March 5, 2018
Almost one year has passed since the evacuation order for four municipalities around the ruined Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was lifted to make it possible for local residents to return home.
But the harsh reality of life in towns and villages devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and the consequences are clearly visible to anyone who visits these areas.
These towns and villages lack many of the functions and facilities to meet the essential needs of people such as housing, shopping, health and nursing care, jobs and communities. This is the reason why many of the local residents have not returned home despite an end to forced evacuation. A survey of evacuees by one local government found nearly 50 percent of the residents have no plan to return.
But it is also true that many of the people who left their towns and villages in the wake of the catastrophic accident want to eventually return home or are of two minds.
It is the government’s important role to make things easier for evacuees to return to their former communities if they want to do so while supporting their current lives.
The government needs to review the measures that have been taken so far and, if necessary, adjust them to better suit the actual circumstances.
A myriad of challenges are threatening to thwart the efforts to rebuild towns and villages ravaged by the disaster. But progress is only possible through hard, tenacious work and constant adjustments for the better.
REALITIES DETER RETURN OF EVACUEES
In Namie, a town located north of the nuclear plant, the newly built Namie Sosei elementary and junior high school, which is to open this spring, held a school enrollment briefing at the end of January.
“Each child receives more sufficient attention at a school with a small number of students, I believe,” says a father of two in his 30s who left Namie with his family following the disaster and now lives in Iwaki, a city in the prefecture farther from the nuclear plant. He has decided to return to Namie so that his children can attend the new school.
The opening of the school will be “an important step forward in the efforts to rebuild Namie back into a normal town where we can hear the voices of children,” says Kiichiro Hatakeyama, head of the municipal board of education.
But the number of such families is still small. Only about 10 students are expected to enter the elementary and junior high school in the first year.
Before the 2011 disaster, more than 20,000 people lived in the town. Only about 500 of them had returned by the end of January since the evacuation order was lifted.
Many evacuated residents have been discouraged from returning to the town by the slow progress in the restoration of the living environment.
There are convenience stores in the town but not a supermarket. Local residents have to drive dozens of minutes to shop at the nearest supermarket.
The municipal government is courting supermarket operators to open a store in the town, but the population is still too small to support this kind of business.
There are only clinics for surgery and internal medicine in Namie. Many of the residents who have returned are elderly people, and they are asking for dentists and eye doctors.
NEW APPROACH NEEDED TO ESCAPE FROM SITUATION
The situation is more or less similar in Tomioka and Iitate, two other municipalities where the evacuation order was called off at the same time with Namie. The government’s strategy aimed at encouraging evacuated residents of these communities to return home by stepping up the decontamination efforts has failed to work as expected.
As the living circumstances remain poor, evacuated residents don’t go back to their homes. As the population thus remains small, services necessary for daily life remain unavailable.
To break this never-ending cycle, the central and local governments need to come up with better ideas to improve the living environment.
As for medical and nursing care services, the Fukushima prefectural government and the administration need to work together with organizations involved to provide active support for the efforts to secure service providers instead of leaving the task entirely to the municipalities.
A system should be created to provide policy support for retailers, not just for their preparations to restart their businesses, but also for their actual operations for a certain period of time.
There are obviously limits to what individual municipal governments can do independently to regenerate their cities, towns and villages.
Cooperation among areas, such as joint efforts by multiple municipalities to restore necessary functions and facilities, is essential.
There have been troubling signs that the government’s policy to support the reconstruction of disaster-hit areas tends to focus on the building of new facilities.
Costly projects to build various facilities, such as research and development institutions in the areas of energy and robotics and large sports facilities, are under way in the region.
“Some local government chiefs are forging ahead with public works projects to build facilities in a rush to take advantage of the central government budget for post-disaster reconstruction while the money is available, but they are failing to think about the ongoing costs,” says a senior official at the municipal government of one affected town. “The central government is also acting in a somewhat senseless manner.”
The administration stresses the importance of helping rebuild the lives of local residents. But its priorities in allocating the financial and human resources seem to be messed up.
SUPPORT FROM ENTIRE SOCIETY
In disaster-stricken areas, the vital bonds between people have been totally destroyed by the effects of prolonged periods of living as evacuees. Local communities have also been hurt by conflict and division over such issues as the status of evacuees as to whether they can return home or how much compensation they have received.
Rebuilding the broken human ties is no easy task. But there are some encouraging signs as well.
In Naraha, where about 30 percent of the residents have returned since the evacuation order was lifted two and a half years ago, a small and casual Japanese restaurant named Yui no Hajimari, which opened in September last year, is thriving. At night, it is thronged with residents in the neighborhood and nuclear workers.
Kaori Furuya, the 33-year-old woman who runs the restaurant, used to work in the Tokyo metropolitan area but decided to start the business in the town after she became involved in a project to help people acquire the skills and abilities needed for the reconstruction of affected communities.
“I want to keep operating the restaurant as a place where local residents and people from outside the town develop contacts and enjoy spending time together naturally,” Furuya says.
Iitate will soon launch a program to expand ties and communication with other parts of the nation. The program, dubbed “Furusato Juminhyo” (hometown certificate of residence), will involve various attempts to convey information about Iitate to people outside who want to support the town and provide them with opportunities to mix with local residents, according to the municipal government.
“We will test various ideas designed to build a new village instead of trying to restore the village to its former state,” says Iitate Mayor Norio Kanno.
Seven years since the calamitous nuclear accident, people in Fukushima are still facing a grim reality and fighting an uphill battle to find a way to regain an environment that enables them to enjoy a peaceful and quiet daily life.
What must not be forgotten is the grave fact that the accident occurred in connection with the government’s long-running policy of promoting nuclear power generation.
Our society is facing a serious test of whether it can keep this in mind and commit itself as a whole to supporting the affected communities’ struggles to rebuild themselves.