Unable to return, Futaba residents fear becoming lost tribe

No homecoming in sight for those who agreed to host nuclear plant

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Makiyasu Matsumoto, 82, worries he may never be able to return to his hometown of Futaba, which was rendered uninhabitable by the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

“I want to go back, because Futaba has been my home almost all my life. But I might have to give up on my hopes, considering the present situation,” Matsumoto said at an evacuation center where he now lives in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture.

The center was set up in what used to be Kisai High School. Matsumoto has been there for almost two years since first seeking refuge in Saitama Super Arena after the March 11, 2011, quake and tsunami triggered three core meltdowns at the power plant.

The radioactive fallout eventually forced the entire town to evacuate. Two weeks later, more than 200 of its residents had ended up in Kazo, along with Futaba’s municipal office. Nearly two years later, they are still living in classrooms and other parts of the four-story building — including the former science lab.

“When I was in Futaba, three generations of my family lived in the same house. Now, we are scattered all over the place,” Matsumoto said. “I live here, my son, a town official, lives in a rented house with his wife in Kazo, and my grandchildren are back in Fukushima because they found jobs in Shirakawa.”

Matsumoto’s large home back in Futaba survived the 9.0-magnitude Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami intact, but no one in the family expects to return and resume their former lives because of the intense fallout that rained down on the area.

“I know that I can’t go back because of the radiation levels, but I can’t move anywhere else either because I haven’t received any compensation money yet. I wish the government would deal with the issue soon, so that we know where we’re heading,” Matsumoto said.

Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa resigned in January after the municipal assembly passed a no-confidence motion against him, arguing he had failed to negotiate forcefully or skillfully enough with the central government to win compensation for the residents.

The opinions on Idogawa vary. While some accuse him of being an inadequate mayor and failing to win swift compensation, others recall how he put priority on the residents’ health and tried to get the government to investigate how the fallout would affect them.

Idogawa also tried to coordinate a unified evacuation as the government prepared to quarantine the town. That plan stalled after he resigned.

A vote to elect his successor will be held at the end of the month.

“Futaba evacuees are so worried, because the government has not come up with a plan for the town yet, especially regarding compensation and housing,” said Muneshige Osumi, head of public relations at Futaba’s municipal office.

“People don’t realize what it means for people to lose their hometown. It took several hundred years to create Futaba, yet it does not exist anymore. It’s all gone,” he said. “Even if the level of radiation decreases in the future, we cannot go back to the town anymore, and if we merge with another municipality like Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture, it would mean borrowing the institutions that city already has.

“We can’t remake our own unique town. We lost the best treasure we had. Futaba may have been inconveniently located, but we had beautiful nature, food and clean water,” Osumi lamented. “I now realize that was the best life I ever had. Leading a normal life is the most important thing, and we can’t go back to it anymore.”

Until the disaster, Futaba’s inhabitants had believed atomic energy to be completely safe, Osumi said.

“I myself promoted nuclear power stations as a public relations officer. But now I know how unsafe they are. We need to make sure that we hand down this lesson to the next generation,” he said.

Around 200 evacuees settled down in Kazo, but about 60 of them have since moved into temporary accommodations or rented apartments and houses in the past two years, both inside and outside Fukushima.

Tomie Kikuchi, the Brazilian-Japanese spouse of a Futaba resident, is one of those who left the center.

“My husband found an agricultural job, so we moved into a rented apartment,” Kikuchi, 45, said. “But we’re full of anxiety about the future. We want to buy a house and settle down somewhere, but we don’t know when or where.”

Most of the 140 or so evacuees sheltering at the center are in their 70s. They say they have gotten used to life in Kazo, and feel anxious about moving out and living on their own. “We’ve built a community here, and I feel safe living with other elderly evacuees,” Matsumoto said.

While the future appears grim for the evacuees, they are trying to make the most of their predicament by focusing on their daily pleasures.

To provide support, many nonprofit organizations and volunteer groups regularly visit the center to cheer them up, offering art workshops and recreational activities, such as dancing or green tea workshops.

Meanwhile, the Tokyo-based volunteer group Enechen Dai Sakusen cooks up hot meals for them every month.

“The center’s evacuees still live on ‘bento’ (boxed meals) three times a day, and they have to pay for that. We want to bring them delicious hot meals as often as possible,” said group representative Yoko Yoshiki.

“They appear quite cheerful and seem to accept their situation, but we know there are still lots of problems regarding the Fukushima disaster and that they haven’t been able to get back to their normal lives,” she said.

“I think they feel cut off from society. Most of all, we want Futaba’s evacuees to realize that we haven’t forgotten about them, and will continue to support them in any way we can.”