Thousands of Fukushima evacuees face hardship as slash of housing subsidies nears

Reuters

Nearly six years after Noriko Matsumoto and her children fled Fukushima Prefecture, fearing for their health from the nuclear disaster, they are confronted by a new potential hardship — the slashing of vital housing subsidies.

Matsumoto is among nearly 27,000 people who left areas not designated as mandatory evacuation zones, spooked by high levels of radiation after reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant unleashed by the powerful earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.

Now, as the Fukushima Prefectural Government prepares to slash unconditional housing assistance on March 31, many face the painful choice of returning to areas they still fear are unsafe, or reconciling themselves to financial hardship, especially families scattered across different sites, such as Matsumoto’s.

“Because both the national and the local governments say we evacuated ‘selfishly,’ we’re being abandoned — they say it’s our own responsibility,” Matsumoto, 55, told a news conference, her voice trembling. “I feel deep anger that they’re throwing us away.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a prefectural official said that although unconditional subsidies end on March 31, smaller amounts of aid will still be provided, if needed.

At the time of the magnitude-9 quake, Matsumoto lived with her husband and two daughters in Koriyama, about 55 km west of Fukushima No. 1. Authorities declared a no-go zone around the plant, but Koriyama was outside its 30-km radius.

When her younger daughter, then 12, began suffering nosebleeds and diarrhea, Matsumoto took the children and moved to Kanagawa Prefecture.

Her husband, who runs a restaurant, stayed behind to ensure they could pay bills and the mortgage on their home. But high travel costs mean they can only meet every one or two months, and they face social pressure.

“People like us, who have evacuated voluntarily to escape radiation, have been judged by our peers as if we selfishly evacuated for personal reasons,” Matsumoto said.

What she called her “only lifeline” is a housing subsidy the Fukushima Prefectural Government pays to voluntary evacuees, who numbered 26,601 by October 2016.

The payment is typically ¥90,000 for a household of two or more in Matsumoto’s area, a Fukushima official said, adding that full rents are covered until March 31.

“Things here now are safe, but there are people who are still worried about safety and we understand that,” he said.

Subsidies, if needed, will be adjusted to suit individual households, rather than handed out unconditionally, he added.

A municipal official said radiation levels in Koriyama are now safe, dissipated by time and cleanup efforts.

But “hot spots” remain, say activists, and Matsumoto still worries.

“I’m a parent, and so I’ll protect my daughter,” she said. “Even if I have to go into debt, I’ll keep her safe from radiation.”