for “radiation.” He points to the brand new secondary school that will open next year, as well as a $50 million retrofit of J-Village, a national soccer training facility presently serving as a staging ground for 7,000 nuclear workers, which will open in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“It’s going to be big news,” says Matsumoto.

There are also plans for a new hotel, office building, and a “compact town” that will house a supermarket, pharmacy, home center, and medical clinic. A robotics research facility is due to open this summer. And thanks to government subsidies, ten companies, including a battery-maker, a pharmaceutical firm, and a steel manufacturer, are thinking of moving to Naraha.

For its investment in Naraha, Tokyo got a showpiece to justify the trillions of yen it’s pouring into Fukushima. Since the disaster, only two of Japan’s 42 operable nuclear reactors have reopened over public protests, and the nuclear industry is desperate for a public relations coup. As we part, Matsumoto repeats the promise he made personally to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “I told the prime minister that we’re not going to simply reconstruct the town—we’re going to be a model town of the reconstruction,” Matsumoto says, beaming with conviction. “We’re going to do that, and you’re going to see it.”

Convoys of construction vehicles rumble continuously down Route 6, the coastal highway that runs through Naraha and connects the boomtown of Iwaki to the ghost towns of the restricted zone clustered around the nuclear plant. Built for the 1964 Olympics, Route 6 was instrumental in nudging the region out of rural isolation and onto the planning maps of authorities in charge of Japan’s nascent nuclear energy program. Within a decade, Naraha and its neighbors became charter members of Japan’s “nuclear village,” a network of company towns that received government subsidies in return for hosting nuclear power plants.

Tokuo Hayakawa was a young man in 1967 when TEPCO began building Fukushima Daiichi. He is the chief monk at Naraha’s 600-year-old Hyokoji temple, and an ardent antinuclear activist. I visit Hayakawa on two occasions, and each time he wears a white NO NUCLEAR PLANT button pinned to his lapel.

“Since TEPCO started operating here, nobody believed what they were saying about safety,” Hayakawa says. And yet the utility was able to build not just one, but two nuclear plants in Fukushima prefecture: Daiichi and Daini. (Daini was also damaged by the tsunami, narrowly averting a meltdown.) How could TEPCO accomplish this, I ask, if nobody thought the plants were safe?

“As a foreigner, it’s really difficult for you to understand,” Hayakawa says after a long pause. “There’s an atmosphere that keeps people from raising their voices. If something is dangerous, they can’t say it’s dangerous. If something isn’t right, they can’t say it’s not right.”


Tokuo Hayakawa, chief monk at Naraha’s 600-year-old temple, believes the town can’t be revived: “Naraha isn’t a place to live anymore.”

Social unity is a bedrock feature of Japanese culture, especially in rural areas. The inbred politics of the nuclear village exploited this tendency, fusing the emphasis on communal harmony with corporate interests. Questioning the safety of the nuclear plant was akin to disavowing one’s family, friends, and neighbors. For decades, skeptics bit their tongues, government regulators promoted the absolute safety of nuclear power, and TEPCO executives operated with little or no oversight. This conspiracy of complacency led to dangerous practices, such as locating diesel generators at Fukushima Daiichi in areas that were vulnerable to flooding—a factor that contributed directly to the disaster. Last February, three former TEPCO executives were charged with criminal negligence for their role in the nuclear meltdown.

Hayakawa didn’t want to return to Naraha, but he had no choice. “I cannot abandon the temple,” he says. “There are family tombs here.” Besides, he feels too old to start a new life. He had his hopes set on his grandson taking over for him. But the disaster eliminated that possibility. “I am definitely the last one,” he says. “It’s clear that Naraha isn’t a place to live anymore.”

“The monk was opposed to the nuclear plant from the beginning,” says Toshimitsu Wakizawa, a gregarious 67-year-old newspaper deliveryman who seems to know everybody in Naraha. “And everything he said came true.”

