Evacuee mayor’s community torn

Futaba townsfolk can't go home, many set to scatter like the wind

by Natsuko Fukue

Staff Writer

Katsutaka Idogawa, the 64-year-old mayor of Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, is standing at a crossroads.

Whether evacuees in Saitama Prefecture from Futaba, where two of the six reactors at the troubled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant are located, will stay there or go back to Fukushima Prefecture is in Idogawa’s hands. Weeks have passed since the March 11 disaster, but the mayor is still struggling to make up his mind.

“We came here (to Saitama) with the balance between a place to live and to work in mind. For the moment, we will stay here and consider what we will do next,” the mayor told the press at the closed Kisai High School in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, which is now used as a shelter.

“Children started to go to school here. Some found jobs as well. There will be opportunities for career talks and seminars, so I’d like to hear more opinions from the townspeople,” he said.

Right after disaster hit the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Mayor Idogawa made a quick decision to evacuate Futaba residents to a safer place. “At that time, we only thought about evacuating promptly, not about leaving the town for the long term,” he said.

A group of 1,200 residents out of a total of 6,900, along with the mayor and other town employees, first moved to Kawamata, also in Fukushima, and then to the vast, multipurpose Saitama Super Arena. Shelters had to be big enough to accommodate the group because Idogawa wanted the residents to stay together as a community.

But because the arena was only available to the evacuees until the end of March, Futaba residents were forced to make another trip to the closed school with eight town assembly members.

Though not allowed to go back to Futaba, which is inside the 20-km no-go zone around the Fukushima plant, some evacuees at Kisai High School moved to other places in Fukushima Prefecture.

“A considerable number of people went back,” a town office worker said.

Idogawa acknowledged their feelings. “It is totally understandable. We’re away from Futaba and we’re homesick. That’s a very natural feeling,” he said.

Other towns and villages around Futaba moved their office functions to other cities inside the prefecture, and residents evacuated to shelters near them. The mayor recently visited Inawashiro in Fukushima Prefecture, to where about 500 Futaba residents evacuated. “I wish I had more time to talk to them,” he said, without mentioning if it helped him make up his mind.

But going back is not so simple. First of all, there is no work in Futaba, which was heavily dependent on the nuclear power plant.

Nearly half the population is now in the Kanto region, according to the town office, and about 20 percent remain in Fukushima. Even if those who evacuated to Kanto return, there is no guarantee they will find work soon.

“I think it will take longer than we first thought until the (nuclear plant) situation is stabilized,” said Futaba evacuee Watanabe, who declined to give his first name. “So I’m thinking about finding a job (in Saitama),” he said while waiting with his wife at the school entrance to take a bus to a local public bath.

A 34-year-old male evacuee agrees. “I think there are more chances to find jobs in the Kanto region.” He said he would prefer to stay in an apartment with his family even if it is outside his hometown than to remain in a shelter.

He added he did not bring a lot of cash with him, having departed so quickly, just a day after the earthquake. Living in a shelter for the long term costs money, as the Saitama Prefectural Government only provides a place to sleep.

While evacuees can drive or bicycle to buy food on their own, meals are often provided by volunteers. One day, workers from a local noodle shop came and provided free “udon,” the local speciality.

Sumo wrestlers visited the school to cook “chanko nabe” stew, a food commonly eaten by wrestlers. A Starbucks outlet nearby also offered coffee to the evacuees.

Necessities such as soap, toothpaste and razors as well as volunteers keep pouring into the high school. “I got wait-listed because so many people applied to be a volunteer,” said Saitama resident Arisa Takeda, who helped sort out donated goods piled up in a school gym.

A lot of people in Kisai hand-wash their clothes outside, but some who evacuated by bus take a taxi just to go to a laundry because the high school is located about 15 minutes away by car from the city center.

Finally, the government announced Monday that evacuees from the 20-km radius no-go zone around the nuclear plant will be allowed to fetch valuables from their homes after the Golden Week holidays through early May.

But their stay will be limited to up to five hours for safety reasons. Futaba residents can go back only temporarily to their homes and even if they return to Fukushima Prefecture, they will be staying at shelters or in temporary housing.

The town office has applied for temporary housing in the prefecture, where the local government has so far secured the land for about 10,000 houses. Over 9,000 temporary houses are expected to be built by the end of May, according the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry.

Futaba was once an affluent town thanks to the large subsidies provided by the government for accepting the nuclear plant, and property tax paid by Tokyo Electric Power Co. But in the 1990s, the town pumped money into large-scale public works such as an elderly care facility and a sewerage system, which led the town into financial trouble.

Desperate to restore the town’s finances, assembly members agreed on a plan to build two more reactors — units No. 7 and 8 — in 2007, in return for ¥980 million a year in subsidies. This plan was once frozen in 2002 when Tepco admitted it falsified reports about reactor trouble. After March 11, Tepco said the plan will be shelved.

Now the assembly members, including Mayor Idogawa, who turned to Tepco for financial help, are living in the shelter at the high school along with the residents.

At least the high school “will be available for evacuees for the time being” because it is not used anymore, according to Saitama prefectural spokesman Koshiro Nakano.

But Idogawa has mixed feelings about staying in Kazo. “I myself want to go back and have a view of the sea I’ve known since childhood,” he said.