HIRONO, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – Located roughly 23 km from Fukushima’s crippled nuclear plant, Hirono Station today is the northernmost stop on the JR Joban Line for passengers traveling up Tohoku’s coast from Tokyo.
The exclusion zone around the Fukushima No. 1 plant begins just 3 km farther up the tracks. Before the nuclear disaster, trains continued past Hirono, traveling about 2.5 km west of the wrecked facility and all the way on to Sendai.
But Hirono has since turned into a nuclear crisis frontier town, and appears a fitting place to observe Japan’s recovery from last March’s quake and tsunami on the first anniversary Sunday.
One year on, however, the once bustling town remains eerily quiet and a revival seems a long way off, and by no means certain.
“We wanted to start running municipal services from our town hall again as soon as possible,” Hirono Mayor Motohoshi Yamada said March 1, the day operations finally resumed.
Of the nine municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture forced to evacuate their local offices after the nuclear disaster started, Hirono is the first to return home.
“However, our plans to provide services for residents haven’t gone as planned,” Yamada said.
Most of the town’s 5,300 residents fled their homes in April, when the government declared the area an emergency evacuation preparation zone.
Its inhabitants began to trickle back after the designation was lifted in September, but fewer than 300 have returned.
If it weren’t for the workers from the Fukushima No. 1 plant driving through, Hirono would resemble a ghost town.
Yamada is in no doubt over the reason his town has yet to return to normal.
“It’s just too early to say (the nuclear crisis) has been resolved. We can’t afford to suffer random days of high radiation, depending on which way the wind is blowing,” he said. “It is crucial that our residents are able to live without such anxiety.”
Much of Japan is still experiencing similar unease.
The government may be hailing the recovery efforts, but on the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake many remain concerned about radiation levels, fearful of the next big quake striking and even worried that memories of the disaster already may be starting to wear thin.
The number of deaths and the scale of damages wreaked by the 9.0-magnitude quake and 15-meter tsunami are not just statistics — they reveal the full extent of the hardships the nation has endured over the past year.
As of Saturday, the death toll stood at 15,854 and another 3,155 still remain officially listed as missing, though long presumed dead, the National Police Agency said.
In addition, around 344,000 evacuees were still living in temporary housing and other accommodations as of Feb. 29, according to government statistics, and many likely will never return to Tohoku.
The amount of radioactive materials discharged from the No. 1 power plant, meanwhile, reached terrifying levels.
Last August, the Nuclear Safety Commission estimated that the plant emitted a total of 570,000 terabecquerels of radioactive substances into the atmosphere, including 11,000 terabecquerels of cesium, after three reactors suffered meltdowns in March.
The Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency put the figure even higher, calculating in June that around 770,000 terabecquerels were discharged from March 11 to 16 alone.
Contamination was not only airborne. Up to 5,600 terabecquerels of cesium may have been discharged into the Pacific Ocean since the accident started, the state-affiliated Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology said in early March.
Nevertheless, there have been some signs of progress.
All evacuation shelters in Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures were closed by the end of February, while the land ministry has built nearly 53,000 temporary housing units. The massive quantity of debris left in the tsunami’s wake also has been gathered up and stored at temporary sites in most devastated coastal communities.
The large aftershocks that followed the megaquake have waned, as has the amount of radioactive materials emitted by the No. 1 plant, thanks to efforts to contain the stricken reactors.
But this hasn’t been nearly enough to get Tohoku quickly back on its feet.
The region’s rapidly aging population, which was shrinking even before March 11, now is plunging at an even faster pace.
As of Feb. 1, some 37 coastal municipalities in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures had seen their combined population plummet by 55,662, or 2.2 percent, since March 1 last year, a recent Kyodo News tally found.
Of even greater concern, many parents with young children appear to have given up on ever returning to their hometowns in Tohoku, a factor that will accelerate the rate at which the remaining populace grays.
Both these trends are illustrated in a survey conducted this month on residents from the town of Kawauchi, not far from Hirono, most of whom evacuated after March 11.
Overall, 28.2 percent of Kawauchi’s 1,817 inhabitants said they would not be returning to their hometown, the survey found.
But the figures varied enormously among the different age groups.
Of the total 226 residents in their teens, only one had returned to the town and 176 said they either don’t plan to go back or have yet to make up their minds.
Meanwhile, 100 out of 138 residents in their 20s said they had decided to abandon the town.
But when it came to residents in their 60s, only 53 of the 297 residents said they intended to leave Kawauchi for good.
The picture is extremely similar in Hirono.
“It is sad that there are no children left in the town. I never see any young children riding on trains,” said a 64-year-old woman who wished to remain anonymous.
An agricultural cooperative official in the district of Futaba, part of which lies inside the no-go zone around the No. 1 plant, also voiced alarm at the population drain.