When I approach him, Wakizawa is gathering sticks in his front yard. Japanese people don’t generally engage in conversations with strangers, to say nothing of American journalists who walk up to them unannounced. But Wakizawa chats with me as if we’ve been neighbors for years. He points to houses that are going to be demolished because their owners aren’t coming back.

“I thought 30 percent might return,” he says, “But now I think it’ll be 20 percent, or even less.”

Wakizawa doesn’t blame his neighbors for preferring the conveniences of city life in Iwaki, where 80 percent of Naraha’s evacuees went during the disaster, to the preternatural quiet of their hometown. “It’s even worse here than before the nuclear plants were built 40 years ago,” he says. “When I drive up Route 6, I don’t see any life, not even insects. Around 8 o’clock it’s scary, because nobody’s here.”

Wakizawa is preparing to move back to Naraha in a few days to restart his newspaper delivery business. “People want to read the obituaries,” he says. “That’s why they want the local newspapers—to see who died and what the radiation levels are.”


In May, residents planted one of the town’s first rice crops since the disaster. Many believe Naraha’s water is still too contaminated to drink.

Today there are only 50 houses on Wakizawa’s delivery route, down from 250 before the disaster. “The town is disappearing,” he says. He’s troubled by the sense of alienation he feels in Naraha’s desolate neighborhoods. People live alone, outside the traditional support networks of neighbors and extended families. Somebody could die at home and nobody would even know. When I tell him that such deaths aren’t an unusual occurrence in the United States, he looks aghast. “That never happens here! We always talk to our neighbors!” He shakes his head, as if attempting to dislodge the thought of a world where neighbors are strangers and people die alone.

“It’s all mixed up,” he says. “Everything is so confused.”

I leave Wakizawa and drive to the ocean, hoping to find some trace of the houses swept away by the tsunami. Instead I find a vast radioactive waste dump, half-hidden behind flimsy white panels decorated with pictures of birds and trees. I stand with my back to the sea, looking west over the dump toward the dark-shouldered mountains. The river plain is a ragged checkerboard of fallow rice paddies dotted with mounds of black decontamination bags. It is a sobering sight in a country where every inch of arable land is intensively cultivated. The Japanese expression for it is mottainai, a feeling of sorrow for something wasted.

Naraha’s “business district” consists of a single prefab metal shed tucked in a corner of the town hall parking lot. It contains a diner named Takechan, owned and operated by Miyuki Sato and her husband, who commute an hour to and from Iwaki each day. The original Takechan, now overrun with vermin and mold, was a neighborhood fixture in Naraha for 40 years. The reincarnated version has all the charm of a hospital cafeteria, with white laminate walls and glaring fluorescent lights. It is packed with decontamination workers in gray uniforms bent over steaming bowls of ramen.

After the lunch rush one day, I sit down with Miyuki. A television reporter from Sweden had interviewed her earlier in the week. “What do you think about the radiation?” Miyuki intones in mock seriousness. Then she claps her hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle. “So we finished the interview very quickly.”

The Satos haven’t yet found a place in Naraha to relocate. They are eager to leave Iwaki, though, partly because of the long commute, and partly because the evacuee community there isn’t as tranquil as the mayor has suggested. Residents are bitterly divided over his decision to reopen Naraha, Miyuki explains. She is reluctant to say more, except that she has been criticized for cooking with the town’s contaminated tap water. She shows me a certificate from the water authority taped to the wall, guaranteeing that Takechan’s water meets health standards.

“We just wanted to open Takechan, that’s it,” she sighs. “But some people don’t take it that way.”

The director of the local water authority, Haruo Otsuka, shows me a machine that tests the county’s drinking water every hour for cesium-137, the primary isotope in Fukushima’s fallout. The results are always undetectable. I tell Otsuka about evacuees who have criticized the Satos. “Those people are just looking for a reason not to come back,” he scoffs. “At first they said radiation levels in the rice paddies were too high. Then it was the roads. Now they’re blaming the water.”

Tensions among evacuees, however, continue to run high. Hiroko Yuki’s family runs the Shell gas station around the corner from Takechan. Although the Yukis were the first to reopen after the disaster, they have recently bought a house in Iwaki. They aren’t moving back to Naraha.

