Nearly half of people currently living in nuclear disaster-hit areas in Fukushima Prefecture where evacuation orders have been lifted are aged 65 or over, a survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun has found.
The population aging rate — the ratio of people in this age group to the population — in these areas is nearly twice the figure before the outbreak of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster in March 2011, as many younger evacuees have not come back to their hometowns for fear of being exposed to radiation or have settled down in areas where they took shelter.
The regional communities in these areas could be endangered because their current population is less than 10 percent of the pre-disaster figure and households in these areas consist of smaller member numbers.
The Mainichi Shimbun surveyed nine cities, towns and villages in Fukushima Prefecture about the situations of areas where evacuation orders had been lifted by this past spring
As of July and August, 5,951 people in 2,970 households have returned to or newly moved into these areas. Of these people, 2,929, or 49.2 percent, are aged at least 65.
According to a national census conducted in 2010 — before the March 2011 disaster — the rate was 27.4 percent in all areas of these nine municipalities.
The latest figure is above the anticipated population aging rate in Japan for 2065, which the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research put at 38.4 percent.
Of all the nine municipalities, the population aging rate in the village of Kawauchi is the highest at 71.3 percent. The town of Naraha has the lowest figure, but it still stands at 37 percent.
The figures in Kawauchi and two other municipalities among these nine are higher than the 60.5 percent in the village of Nanmoku, Gunma Prefecture, which had the highest population aging rate of all municipalities in Japan in the 2015 census.
The number of people who currently live in the areas where evacuation orders have been lifted is less than 10 percent the number of people registered as residents just before the disaster, which was slightly above 60,000.
Members of a growing number of households in these areas are living separately. The average number of members per household is two, almost equal to the figure in Tokyo at 2.02 in the 2015 census, which is the smallest number among all 47 prefectures. In the 2010 pre-disaster census, the average figure in the nine municipalities had been 3.04.
An official of the city of Minamisoma, one of the nine municipalities, expressed concerns about the aging of its population. “There’ll be a growing number of cases where people living by themselves die alone and where an elderly family member has to look after another elderly member,” the official said.
In Minamisoma, only a limited number of medical institutions and nursing care facilities have reopened. “There’s a serious workforce shortage,” the official lamented.
Only about five of 94 members of volunteer firefighters in the village of Katsurao have returned home since the evacuation order was lifted.
An official of the Katsurao Municipal Government voiced fears about the shortage of volunteer firefighters. “We are worried that it will be difficult to mobilize these volunteers if a fire breaks out in the village. As long as there are not enough young people, it’ll be difficult to maintain the fire brigade in the village,” the official said.
Ritsumeikan University associate professor Fuminori Tanba, who was involved in the compilation of restoration plans in municipalities where evacuation orders were issued, noted, “The situation of areas affected by the nuclear crisis heralds the future situation of Japan where the birthrate is declining and the population is aging. Local governments need to join hands across broad areas in addressing challenges that cannot be tackled by a single municipality, such as nursing care and disaster management,” he said.
The deserted streets of the town of Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, are seen at night after its evacuation order was lifted in this undated photo.
Via Fukushima Minpo – It’s like a dream to once again be able to live in my “home, sweet home.”
That’s what Hidezo Sato, 72, says he feels every day since returning to his fallout-hit hometown of Namie, Fukushima Prefecture.
The government partially lifted its nuclear evacuation order on March 31, six years after radiation from the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant forced them to evacuate.
Now, friends come by to chat at his home in the Gongendo district, which is much more comfortable than where he spent the past six years living as a Fukushima evacuee.
But one thing still bugs him — he doesn’t feel safe at night.
According to town officials, only about 300 residents have come back so far.
Many of the houses in Sato’s neighborhood remain uninhabited. So when he spots a car parked in the dark, it frightens him.
“If safety and security aren’t ensured, there won’t be more people coming back,” Sato said.
Sparked by returnees’ concerns about security, many recovering municipalities have set up neighborhood watch groups, installed security cameras and taken other measures to increase safety.
In December, two men were arrested on theft charges after spotted by security cameras.
In Minamisoma, City Hall is installing home security systems for returnees in the Odaka district that allow them to alert a security company simply by pushing a button. As of April 27, about 240 households, or 30 percent of the roughly 770 households that have returned, had the system installed by the city.
The number of police officers brought in from outside Fukushima to help patrol the no-go zone has been reduced to 192, or about 150 fewer than five years ago. The police presence is expected to decline further as decontamination progresses, raising concerns on how to ensure security there in the future.
Many municipalities have been funding security costs with central government subsidies, but it is unclear whether that will continue after fiscal 2020, when the state-designated reconstruction and revitalization period is scheduled to end. The Reconstruction Agency is also slated to be dissolved by then.
A top Reconstruction Agency official would only say it will “consider the issue in the future.”
For its part, the town of Namie is expected to spend about ¥700 million in fiscal 2017 to fund the neighborhood watch teams and surveillance systems. But town officials are worried whether they’ll be able to afford the systems once the subsidies dry up.
