Those who fled Fukushima Prefecture and those who stayed after the nuclear disaster get together at a community center in the Sasaya district of the prefectural capital of Fukushima last month.
FUKUSHIMA–Facing diminishing public support and increased scorn from their hometown communities, residents who fled Fukushima Prefecture after the nuclear disaster are now struggling with self-doubts about their decision to leave.
They are called “voluntary” evacuees because they left areas that were not subject to the central government’s evacuations orders after the tsunami slammed into the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.
Since then, they have faced hardships in starting new lives and finding new homes. And persistent fears over radiation continue to prevent many from returning to their hometowns in the prefecture.
When the nuclear crisis was unfolding, Nahoko Hikichi, 44, took her infant and 4-year-old child to Asahikawa, Hokkaido, leaving behind her husband in an area of Koriyama, which was not ordered to evacuate.
Hikichi pored over library books to learn more about the situation in Fukushima, but some of the books dismissed safety concerns about radiation while others warned about health hazards.
“I only became more confused and worried after reading,” she said.
Hikichi said she is torn over whether she made the right choice to leave, but she added she will take no solace if her decision proves correct.
“I chose to flee because I did not want any future regrets over not evacuating,” she said. “If I become convinced that my decision was sound, it would come at a time when the impact of radiation has manifested among children who stayed in the prefecture.
“I am hoping for nothing like that to ever happen.”
Her husband later quit his job to join the family in Asahikawa, but his parents remain in Fukushima Prefecture.
The past month has been particularly tough on those who evacuated voluntarily since the prefectural government ended their free housing program.
At the end of March, 119 of about 12,000 households that evacuated voluntarily within or outside Fukushima Prefecture had not decided where to live, the prefectural government said on April 24.
Although prefectural officials would not disclose further details about their situation, some of the households reportedly cited financial difficulties as a reason for being unable to find new homes.
Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori pledged to work closely with local governments where the evacuees’ old and new homes are located to help them.
People forced to flee under the evacuation orders are eligible to receive at least 8.5 million yen ($77,300) in compensation.
But those who evacuated voluntarily have received a fraction of that figure, and their free housing program has ended.
In terms of rebuilding from the nuclear disaster, Tokyo is now emphasizing self-reliance among evacuees without public support or compensation.
Voluntary evacuees and their supporters have criticized this policy, but the prefectural government shares the central government’s direction.
Tokyo’s evacuation orders forced around 81,000 people to leave their homes around the nuclear plant.
Since then, the central government has been lifting the evacuation orders in an effort to have people return to their homes. In fact, the orders had been lifted for all areas by spring this year with the exception of “difficult-to-return zones,” where radiation levels remain high.
That means more than 50,000 evacuees can return to their homes.
As of last autumn, voluntary evacuees who have not returned to their original homes totaled 26,000, or 30 percent of the overall evacuee population.
Some residents who remained in the prefecture after the nuclear accident are upset by evacuees who say that Fukushima is still too dangerous to live in.
“We reside in Fukushima Prefecture, and I would like them not to speak ill of the prefecture,” said a woman in her 40s who lives in the prefectural capital of Fukushima.
Efforts are under way to bridge the divide among those who remain volunteer evacuees, those who have returned to the prefecture, and residents who stayed in their communities.
A nonprofit organization opened a community center in a two-story house in Fukushima city in March 2015 to allow mothers with young children to share their daily concerns.
Some mothers wanted to know where to buy food ingredients. Others wondered if they have been overreacting to the radiation.
“Many mothers who have returned to the prefecture after fleeing outside are worried about whether they will be able to restore ties with their peers who did not evacuate,” said Megumi Tomita, 47, who heads the project.
Although the NPO does not offer specific problem-solving proposals, Tomita said it is important for anxious mothers to have a venue where they can pour out their feelings.
After the community center opened, the mothers, accompanied by experts, took part in a workshop to measure radioactivity levels of foodstuffs.
They also grow vegetables in nearby fields.
The NPO compiled a booklet in spring featuring messages from 31 mothers who have returned to the prefecture after deciding to flee. Their words are directed at those who remain in evacuation.
“I don’t think your choice is wrong,” said one mother.
“I will give you my moral support,” another message said.
Tomita said their messages summarize a shared feeling: “Those who have evacuated voluntarily have had to make countless decisions over the past six years. The mothers who have had such experiences feel that whatever the decisions the other mothers made, they are not wrong.”