MINAMISOMA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – In a deserted part of Fukushima Prefecture dotted with vacant lots, a sleek modern building stands out. In a workshop inside, a woman with a ponytail wearing purple protective eyeglasses carefully melts a tiny glass tube into the shape of a plum blossom.
Behind the atelier, young people peer at computer screens in an airy co-working space with a terraced seating area, plants and a hammock.
Odaka Pioneer Village in Minamisoma is run by a venture company whose novel programs are capturing attention for addressing a serious problem facing the communities near the stricken nuclear power plant: How to bring young residents back.
Fukushima’s recovery from the nuclear disaster is progressing, with the government gradually lifting evacuation orders — including for additional areas earlier this month. But it has mostly been elderly residents who have returned, raising doubts about sustainability.
“Many people were resigned to the belief that young residents won’t come back even after the evacuation order was lifted,” said Tomoyuki Wada, the president of Odaka Worker’s Base, the facility’s operator.
“But I believed they would come to work here if we could provide attractive jobs, and let them work freely to balance their own lifestyle and family life,” he added.
Nine years after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns, Odaka Pioneer Village is providing some hope for the future of Odaka Ward, where residents were forced to leave under an evacuation order issued on March 12, 2011, a day after the disaster hit the Tohoku region.
The ward, which falls within a 20-kilometer radius of the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, became a ghost town up until July 2016, when the evacuation was lifted with the exception of a government-designated “difficult-to-return” zone, containing a single household, where the annual radiation dose exceeded 50 millisieverts.
Although Odaka has regained only around 30 percent of its pre-disaster population — most of them elderly — Odaka Pioneer Village offers a rare opportunity there for working mothers, young people and entrepreneurs to carve out new careers.
The facility, which opened in March last year, is a six-minute walk from Odaka Station and also provides on-site accommodations for workers who need a place to stay.
The glass workshop employs six women living in Minamisoma. They can start and finish work whenever they want.
They manufacture necklaces, earrings and brooches featuring a clear glass motif under its Iriser and Hario Lampwork Factory brands.
The co-working space, which occasionally converts into a venue for parties and lectures, is used by people in their 20s to 40s. It acts as a base for freelancers and entrepreneurs in the community revitalization program, dubbed “Next Commons Lab Minamisoma,” aimed at kick-starting new businesses.
Some businesses can be rather unorthodox.
Take Yoichiro Jin, a 24-year-old entrepreneur and equestrian, who came to the facility from Tokyo to use horses kept in the area for cosplay photography at scenic spots around the city. The horses are normally used for events such as the annual Soma Nomaoi festival, in which horsemen in medieval samurai armor race on tracks.
“My goal is to create an image of Minamisoma as being a horse town to people from outside the city and Fukushima Prefecture,” Jin said.
Wada said that his company started running the Next Commons Lab program to build a community of people who are determined to solve problems through business.
He is hoping to bring together those who identify with the concept of creating the life that they want to live in a town from scratch.
But Odaka is still far from returning to its pre-disaster state.
According to the Odaka Ward Office, 12,842 people were registered as residents as of March 11, 2011. Of these, about 28 percent were 65 years of age or older. As of Jan. 31 of this year, however, just 3,650 people lived in the ward, with seniors accounting for almost half the population.
Katsunori Hayashi, the 72-year-old head of the leaders’ association for 39 administrative districts in Odaka Ward, deplored that the nuclear disaster pulled apart three-generation families who had been living together — a common household makeup in the ward.
“Young people have already rebuilt their livelihoods in the place where they evacuated to, and it’d be difficult for them to leave behind the established life and come back,” he said. “Children were too young to remember their hometown.” In many cases, it is only realistic for the older family members to return.
In the next fiscal year, Hayashi said he will consider integrating or abolishing some administrative districts with too few residents.
Young Odaka natives also see few job prospects to come back to.
Kotoe Kowata, a ward official in charge of revitalizing the community, said there are few long-term stable jobs in Minamisoma. There are more part-time positions and temporary jobs, including in construction, but she said “few people may want such jobs.”
Other municipalities in the prefecture find themselves in worse situations.
Earlier this month, evacuation orders were partially lifted for parts of the difficult-to-return zones in the towns of Okuma, Tomioka and Futaba. The cleared sections include areas around one station in each of the three towns on the JR Joban Line, which is scheduled to be fully reopened Saturday.
Excluding these sections, evacuation orders remain in place for an area covering 337 square kilometers spread across seven cities, towns and villages, or some 2.4 percent of the total area of Fukushima Prefecture. A little more than 40,000 people remain evacuated from their homes, versus the peak of around 160,000 in May 2012.
In the towns where evacuation orders have been slow to recede, and residential and commercial centers have been lost, attracting returnees remains a more daunting challenge.
In Okuma, which co-hosts the power plant along with the town of Futaba, the evacuation order was lifted for scattered sections, including areas around Ono Station that were cleared on Thursday. But the main residential area in Okuma, including its downtown, is still unlivable, affecting 96 percent of the total population.
In the Ogawara area of the town, cleared in April last year, the municipal government is planning to develop basic infrastructure, including commercial and community facilities, and a lodging facility. Three other facilities, such as a welfare center for residents, are set to open next month.
Because the Ogawara area does not have a school nor a hospital yet, many people will not be able to return, said Eiko Takimoto, 66, who operates a makeshift electronics store named Takimoto Denki across from the town hall with her 78-year-old husband, Masateru.
Sixty percent of the residents said they have decided not to return, according to a joint survey released on Jan. 31 by the town, the prefecture and the Reconstruction Agency.
The most cited reason for the decision was that they have already established a livelihood elsewhere, followed by the convenience of living in places where they fled to, the survey shows.
The Takimotos’ store, stocked with batteries and home appliances, is one of three retailers in the area. They, too, relocated from Okuma and now drive there every day from their home in Iwaki, about 50 kilometers away. They make the trek because they want to “serve the local community,” she said.
As of March 1, an estimated 731 people lived in Okuma, many of them workers for plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.
“We are hoping that new facilities will bring people over to this neighborhood,” Eiko Takimoto said.