Reconstruction minister Masayoshi Yoshino, a Lower House politician representing the Fukushima No. 5 district, said in April that he will consider creating a new government entity to take over the work of the Reconstruction Agency.
“I want the government to tell us that it will continue to fund” such projects, said Namie Deputy Mayor Katsumi Miyaguchi.
More than 80 percent of households voluntarily evacuating from Fukushima Prefecture after the nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant apparently have not returned to the prefecture even after the prefectural government stopped providing free housing, according to a survey by the Fukushima prefectural government.
More than six years have passed since the nuclear accident occurred. Many households have started new lives in the locations they evacuated to outside of the prefecture, finding jobs and seeing their children advancing to higher education. More and more voluntary evacuees have settled down in their new homes.
The survey was conducted on 12,239 households who voluntarily evacuated from areas outside the evacuation zone, including households in a part of eastern areas of the village of Kawauchi and other places where evacuation orders were lifted by June 2015, when the Fukushima prefectural government announced a plan to stop providing free housing.
Before the termination at the end of March this year, prefectural government officials visited individual households concerned to learn their intentions regarding where they would live from April. The prefectural government compiled the survey based on the results obtained from 8,744 households whose intentions the prefectural government could learn.
Of them, 4,781 households evacuated to areas outside Fukushima Prefecture, and 3,736 of those said they would continue to live in the prefectures where they had evacuated to.
Furthermore, 169 households said they would move to other prefectures from their current evacuation destinations. A total of 81.7 percent of those living outside Fukushima Prefecture said they would continue to do so.
The prefecture failed to learn the intentions of about 3,500 households. An official at the prefectural government said, “There might be more voluntary evacuees who will not return to Fukushima Prefecture.”
Of the 3,963 households who evacuated to other municipalities within the prefecture, 2,639 households, or 66.6 percent, said they would return to the municipalities where their homes are located.
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.
Six years after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the government has lifted evacuation orders on four municipalities around the plant, allowing residents to return home for the first time since the meltdowns. The author, who has been involved in reconstruction planning since the evacuation orders were first given, calls for a multiple-track plan to meet the complicated needs of those who return and evacuees who continue to live elsewhere as evacuees.
The Beginning of the End, or the Prelude to New Heartache?
The Japanese government on March 31 and April 1 of this year lifted evacuation orders for areas around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station it issued in the wake of the nuclear accident at the plant more than six years ago. The decision finally allowed some 32,000 residents of the four radiation-affected municipalities of Iidate, Kawamata, Namie, and Tomioka to return to their homes. Following the move, the only places still subject to evacuation orders are Futaba and Ōkuma (where the Daiichi plant is located) and parts of five neighboring towns and villages.
The Japanese media almost universally hailed the decision as a “major milestone” toward residents of affected areas rebuilding their lives. But this supposed milestone can be taken in two quite different ways. In much of the media there was an optimistic sense of a return to normalcy, resulting in the view that the evacuation orders lifting was a long-awaited new beginning in the recovery effort, and that residents would finally be able to start rebuilding their lives and communities. Another, more cynical view, however, is that it merely marked the start of new string of woes. Considering the challenges that face residents, in my opinion this second interpretation is closer to the truth.
The optimistic view is pushed by the national and prefectural authorities in charge of advancing recovery efforts in Fukushima, and is based on the following scenario.
1. Designate evacuation zones across areas affected by radiation, and provide support to evacuees in the form of temporary housing and compensation.
2. Decontaminate the affected areas.
3. Prepare to lift the evacuation orders as radiation levels fall.
4. Rebuild local infrastructure and reestablish local services, rebuilding health, welfare, and retail facilities where necessary.
5. Lift evacuation orders.
6. Evacuees return home.
For the thousands of evacuees forced to live away from their homes over the past six years, however, there is quite a different sense to the orders being lifted. Some people will decide to return home while others will remain where they are. No matter their decision, though, we must face the fact that new challenges await both groups.
Many of those most eager to return home are the elderly, but health and welfare provisions are still far from satisfactory in many areas. There are also lingering doubts for other members of the community, such as the future of the area’s farming, forestry, and fisheries. Local economies have been devastated, raising the question of employment and whether people will even be able to buy daily necessities, let alone support themselves long term.
The situation at the power plant also remains precarious and much work remains to be done. The problem of radioactive water has yet to be solved and a medium-term storage facility must be found for huge amounts of contaminated material. However, there is not even a timetable for when these will be accomplished. Faced with such uncertainty, many people will simply choose to remain where they are rather than risk returning home. However, this decision brings a different set of problems, as many of the support systems put in place to help evacuees will be cut off now that they are no longer prevented from going back.
In surveys carried out between 2014 and 2017 by the Reconstruction Ministry, the Fukushima Prefectural government, and the evacuated municipalities, more than half of residents of Futaba, Namie, Ōkuma, and Tomioka said they did not plan to return to their homes after the evacuation orders were lifted. In other areas where more than a year has already passed since evacuation orders were rescinded, the number of residents who have returned remains at 20% or less everywhere except Tamura. These sobering figures illustrate the steep road awaiting evacuees wishing to go home.
