A map shows the latest status of restricted areas affected by radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant as of March 6, 2017.
Japan’s Fukushima Cleanup Minister Says Refugees from Nuclear Radiation Are on their Own
The Japanese government official in charge of cleaning up the region devastated by a 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster apologized Tuesday after yelling at a reporter who criticized the official’s position on refugees.
Masahiro Imamura, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party and head of the recovery effort for the Tohoku region, said he “became emotional” after a journalist pressed him on the government’s role in assisting 26,000 so-called “voluntary evacuees” who fled Tohoku’s Fukushima prefecture after a massive tsunami and earthquake caused a meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and released deadly radiation. The government reportedly cut housing funds Friday to the refugees, who Imamura said Tuesday should bear “self-responsibility for their own decisions.” When one reporter pointed out that many were still in need of assistance and pressed Imamura for a “responsible answer,” the official raised his voice.
“I’m doing my job in a responsible manner. How rude you are!” Imamura yelled. “You should retract what you’ve just said. Get out!” he added, according to the Japan Times. “Never come here again!”
The minister reportedly continued to shout before someone in attendance accused the official of “causing problems for the evacuees.” Imamura told the individual to “shut up” and left the conference, Japan Today reported.
Heightened levels of nuclear radiation following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused about 160,000 people to evacuate the district of Fukushima. Six years later, only around 20 percent of the residents have returned to areas where evacuation orders were lifted, according to Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shinbun, and many have expressed little desire to go back. Critics have accused Tokyo of encouraging residents to repopulate the area by cutting assistance, despite ongoing health concerns and numerous setbacks that have plagued efforts to rebuild the area.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owned the ruined plant, has been tasked with the $188 billion recovery process, which has hit multiple obstacles as the company attempted to send robots into the “unimaginable” levels of radiation that persisted in the plant’s radioactive cores. The robots have also succumbed to the radiated terrain, leaving researchers uncertain of the site’s future.
Angry Imamura not sympathetic to Fukushima evacuees
Masahiro Imamura, the minister in charge of rebuilding from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, doesn’t seem to have a sufficient grasp of the complicated situation in which Fukushima evacuees are trapped.
Asked about the government’s responsibility for providing assistance to the so-called voluntary evacuees at an April 4 news conference in Tokyo, Imamura said: “They are responsible for their own lives. They can file a lawsuit or do other things (if they disagree with the central government’s position).”
He was referring to people who fled areas that were not subject to the government’s evacuation orders issued after the catastrophic accident broke out at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
When a journalist repeatedly asked questions about the way the government provides support for such people, Imamura became enraged and stormed out of the news conference.
Later he apologized to reporters for becoming “emotional,” but did not retract his earlier remarks, saying he made an “objective statement.”
The minister apparently tried to point out differences in the situation between people ordered to evacuate their homes and those who voluntarily left their towns and cities. But his remarks included some elements that raise questions that are too important to be ignored.
Many of these voluntary evacuees decided to leave their communities after a lot of thinking as they found it impossible to get rid of their anxiety about the radiation level standards used by the government to issue evacuation orders.
More than 20,000 people are living as such voluntary evacuees across the nation. Many of these have been separated from other members of their families. Some are suffering from destitution.
They receive far less compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the crippled nuclear plant, and far less support from the government in terms of temporary housing and other aspects than people who received evacuation orders.
Even if they decided to leave their homes on their own, the fact remains that they are also victims of the nuclear accident.
Saying they are responsible for their own decisions indicates a disturbing lack of understanding of the responsibility the government should bear due to its long history of promoting nuclear power generation as a national policy.
His statement that voluntary evacuees can file a lawsuit if they choose to is nothing but an outrageous outburst of arrogant defiance.
More than 10,000 people affected by the nuclear disaster have filed lawsuits seeking compensation from the electric utility and the government.
In March, the Maebashi District Court issued a ruling holding the government and the utility accountable for the disaster and ordering them to pay compensation to evacuees.
But taking such a legal action requires a lot of time and trouble. Does the minister say the victims should shoulder this heavy burden?
Imamura has a history of making controversial remarks that are criticized for being out of tune with the feelings and realities of victims of the nuclear disaster.
Speaking in a January meeting about the reconstruction of Fukushima, which is finally beginning to make significant progress with the recent lifting of the evacuation orders for certain areas, Imamura said the process had reached the 30-kilometer mark, using a marathon metaphor.
Appearing in a TV program in March, he said, “It is easy for people to leave their homes, but I hope the evacuees will show their commitment to returning home and hang in there.”
Only a minority of Fukushima evacuees have decided to return home. Many are opting to remain living as evacuees for the time being because of concerns about their livelihoods and radiation.
Many evacuees, however, also express their desires to maintain connections with their homes.
Imamura’s latest remarks have hurt the feelings of many evacuees struggling with various difficult problems and deserve to be criticized for not giving sympathetic attention to victims.
He should be aware of the government’s responsibility for paying serious attention to the diverse voices of disaster victims and taking necessary steps in response to their needs in addition to making efforts to help evacuees return home.