It was back in the autumn of 2011. Wind blowing from the Pacific Ocean was cutting through the golden rice fields.
Takashi Asano, 67, who had evacuated from the town of Okuma in Fukushima Prefecture following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster, had returned temporarily to his home.
When Asano was gazing at the paddy fields behind his former home from afar, it looked like the field was full of rice ready to be harvested.
“Why would that be when I haven’t planted rice,” wondered Asano, who had evacuated to Aizuwakamatsu in the prefecture after the disaster.
When he went closer, he noticed the plants had yellow tips belonging to Canadian goldenrods, an invasive foreign plant. In his absence, the plants had already begun to take over the fields.
The area where his home is located had been designated a no-go zone. It was excluded from the area designated by the government where it plans to decontaminate and either rebuild it for future use or make it a storage facility for radioactive waste such as soil by the spring of 2023.
Therefore, local residents call the area the “blank-space district,” in reference to the uncolored space on the government map for reconstruction. With no decontamination projects in the pipeline, locals can’t make any plans for the future.
At Asano’s home, rain has seeped through damaged roof, and there are signs that wild boars have found their way inside. He returns once a year to pay respects at family graves but each time it is difficult to see what remains of his home.
“I don’t want to see it. When I leave, I tell myself not to look back,” he said.
Nearly 10 years have elapsed since Asano was forced to evacuate. Nothing seems to represent the passage of time more than the deteriorating fields and homes.
Before the disaster, Asano had been growing rice and vegetables while working at a chemical factory. He had his two-story home constructed in 1986, with a garage and a shed for farming tools.
Construction fees had been paid off and retirement was just around the corner. After he retired, Asano intended to continue as a contract worker, but plans of a comfortable retirement were shattered by the disaster in 2011.
Two years ago, he considered tearing his house down. When he contacted the municipal government, they referred him to a contractor for the work, only to be turned down.
“We can’t work on projects in the blank-space district,” the contractor said.
Demolition and decontamination efforts were underway in other parts of the town the government has designated areas for reconstruction. However, in the blank-space district contractors are turning down requests for demolition since the government’s plans are still unclear.
“The house is no longer livable,” Asano said. “Buildings are being torn down in other parts of the town, so I don’t understand why I can’t have mine torn down, too.”
The central government announced it would secure about ¥1.6 trillion for a five-year recovery plan from fiscal 2021. About ¥1.1 trillion of that will be allocated for Fukushima Prefecture, separately from which ¥100 billion will be funneled into efforts targeting no-go zones located outside of the designated recovery zones. But specific details on what to do with those places have yet to be mapped out.
Entry restrictions have been loosened in parts of the recovery zones in Okuma, allowing some residents to begin rebuilding their homes.
In those areas, residents have the right to decide whether to return or live elsewhere. But Asano and others living in the surrounding area don’t yet have the freedom to choose their future.
“The government hasn’t made it clear what it plans to do over the next 20 or 30 years,” Asano said. “People who want to return and people who have given up — everybody is stuck.”
The disjointed dismantling of restrictions within and near recovery zones continues to invite frustration.
This section features topics and issues covered by the Fukushima Minpo, the prefecture’s largest newspaper. The original article was published Sept. 19.