TEXT: Chiho IUCHI
Five years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, nearly 100,000 residents of Fukushima Prefecture were forced to evacuate from their home town, due to the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No.1 Power Plant. What is going on in the areas near the power plant?
Guided by a local, we drove north along the National Route 6. During the trip, the dosimeter showed almost the same level of radiation as in Tokyo, thanks to the decontamination efforts, except for the evacuating zones or some “hotspot” areas. But, at the same time, temporary deposits here and there with thousands of packed hazard waste reflected the circumstances behind the decontamination.
The inhabited coast still has traces of the destructive tsunami since five years ago. What was shocking above all was the empty towns of Tomioka, Futaba, Okuma, and Namie in Futaba District located within 20km of the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant.
Is it possible to make these home towns habitable again?
In order to visit the people who have been facing this difficult challenge, we made our way from the shore to the village of Kawauchi nestled in the Abukuma plateau.
Although the village got a relatively low dose of radiation, protected by the mountainous geography, all the residents were forced to evacuate during the aftermath of the disasters on March 11, 2011, as it was within 30 km of the crippled nuclear plant and there was little accurate information at that time.
In January 2012, Kawauchi Mayor Yuko Endo pioneered among the nine evacuating municipalities of Futaba District for the villagers to return home. The administrative office reopened in March 2012 and has actively moved the reconstruction projects forward.
As of March 2016, half of the roughly 2,800 population had returned to the village. Among them, however, only around 600 make the village their permanent home, according to members of the village assembly.
Before the nuclear hazard, life in Kawauchi was based on the mutually complementary ties between the towns and villages in Futaba District.
“There is no high school and no large hospital in the village so far,” said Mr. Shigeru Ide, head of Komatsuya Ryokan, one of the few accommodations in the village. Mr. Ide also serves as a member of the village assembly, as well as chairman of Kawauchi Society of Commerce and Industry.
Many of the village’s students used to go to high schools in the coastal towns. Also, the residents used to rely on the larger hospitals in the neighboring city of Tomioka.
The most difficult problem is finding work. The village had historically been sustained by agriculture and forestry, and many locals had worked as rural migrants during the wintertime.
“The nuclear plants, which started operations in the 1970s, enabled locals to stay with their family rather than going away to work,” Mr. Ide said, pointing out the difficulty of rebuilding local economic activities without them, especially if those who lost power plant-related jobs are to return.
Although the central and local governments are making efforts to create jobs to prepare for the return of locals who evacuated because of the nuclear crisis, such new businesses featuring innovative ideas and technologies are suffering from a lack of human resources, as most of the residents who returned to the village are over 60.
It’s already been five years. Each family has struggled to adapt to the new environments away from their home.
“The younger generation, who have small children, evacuated because of radiation fears. It’s already been five years. Each family has struggled to adapt to the new environments away from their home,” said Mr. Toshiyuki Tsuboi, a member of the village assembly, who has resided in the city of Koriyama, one of the major cities in the prefecture, an hour by car from Kawauchi.
“Of course, we have pride and love for our hometown, Kawauchi,” said Mr. Tsuboi. “I will come back when my children finish their education.”
Blessed with forest resources, Kawauchi once boasted as being the largest producer of wood charcoal in Japan. And one man hopes to revive the tradition.
Mr. Takao Seki, who moved from Saitama Prefecture to Fukushima as a volunteer to support the affected areas, has worked in Kawauchi since 2013. Inspired by the traditional lifestyle in coexistence with the village forest, he became an apprentice with one of the last Kawauchi charcoal masters last October.
“As an outsider, I have a kind of flexibility,” Mr. Seki said in front of the coal pit of his master. He hopes to redevelop the charcoal industry as a bread-and-butter job, despite many challenges, including how to manage the radiation in the products and how to adapt himself to the local community.
With the joint efforts of the public and private sectors involving locals, the Kawauchi administrative office has moved forward projects based on the comprehensive reconstruction program targeted to the five years from 2013 to 2017. As a restored, pioneering municipality in Futaba District, one of the goals is to lay a foundation of the reconstruction for other municipalities in the district.
The pillars of the program include thorough decontamination and proper management of the exposure dose, job creation, transportation network that connects the municipalities, improvement of healthcare facilities, and better educational environment for human resource cultivation.
The major achievements so far are the decontamination works that decreased the radiation dose, and the construction of vegetable plant, business hotel and apartment houses, attracting companies and renewable energy industry to the village.
Mr. Ide and Mr. Tsuboi say in chorus that it will take time to reconstruct the community, pinning their hopes on the next generation.
I hope the village will be able to survive until our children or grandchildren decide to return.
“I hope the village will be able to survive until our children or grandchildren decide to return,” Mr. Tsuboi said. “It depends on our efforts to make the village an attractive place for them.”
There is no simple answer to chaotic circumstances after the unprecedented disasters. And it is not easy for outsiders to understand local communities. What is important for us is to continue listening to and thinking together with the local people.