FUKUSHIMA – Last in a series
Two years after thousands of Fukushima residents fled their homes to escape the radiation released by the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, many are gradually returning as more areas are deemed safe.
However, fear of radiation is keeping away most of the younger residents, which means the populations around the plant are fated to become smaller and grayer.
Municipalities are struggling to rebuild amid the radiation stigma.
Last month, 154,148 Fukushima residents were still displaced, with 57,135 outside the prefecture and 97,013 within.
The prefecture had 1,958,054 residents as of Feb. 1, down 3.3 percent from 2,024,401 on March 1, 2011, according to the Fukushima Prefectural Government.
“In these mountainous areas, the population was gradually graying even before (the disasters). But the clock has ticked much faster in the past two years,” said Yuko Endo, the mayor of the village of Kawauchi, part of which is in the 20-km radius of the power plant.
Of the nine municipalities that evacuated in 2011, only two — Kawauchi and Hirono — have opted to reopen so far.
Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hailed Kawauchi’s reconstruction efforts last December, calling the village “a front-runner in rebuilding,” the truth is more complicated.
The Kawauchi Municipal Office, an elementary school and a junior high school reopened last April, as did a post office, gas stations, eateries and a convenience store.
And three factories based in Tokyo, Osaka and in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, have opened or plan to open their doors in the village to create jobs.
Meanwhile, the village’s first two municipal apartment buildings are being built and are expected to be ready by the end of this month.
The radiation decontamination work in residential areas is almost complete as well.
But what was once a village of nearly 3,000 people has shrunk to some 420. About 65 percent are over the age of 65, a sharp increase from 34 percent before the disasters struck, the mayor said.
At the village’s only elementary school, student enrollment plunged to 16 in fiscal 2012 from 114 in fiscal 2011.
Headmaster Hitoshi Takashima of Kawauchi Elementary School said the number of students should exceed 20 starting in April, but is unlikely return to three digits.
At the new factories, job openings were still available at the end of February.
“I wonder if people are losing their reason for living in this farming and mountain village. I wonder if they are losing the pride of being born and bred in Kawauchi,” Endo said.
The government will end housing support to evacuees next March. Until then, it’s likely that many villagers won’t return from places where schools, shops and hospitals are more conveniently situated, Endo said.
But what their young people will do when the support runs dry remains to be seen.
The slow pace of decontamination work by the central and local governments is reducing the chances of these communities reviving.
Including Kawauchi and Iitate, decontamination work has begun in only four of the 11 municipalities the central government is responsible for.In the remaining seven, a lack of temporary storage sites is the main cause of the delays.
The environment ministry says that residents near potential storage sites are afraid of radiation. They are also putting up resistance because, since the government has yet to find intermediate storage sites, they doubt assurances that the facilities are temporary, a ministry official said.
One of the areas without a single temporary storage facility is the Odaka district in Minamisoma. Formerly part of the no-go zone, since last April most of the area may now be freely entered in the daytime.
The Odaka Ward Office is scheduled to reopen in April to accelerate the area’s reconstruction, but in late February there were no signs of revitalization in the area.
A former shopping street was utterly empty.
Rusted vehicles lay untouched in a field where tsunami left them, and piles of debris were seen all around.
Kunihiko Yokoyama, 70, whose home in Odaka was destroyed, said many residents returned for a month or so after the ban was lifted to clean their houses and check the state of their hometown. But as time passed, people just stopped coming back, he said.
Asked if he wants to return one day, he sighed and said he didn’t know.
“Under the current circumstances, there is no way. Besides, I no longer have a house there,” Yokoyama said. “Some seniors hope to live in the area, but I guess the young won’t go back there.”
Only 2 to 5 percent of Minamisoma’s residential areas have been decontaminated, the city office says. Again, the lack of temporary storage sites is to blame for the slow pace, a city official explained.
“People are surprised to see these views (in Odaka) knowing that almost two years have passed since the disasters,” said Sachiko Banba, 52, who runs a cram school in Haramachi in Minamisoma, next to Odaka. “Some think things have been cleaned up, but they haven’t been. . . . I don’t want people to think reconstruction has been completed. It’s been two years, but the reality is like this.”
Domestic violence up
Domestic violence cases are up sharply among couples from areas affected by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis.
With nowhere to escape to in small temporary houses, wives in particular are vulnerable to violent husbands.
It is thought that the pressure created by their indefinite status as evacuees is exacerbating marital troubles.