A large portion of Naraha town in Fukushima Prefecture lies within 20 kilometers of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
When I visited recently, I saw mounds of black bags, presumably filled with contaminated soil. Large trucks rumbled on in endless streams. The town’s convenience stores seemed to be flourishing, thanks to an influx of reactor-dismantling crews and reconstruction workers.
After an evacuation order was issued in the immediate aftermath of the March 2011 nuclear disaster, Naraha remained uninhabitable for a long time. It was only 18 months ago that the evacuation order was finally lifted.
“We are merely at the starting line now,” said the mayor at the time.
And true to his observation, the town still faces a long, arduous road ahead. So far, only about 10 percent of Naraha’s 7,000-plus residents have returned.
I met Takayuki Furuichi, 40, who was among the first to return home. Before the disaster, Furuichi worked at a facility for the disabled in Naraha. After his return, he established an NPO for home-visit nursing care. In addition to visiting the disabled and the elderly, his NPO staffers also provide day-care services for disabled children.
Furuichi said it was his “iji,” or stubborn pride, that brought him back to Naraha.
“It’s too vexing to just let my hometown remain in this sorry state. I want to provide support for fellow returnees,” he said.
But he also feels conflicted. Now overrun with large service vehicles, the town looks completely different from before. And worries about radiation have not gone away.
“I cannot really urge anyone to come home,” he lamented.
The lifting of the evacuation order was a step forward. But this also presented a new dilemma to people who had become accustomed to their lives as evacuees. They are still grappling with the tough decision of whether to return home or stay put, or simply hold off any decision for now.
“To use a marathon analogy, Fukushima’s reconstruction is at the 30-km point,” Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura noted recently. But for people who were forced to leave their homes in 2011, the race has only just begun and is in a fog.
This spring, evacuation orders will be lifted in four municipalities, including the town of Namie. This brings to the townspeople not only a sense of relief, but anxiety and vacillation as well.