“Residents aren’t coming back, and the local shops are closed,” the official said.
Most of Futaba’s farmers also have stayed away, as their highly contaminated farmland is unlikely to yield any consumable produce.
“Some of the ‘mikan’ (mandarin orange) trees have come into fruit-bearing season, but shipments are unlikely due to widespread concerns over cesium contamination,” the official said.
High unemployment is another major problem in Tohoku.
While rebuilding projects are creating strong demand for workers with construction experience, well over 10,000 jobless still will likely lose their unemployment benefits by the end of April without having secured work.
There is a “jobs mismatch” in the region, labor minister Yoko Komiyama said this month, and the opportunities available aren’t in the lines of work locals are seeking.
On top of everything, the victimized municipalities feel extremely let down by the central government.
Some of the shattered towns and cities along Tohoku’s coast already are in position to start rebuilding but have found themselves in limbo, waiting for the central government to give the green light.
The government, however, is mulling the possibility of relocating municipalities to higher ground and has yet to map out any specific outlines for rebuilding projects.
And while almost all of the debris lies neatly piled up at temporary sites, disposing of it remains a huge problem.
The government has set a target of incinerating and disposing of the debris before fiscal 2015, but this already appears unfeasible.
So far, almost all local governments outside Tohoku have refused to accept shipments of rubble for incineration at municipal facilities, citing radiation concerns. A majority of their residents worry about burning contaminated debris near where they live, and question if the disposal process is as safe as the central government claims.
As a result, less than 10 percent of the 22.53 million tons of debris in Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures had been burned and the ashes buried by the end of February.
Even progress on crafting new safety guidelines for nuclear plants has been sluggish.
NISA didn’t finish drafting provisional guidelines to reinforce safety measures until last month, almost a year after the crisis started. These include steps to address possible power outages and to install more powerful ventilation systems, which would release excess pressure in reactors during emergencies, as well as countermeasures to guard against major natural disasters — especially earthquakes and tsunami.
The guidelines are to be finalized later this month.
So far, the only consistent aspect of the government’s disaster response is its shockingly slow speed.
In the book “Lessons from the Disaster,” which includes analyses by a number of experts, Keio University professor Heizo Takenaka points out that from the very beginning the government “failed to act promptly,” especially in aiding shattered municipalities.
For example, after March 11 it took the government more than three months to enact a basic law for rebuilding Tohoku’s coastal communities, whereas a similar law came into force only a month after the massive 1995 Kobe earthquake, which killed considerably fewer people and caused far less damages.
Similarly, a minister to head reconstruction was not named until June 27, compared to the mere three days required after the Great Hanshin Earthquake.
But the most dismaying difference between the two catastrophes is the time it took to pass a supplementary budget to fund full-scale reconstruction work.
After the Hanshin quake, a budget to rebuild Kobe was enacted in around four months.
After last March’s disasters, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan took twice as long — more than eight months — to enact a ¥12 trillion reconstruction budget for Tohoku.
Regrettably, vital and pressing matters turned into “political bargaining chips” between the ruling and opposition parties, said Keio University’s Takenaka, who also has served as economic and fiscal policy minister under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
This created a chasm between the central and local governments that continues to widen by the day, as the ruling and opposition parties still have not stopped bickering.
In “Lessons from the Disaster,” Takenaka urges lawmakers to set aside their differences and rivalries, and to work together to tackle disaster-related issues, such as passing supplementary budgets to fund rebuilding efforts and to meet reconstruction demands from municipalities.
Reinventing the region’s agriculture and creating new eco-friendly coastal municipalities “is a chance” for Japan to demonstrate its resilience, Takenaka says in the book.
Early this month, the government decided to only cover 60 percent of the total funding requests submitted by Tohoku’s local governments, approving ¥250.9 billion in reconstruction subsidies.
Despite getting the cold shoulder, Yamada, the Hirono mayor, said he has drawn up a blueprint to restore his town and lure back evacuees.
The first task will be to fully decontaminate the area as soon as possible, to ease residents’ fears over radioactive fallout. Another step will be to make the town habitable again, such as urging supermarkets to reopen in the area — possibly on land the municipality would purchase.
“We’ve requested subsidies (from the central government), but we were told some projects have to be covered by other (state) budgets and programs and so we’ll have to reapply,” Yamada told The Japan Times in an interview. “The process is very time-consuming.”
And lately, Yamada has been feeling the strain.
Working daily on the frontline of reconstruction efforts and spearheading the drive to repopulate his abandoned town, all the while fearing a spike in radiation levels, has taken a toll on Hirono’s mayor, who hesitates before acknowledging a disturbing reality.
“Some say the March 11 catastrophe is already wearing thin. Maybe that is true.”
In this series, we examine how the March 11 calamity changed the nation and what needs to be done to revive Japan in the lead-up to the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake.