Evacuees from the Fukushima nuclear disaster deliver a petition to politicians in Tokyo on Oct. 26 calling for the extension of free housing benefits.
Anxiety is spreading among many of the 12,000 or so households evacuated after the Fukushima nuclear disaster five years ago as their free housing benefits will end next March.
In late October, about 180 people, who have been receiving free housing after leaving their homes in Fukushima Prefecture, delivered a 200,000-signature petition to politicians in Tokyo asking for the accommodation allowance to be extended.
At the Upper House Members’ Office Building, they voiced their concerns, one after another.
“We are being told to get out of our house,” one of them said. “We are in a real fix.”
The central government and Fukushima prefectural authorities have been providing prefabricated temporary housing units or paying the rent of those who have evacuated either within or to outside the prefecture, even if they did not come from designated evacuation zones.
The measures were introduced because many residents living outside evacuation zones left their homes out of anxiety over the spread of radioactive fallout.
A total of 231.6 billion yen ($2.9 billion) had been spent by March 2016 on 44,000 households, including the cost of building prefab temporary housing units.
But the Fukushima prefectural government decided in June 2015 to discontinue the assistance for evacuees from areas outside evacuation zones.
“With cleanup efforts moving ahead, the living environments are getting better,” Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori said at the time.
The decision will affect the so-called voluntary evacuees, who lived in areas that were never designated evacuation zones, and evacuees from areas where evacuation orders were lifted in 2014.
Briefing sessions have been held by the prefectural government since December 2015 at about 40 locations within and outside the prefecture to explain details of rent subsidy measures for low-income households, which will replace the free housing benefits.
In late September, prefectural government officials faced a barrage of questions from about 70 residents of Kawauchi, Fukushima Prefecture, who packed a meeting hall in a temporary housing complex in Koriyama, also in the prefecture.
The village of Kawauchi had 2,739 residents as of Oct. 1 and at least 889 of them were living for free in rented housing, prefab temporary housing units and elsewhere outside the village.
Fumio Sakuma, 67, is one of them. His wife, who has a kidney disease, takes a 40-minute drive to hospital three times a week to undergo dialysis. Sakuma said he is anxious about having to relocate with his sick wife.
“We would feel grateful if we were allowed to stay here for one or two more years,” he said at the meeting.
Municipalities in disaster areas in Fukushima Prefecture, in the meantime, are hoping that the end of the free housing benefits will see a return of residents.
“Assistance measures by the central and prefectural governments cannot continue forever,” said Yuko Endo, mayor of Kawauchi. “We might as well take a step forward to rebuild our livelihoods.”
The town of Naraha, also in Fukushima Prefecture, has seen less than 10 percent of its residents return.
“More than five and a half years have passed since the onset of the nuclear disaster,” said Naraha Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto. “It’s time for every one of us to think about standing on our own two feet.”