FUKUSHIMA – Two years have passed since Yuko Endo, mayor of the village of Kawauchi, made a widely publicized plea calling on residents to return home after being forced to evacuate because of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
While some residents have returned, there have been few young people among them, posing a challenge for village officials in restoring the community to what it was.
Large swathes of the highland farming village were declared evacuation or “stay indoors” zones after three reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant to the northeast suffered core meltdowns and spewed radioactive fallout into the environment.
The evacuation of the entire village began five days after the March 11, 2011, quake and tsunami started the nuclear calamity. The village had around 3,000 registered inhabitants at that time.
In the months that followed, zone designations were eventually lifted from most of the areas and extensive decontamination work was undertaken.
“Let’s return, starting with those who are ready,” Endo said on Jan. 31, 2012.
Last March he reinstated the administrative functions of the local government, which had been transferred to the nearby city of Koriyama, to the village office and then in April re-opened elementary and junior high schools.
Areas in the village that fall within the 20-km radius of the nuclear plant are still designated as evacuation zones, with people only permitted to spend time there during the day. The rest of Kawauchi is free of such restrictions.
In a recent tally, the village had 2,700 registered inhabitants. Of that number, 535 had actually returned as of last October. This represents an increase of around 50 percent from the 342 as of April 2012, though they formed only 20 percent of the total. About 900 others were visiting the village four or more days a week.
People aged 65 or older now account for 65 percent of the villagers, a jump from 35 percent prior to the disaster.
“It feels as if the hands of the clock have rapidly advanced,” Mayor Endo said, referring to the aging and shrinking of the population anticipated in the years ahead.
“Other municipalities that see a growing number of their residents return will experience the same thing,” he said.
The problem is the slow progress being made in bringing back younger residents. There was no high school in the village to begin with, and the high school that served many students in the village was in a coastal area that remains off-limits.
Many families with school-age children are opting to remain in their relocated communities and have their children go to school there.
“How can children continue to study in Kawauchi? That is the challenge,” Endo said. “We want to send out the message that children who have returned to the village are able to study.”
Conditions have also changed greatly for the elderly.
“I don’t want to return on my own,” said Hamayo Yokota, 77, who evacuated to a temporary housing unit in Koriyama. Her husband died last November.
Koriyama is one of the three major cities in the prefecture, along with Iwaki and the capital, Fukushima. “Here, it’s close to a hospital and I can go shopping on foot. I want to stay here as long as I can,” Yokota said.
Although temporary housing units are small and cramped, those located in urban areas have benefits. Many transplanted villagers have become accustomed to the convenience of urban life, making it harder for them to return to the village.
Before the nuclear crisis, people in Kawauchi had relied on the towns of Tomioka and Okuma, about 30 minutes away by car, for shopping, doctor visits and work.
These towns are no longer an option for them as they fall entirely within the no-go zone. Okuma hosts the No. 1 nuclear plant, while Tomioka is home to the No. 2 plant.
Aiming for self-reliance, Kawauchi began improving facilities for its residents. The village expects to complete a funeral home in March, while a nursing home, supermarket and other commercial facilities are expected in fiscal 2014. Last year, it resumed rice farming for the first time in three years.
In addition, residents who used to live in other communities near the nuclear plants are moving to Kawauchi, apparently in the hope of staying as close to home as possible.
Endo welcomes them, saying, “We want to develop a new village by welcoming people from the outside.”