“We say it’s a house provided by the government,” Yuki says.

“Why is that?”

“People are jealous,” she shrugs. “We work all day, morning to night, and profit margins are slim in this business. We’re not making big money, but people don’t believe it.”


Hiroko Yuki runs the Shell gas station in Naraha. His family has decided not to move back to the village.

Such petty resentments seem unrelated to the serious disagreements among evacuees about resettling Naraha that Miyuki Sato had alluded to. I didn’t understand why anyone would begrudge their neighbors the choice to return—or not. The whole dynamic felt very—Japanese.

“Yes, that’s right, it is very Japanese,” replies Yuki, unfazed. She stands with her hands clasped behind her back, chin tilted in the air, looking a bit like a soldier with her buzzed hair and black Shell uniform. “Japanese people—we always care about how we’re perceived by others. That’s even more true here in the countryside.”

In Japanese society, self-interest is inextricably tied to family, work, and community. But the Fukushima disaster has sliced through those ties like an axe coming down on a bundle of rope. Virtually overnight, tens of thousands of people were set adrift. What looks on the surface like frivolous squabbles are expressions of the profound anxiety many people feel about their place in post-Fukushima Japan. The question of returning home has become a kind of loyalty test that nobody can pass, because home no longer exists.

Nobody understands this better than Kiyoshi Watanabe, president of Naraha’s commerce and industry association and a stolid member of the generation that had a duty, as he puts it, “to keep the house and the family tombs.” Watanabe has returned to Naraha to help “create more opportunities over the next three to five years for younger people to come back and find work.” It won’t be easy. Paradoxically, the disaster has liberated young people from traditional obligations that kept families bound to the same area, even the same house, for generations. Naraha has to reinvent itself to attract new blood.

“In the past, even if the first son lives in some other place, he has to come back to take care of his parents if they ask,” Watanabe explains. “But now he has a good excuse not to: radiation. The parents can’t say anything.”

Glimmers of Naraha’s future can be seen in the recent sale of seven residential lots near the Kido River. A few of the lots, which sold out immediately, went to buyers from Tomioka, a town bordering Naraha that is next to be reopened.

“Naraha won’t take the same form in the future,” Watanabe says. “New people will be moving in, and we have to think about making a new community for them.”

The half-life of cesium-137 is 30.17 years. What’s the half-life of a broken social bond?

“After five years, it’ll be hard to repair,” says Fumiko Yokota. “People just get used to things, good or bad.”

A stout septuagenarian with a mischievous cackle, Yokota lives alone in the hills above Route 6. On my last full day in Naraha, we talk in her kitchen as a warm breeze lifts the sheer curtains over a window offering a distant view of the ocean. Yokota is glad to be back in Naraha. Life in Iwaki “was quite depressing,” she says. But she recognizes that the younger generation has grown accustomed to “living the evacuee life,” and for them there is no looking back.

I ask her what’s so great about life in Iwaki.

“There’s more beautiful people in Iwaki, that’s the biggest difference,” says Yokota, laughing herself into a fit of coughing. “Now maybe this is the twisted idea of an old lady, but I think for some young people the disaster was a stroke of luck.”

Naraha was the kind of place young people forsook for the big city if given the chance, just as Hisao Yanai did 50 years ago. The Fukushima disaster was that chance. Yokota pushes herself up from her chair and goes to the window. Just across Route 6, an elderly couple from Tomioka has built a new house. Yokota met the woman in passing and got a good feeling from her. “I’m thinking we could be friends,” she muses. “It’s not going to happen fast, but gradually this is how we’re going to rebuild Naraha. I can only do what I can do, and that’s not always easy at my age.”

“Bring her a pie,” I joke.

Yokota chuckles. “We’re not like Americans. We’re really shy. I’m not sure they’re looking for friends. But everybody needs to talk to their neighbors.”

Squinting against the sunlight, she clears her throat, her voice a hoarse whisper, and says, “I hope we can be friends.”

June 21, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , , | Leave a comment