KYOTO – On a cold afternoon in late February, a group of mothers and children gathered at a makeshift community center near JR Momoyama Station in Fushimi Ward, Kyoto. In one room, volunteers were setting up dolls for the Hina Matsuri doll festival as a couple of kids played, watched carefully by their parents.
It’s a familiar scene across Japan. But the center is surrounded by blocks of public housing filled with evacuees from Tohoku, especially Fukushima Prefecture, who have made Kyoto their new home — at least for now.
“If it’s safe, I’d like to go anywhere, even abroad, to countries such as Australia. Places in Japan like Okayama Prefecture, which are very safe from earthquakes, are also a possibility, although I’m worried about even relocating to western areas due to the Chinese yellow sand,” said a mother from the Kanto area who asked to remain anonymous. “We’re like refugees.”
In the aftermath of the March 2011 mega-quake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns, the prefecture opened its doors to people from Tokyo and 10 other prefectures, offering free public housing for three years, among other forms of assistance.
But the bulk of the evacuees were from radiation-tainted Fukushima.
Today, on the second anniversary of the calamity, just over 1,000 evacuees are estimated to reside in Kyoto, with 700 from Fukushima and around 530 living in the city itself. This figure includes about 90 families staying in prefectural housing near Momoyama Station.
Yuko Nishiyama, who fled the city of Fukushima with her 3-year-old daughter, Mariko, a week after the 9.0-magnitude quake struck off Tohoku, said the vast majority of evacuees in Kyoto are mothers with young children.
“There are very few older evacuees, and virtually all of them have left their husbands behind. They don’t want to return out of radioactive fallout concerns for their children, and this has placed a very large strain on families,” Nishiyama said.
Kyoto has a reputation for being a cold place for outsiders to adjust to, but few of the evacuees reported this as a problem. The community center in Fushimi Ward was built with funds from Kyoto area companies, and is stocked with children’s toys and books paid for by both the local government and businesses.
While voicing gratitude to the Kyoto Prefectural Government and the many local volunteers who continue to help the mothers and children, Nishiyama said there is still a lot of stress among the evacuees.
“The public housing facilities we’re living in are quite old. In addition, most of the mothers don’t work. While the rent is free, there are other expenses, and, of course, many of the evacuees still have mortgage payments on their homes in Fukushima,” she said.
“And the financial assistance we’ve received so far doesn’t cover all of the money we have paid for relocation, transportation and living costs.”
Last June, a prefectural survey of the evacuees showed their greatest concerns were living conditions, work, health and child-rearing. Many worried that they had no income. Others, especially those with very young children, wanted extensive thyroid exams for their offspring, which they received through the Kyoto branch of the Japan Federation of Democratic Medical Institutions.
“Mothers are happy with the thyroid tests because they are not being carried out in Fukushima by Dr. Shinichi Yamashita of the Fukushima Medical University — who none of the parents trust,” Nishiyama said.
Yamashita, who serves as a radiation advisor to Fukushima Prefecture, is especially loathed by evacuees for his comment in 2011 — which made international headlines — that people who smile and laugh don’t get exposed to radiation.
A later remark expressing his lack of concern about an exposure level of 100 millisieverts per year hardly improved matters, given that the government set its maximum annual radiation limit for children at 20 millisieverts in 2011. According to a 2006 study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, an exposure of 20 millisieverts will produce 2,270 cancer cases per 1 million people annually. But finding the funds to make the long trek between Kyoto and Fukushima to visit husbands, parents and relatives is an even greater concern, and a major reason why Nishiyama formed Minna no Te, a group that assists evacuees in Kyoto.
By collecting donations to pay for and arrange short bus trips back to Fukushima, the group has enabled dozens of the evacuees to visit their homes and families in Tohoku.
But with Kyoto’s free public housing scheduled to end in 2014, the evacuees are already wondering about their fate.
Most hope to return to Tohoku. Some, concerned about the nuclear facilities sitting close by in neighboring Fukui Prefecture, are willing to go anywhere as long as it’s as far away as possible from a nuclear power plant. Others, however, say they will remain in Kyoto.
“I went to college in Kyoto, so I know the city. I don’t plan to move back. I just feel safer here,” said evacuee Kana Nogami.