Nuclear refugees struggle to share Olympic joy

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

While Tokyo Municipal Government officials were rubbing their hands with glee after winning the right to host the 2020 Olympics following their failed attempt to win the 2016 Games, it’s perhaps fair to say that not everyone in other parts of the country shared their sentiment.

Yuki Segawa and her three children left their home in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, due to fears over radioactive contamination following the nuclear crisis at the damaged No. 1 power plant.

They currently reside in a 40-year-old condo provided by the government in Urawa, Saitama Prefecture, on the outskirts of Tokyo. Her husband, Yoshinobu, is an art teacher at a junior high school back in Koriyama. Every Friday night, he travels to Tokyo to spend time with his kids over the weekend and then drives back north on Sunday evening. It’s a three-hour drive one way.

The Segawas make up five of the approximately 286,000 refugees from the Tohoku area that still haven’t been able to return home after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. Living in temporary accommodation, many of them find it difficult to celebrate Japan’s successful Olympics bid.

“It just doesn’t seem real that the Olympics will be held here,” the 38-year-old housewife told The Japan Times On Sunday. “It seems like something taking place in a country far away from my own.”

Segawa was pregnant at the time of the nuclear meltdown, and was forced to wait until June 2012 to flee from Koriyama, a city located around 50 km west of the nuclear plant that was found to have high levels of radiation contamination. Despite feeling that Saitama wasn’t as far as she would have liked to have been away from the crippled plant, it was the farthest she could take her three children and still have her husband visit them frequently.

“I don’t believe it when the government says that everything is under control,” Segawa said. “In fact, I fear that having to host the Olympics only adds pressure to the workers at the nuclear power plant, since they’ll have to rush their work to make tangible progress within the next seven years.”

A 37-year-old Fukushima native, who evacuated from Iwaki to Tokyo in July 2011, agreed.

The housewife, who asked to remain anonymous, has been living at a condo in Chiyoda Ward with her four children, including 8-month-old twins. Her husband works as a driver in Iwaki and is only able to visit the family twice a month.

“I agree that holding the sports event is important, but also feel that the money should instead be spent on reconstruction efforts,” she said, noting that news on construction projects for the Olympics seems to have swept aside any interest over reconstruction efforts in the Tohoku region.

The housewife’s friend, who lives in the same condo and who also asked to remain anonymous, said she was “disappointed’” when she heard Tokyo won the bid. Her children, a teenager and an elementary school student, are both girls. They are looking forward to working as volunteers at the 2020 venues and have recently taken up studying English.

What they don’t know is what they’re going to do after March 2015, when the lease on their condo runs out. Indeed, it’s highly plausible the government might even ask the family to move out.

“There is nothing I am certain of beyond 2015, including where my family will be,” she said. “But I haven’t been able to tell that to my kids.”

All families interviewed said it remains unclear when they will return to their homes in Fukushima. The government is expected to lift a ban on some no-go zones near the nuclear power plant in spring, but whether residents will rush home remains an open question.

Expectations for 2020 are low for Yoshinobu Segawa, the father of three children in Saitama Prefecture.

“I just pray that everyone is safe and healthy in 2020, wherever we may be, because that is the only thing that matters,” the 51-year-old said. “As for me, the weekend drives have been strenuous. I’m simply hoping I’ll make it to 2020 without getting killed in a traffic accident.”