SHIRAKAWA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – Land minister Akihiro Ohata in early May said the government will construct temporary housing for all March 11 evacuees in time for the Bon holidays in mid-August. But speaking to those already living in such accomodations in Fukushima Prefecture makes it clear such housing units are not homes, and rebuilding their lives will take more than providing a roof over their heads.
“When the earthquake hit and the nuclear power plant was damaged, we were desperate to get out of our hometown. But now we feel the urge to return,” 62-year-old Eiko Tamura, from the town of Namie, told The Japan Times.
Tamura and her husband, along with their son, his wife, and two children had to evacuate their home, which is about 20 km from the radiation-leaking Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. But while she considers herself lucky to have settled into temporary housing in the town of Shirakawa, a sense of not belonging lingers.
“I wake up every morning, open my eyes and feel sad that I am still here,” Tamura said.
A 97-year-old woman living next door tearfully confided that she wishes to die at her home, rather than here.
After the earthquake and tsunami struck, the government revealed that 72,000 temporary housing units would be needed to meet demand. Approximately 30,000 of those are scheduled to be ready in the Tohoku region and surrounding area by the end of May. Fukushima Prefecture is scheduled to complete 14,000 units by July.
The housing is rent-free and residents are required to pay only minimal monthly costs, including for electricity and water. But moving evacuees into the completed housing hasn’t gone as smoothly as planned.
The government’s original projections turned out to be seriously flawed, as many Tohoku evacuees opted to rent apartments on their own or chose to move into public housing.
This has left some towns in Fukushima with an excess of units and evacuees living in near-empty temporary housing sites that resemble ghost towns.
Evacuees, who can stay in temporary housing for a maximum of two years, are also choosing locations carefully based on the level of radiation and whether the units are conveniently located for commuting to work and school.
“Only about 80 of the housing units are occupied at this point,” an official of Kori, a small town approximately 60 km northwest of the No. 1 nuclear plant, said.
The town was one of the first to construct housing units, which now total 300.
Residents of Namie, a town within the 20-km no-go zone around the plant, were scheduled to become the main residents in the hastily built accommodations.
But many had second thoughts after Namie relocated its town office to Nihonmatsu, about 30 km south of Kori.
Asked if his town constructed too many units without considering demand, the municipal official remained optimistic that the empty units will fill up eventually.
“There are those who have evacuated to hotels. We will have the rooms ready when they need to move in to temporary housing,” he said.
Tamura, who settled in at Shirakawa’s temporary housing with her five family members on May 8, said it was the low radiation in the area that ultimately convinced her to choose Shirakawa.
After staying at five evacuation sites since mid-March, it was imperative that her grandchildren, the youngest just 13 months old, be safe from harm, she said.
“There were some locations available in Koriyama, but the city has a relatively high level of radiation,” Tamura said. “That is why we chose here.”
The unit where Tamura’s family lives consists of two separate 4.5-tatami rooms and one 6-tatami living room, as well as a small kitchen and a bathroom.
A regular day begins with sending her grandchild to elementary school, then spending time with her retired husband, who used to be a priest at a Shinto shrine in Namie.
“The level of radiation is always a concern, but it’s not like we can stay inside all day,” Tamura said. In the afternoon, her daughter-in-law usually takes her toddler outside for a walk.
The family is making ends meet by using their savings.
“We can’t ask for too much at this point. We’ll probably live here for the next two years,” she said.
Sixty-year-old Nishikori, who declined to give his first name, also said the temporary housing in Shirakawa may become his home for the time being despite his desire to return home.
Nishikori ran a real estate company in the city of Minamisoma, about 10 km from the crippled nuclear plant.
After the quake, he took refuge for about a month in Nasushiobara, Tochigi Prefecture, and later applied for the housing in Shirakawa.
The Fukushima Prefecture native shares the unit with his younger brother and 82-year-old mother.
“The Red Cross provided us with a television set and air conditioners, but I wouldn’t say life here is comfortable,” Nishikori said. “But we don’t have much choice.”
While quickly evacuating his home after news of the nuclear crisis broke, Nishikori was able to hurriedly gather his bankbook and “hanko” (personal seals). He said there isn’t much he wishes to retrieve from home but added he would eventually like to return to Minamisoma.
“I don’t know how long it will take until safety is confirmed in my hometown,” he said. Even if he does return, he concedes his company is probably finished. “But not going back home doesn’t seem like an option for me.”