Keiko Shigihara, 58, soaks up the summer sun as she looks over her property in the village of Iitate in Fukushima Prefecture, from where she evacuated after the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
The land where her home used to be is now an empty lot. Cherry trees and oak trees are the only things left.
Shigihara remembers the days when she used to make homemade salted cherry blossoms and rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves.
“It’s sad but there’s nothing to be done now except look forward,” said Shigihara, who evacuated to the city of Fukushima after the calamity.
Iitate’s Nagadoro administrative district, where her home was located, was designated a no-go zone due to its high radiation levels. But the Environment Ministry later designated the district as an area where radiation-tainted soil removed as part of the decontamination process would be reused to fill the land for farming.
The project is slated to begin by March 2021.
Shigihara was born in the town of Futaba, which is located on the coastline of Fukushima Prefecture — one of the areas hardest hit during the 2011 earthquake.
After graduating from high school in Futaba, she met Yoshiyuki, now 59, a native of Iitate, and the two married. She moved into his home, where her in-laws also lived, in Nagadoro in 1988 and helped out with farming. She raised her two daughters there, too.
The Nagadoro district, which is located in the southern part of the village, is a well-preserved area surrounded by mountains.
Different types of fish can be found in the nearby Hiso River, and Shigihara often made meals with fresh vegetables grown in the fields or plucked from the mountainsides.
“I bet you’re glad you married someone living in Iitate,” Shigihara’s late father-in-law used to say.
That peaceful lifestyle was upended in 2011. Life in evacuation, bleak as it was, continued for years, and the family did not know if they could ever return or what would happen to their home.
But, at the end of 2016, the government said, out of the blue, that it was planning to bury the contaminated soil to create arable land.
“Contaminated soil was supposed to be taken to an intermediate storage facility” where it’s preserved safely, Shigihara said. She was worried whether it was safe to bury it in the ground.
Naturally, the plan drew concern from local residents.
Deliberation between the central government, the village and its residents spanned a year.
Local residents were worried about whether it was possible for people to live there again if they were to go ahead with the project, or that a damaging reputation would haunt agricultural products harvested there.
But the government pressed on, saying it will be an experimental case to reuse contaminated soil in local areas. The government ensured it would also closely monitor radiation levels in the air and conduct tests to make sure the produce is safe.
In the end, locals gave in and the project was given the green light in November 2017.
In April 2018, 186 hectares of the Nagadoro administrative district’s 1,080 hectares were designated for the project. The village of Iitate proposed in May to lift evacuation orders.
At the end of last year, Shigihara’s cherished home was demolished for the plan. Watching it be torn down would have been too painful, so she waited to return until after it was done.
“Anything to help my hometown recover,” she said.
Fresh produce is being cultivated nearby and experiments have been conducted to plant crops on contaminated soil without adding a layer of uncontaminated soil.
In the long wait for Nagadoro’s residents to return home, the clock has finally begun moving again.
This section features topics and issues covered by the Fukushima Minpo, the prefecture’s largest newspaper. The original article was published Aug. 10.