Six years after the nuclear disaster, Japan is pushing villagers back to the homes they left
FROM his desk, the mayor of Iitate, Norio Kanno, can see the beloved patchwork of forests, hills and rice paddies that he has governed for over two decades. A book in the lobby of his office calls it one of Japan’s most beautiful places, a centre of organic farming. The reality outside mocks that description. The fields are mostly bald, shorn of vegetation in a Herculean attempt to remove the radioactive fallout that settled six years ago. There is not a cow or farmer in sight. Tractors sit idle in the fields. The local schools are empty.
Iitate, a cluster of hamlets spread over 230 square kilometres, was hit by a quirk of the weather. After the accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, 45km (28 miles) away, which suffered meltdowns after a tsunami in 2011, wind carried radioactive particles that fell in rain and snow on a single night. Belatedly, the government ordered the evacuation of the 6,000 villagers. Now it says it is safe to return. With great fanfare, all but the still heavily contaminated south of Iitate—the hamlet of Nagadoro—was reopened on March 31st (see map).
The only part of the village that looks busy, however, is the home for the elderly. Locals say a few hundred people, at most, have returned, predominantly the retired. Mr Kanno will not reveal how many “because it gives the impression that we are forcing people to live here, which we don’t intend to do.” Yet many evacuees now face a stark choice: return to Iitate, or lose part of the compensation that has helped sustain them elsewhere.
Last month this dilemma was expressed with unusual clarity by Masahiro Imamura, the minister in charge of reconstruction from the disaster. Pressed by a reporter, Mr Imamura said it was the evacuees’ “own responsibility, their own choice” whether or not to return. The comment touched a nerve. “It’s economic blackmail,” says Nobuyoshi Ito, a local farmer. Mr Imamura has since resigned.
Nobody wants Fukushima mentioned in the same breath as Chernobyl. Almost three decades after the world’s worst nuclear accident, life there is still frozen in time, a snapshot of the mid-1980s Soviet Union, complete with posters of Lenin on school walls. By contrast, about ¥200m ($1.8m) per household has been spent decontaminating Iitate, helping to reduce radiation in many areas to well under 20 millisievert per year (the typical limit for nuclear-industry workers). But the clean-up extends to only 20 metres around each house, and most of the village is forested mountains. In windy weather, radioactive caesium is blown back onto the fields and homes.
Nevertheless, Mr Kanno says it is time to cut monthly compensation payments which, in his view, encourage dependence. In 2012 Iitate’s became the first local authority in Fukushima prefecture to set a date for ending evacuation. The mayor pledged that year to revive the village in five years, a promise he has kept. A new sports ground, convenience store and noodle restaurant have opened. A clinic operates twice a week.
All that is missing is people. Less than 30% of Iitate’s former residents want to return. (In Nagadoro, over half said they would never go back.) Many have used earlier lump-sum payments to build lives elsewhere. Before the disaster struck, the village had already lost a third of its population since 1970 as young folk moved to the cities—a process that has hollowed out many a furusato, or home town.
Families left behind quarrel about whether to leave or stay, says Yoshitomo Shigihara, a villager. “Some try to feel out whether others are receiving benefits, what they are getting or how much they have received in compensation. It’s very stressful to talk to anyone in Iitate.” Some wanted to move the entire village to one of the country’s many depopulated areas but Mr Kanno would not hear of it. In trying to save the village, says Mr Ito, the mayor may be destroying it for good.