Assessing Conditions in the Affected Areas
The fact that authorities lifted evacuation orders despite so many issues still unresolved demonstrates a disregard for the challenges confronting residents. Now more than ever, we must consider and assess the uncertainties residents face and ascertain future challenges.
In the areas recently deemed fit again for human habitation, flexible containers filled with contaminated materials still lie in heaps at various temporary storage points, where they have been since clean-up operations began. While the plan is to eventually move these to medium-term storage facilities, I wonder if authorities when deciding to lift the evacuation order really understood the anxiety and stress placed on residents who must live their lives surrounded by mountains of contaminated debris.
Containers of contaminated soil in temporary storage await safety checks in Minamisōma, Fukushima, on June 11, 2016.
The town of Hirono is situated 22 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi. Following the disaster, the town’s medical services fell to the sole efforts of the head of the local hospital, Dr. Takano Hideo. However, the future of the hospital was thrown in doubt when Takano died in a fire late last year. Nakayama Yūjiro, a physician in Tokyo, assisted for a time, spending two months earlier this year as the hospital’s resident doctor.
Nakayama wrote a diary based on his experience, which was published in April 2017 by Nikkei Business online as Ishi ga mita Fukushima no riaru (The Reality of Fukushima: A Doctor’s View). In his account, Nakayama describes the ongoing tragedy of the disaster and discusses the numerous people who have died from conditions brought on by the stress of residing in temporary living conditions. He points to three main reasons for these deaths: Separation from family and loss of community; interruption of ongoing medical treatment; and change of environment. Nakayama’s experience illustrates how in indirect ways, the death toll from the disaster continues to rise.
Giving Up on the Dream of Going Home
The situation is worse still for people whose homes are subject to ongoing evacuation orders. Sasaki Yasuko, who was evacuated from her home in Namie, spent the time since the disaster in temporary housing in the town of Koori. In a 90-page record of her life as an evacuee called Osoroshii hōshanō no sora no shita (Under a Fearsome Radioactive Sky), she writes: “I don’t want to die in temporary housing. That’s all I ask. Everyone is talking about wrapping things up and bringing an end to the disaster—but I don’t want my life to end like this. . . . Since the disaster, there seem to be slogans everywhere I go that are meant to keep our spirits up. But what more can I do than what I’m already doing? I wish someone would tell me what I’m expected to do.”
I met Sasaki for the last time in the spring of 2013. She was still living in temporary housing and was working to complete a model of her home in Namie, desperately trying to recreate from memories a place she thought she would never see again. Around a month after that, I learned that she had been hospitalized and had passed away at the age of 84. I also heard that before entering the hospital, she had taken her model and smashed it to pieces.
Sasaki Yasuko toward the end of her life, at work on a model of her abandoned home in Namie.
I had many other opportunities to talk to people whose homes are in areas “closed to habitation indefinitely.” Several of them told me that when they had tried to tidy up one of their short visits home, they found their houses in a state of chaos as a result of intrusions by boars and other wild animals. The residents asked the authorities to do something about it, saying, “Can’t you catch the boars, or at least hire someone to stop them from getting into our houses?” But no business could be persuaded to take the project on as everyone was too afraid of the high radiation levels.
Faced with difficulties and indignities like this, people’s eagerness to return home slowly withered. They say that the radiation tore everything up by the roots—history, culture, community—and they wonder if any amount of compensation can make up for such a loss. Robbed of their local heritage, many residents of affected areas continue to lament the cultural implications of the disaster.
The Need to Support Both Returnees and Evacuees
The authorities imagine a simplistic scenario where lifting the evacuation orders results in everyone returning home and living happily ever after. But life is not so simple, and this storyline does not include solutions for problems like those outlined above. As well as working to restore and rebuild the physical infrastructure in the evacuated towns and villages, the authorities need to work with residents to develop programs that will help them get their lives back on track. These programs need to have realistic outlooks of the future and must consider the hopes of the residents themselves.
From the initial days after the disaster, the message from the national government and Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Daiichi plant, has been: “Leave this to us.” This has permeated their attitude in establishing support efforts for evacuees in temporary housing, setting radiation safety standards, cleanup work, compensation negotiations, livelihood support, and reconstruction plans. Everything has been handled in an ad hoc fashion, leading to misunderstanding and anxiety and opening gaps between the authorities and those they are supposedly trying to help. For residents, all these actions are closely connected. There is still no process for building consensus and bridging the gulf that has formed between the authorities and the residents who should be playing a leading role in rebuilding their communities. It is in this context that the evacuation orders were lifted.
The authorities should make it a priority to draw up a less simplistic scenario that better reflects the reality on the ground. There must be a multiple-track plan balancing programs to rebuild communities and support returnees’ lives back home with measures that provide help to evacuees who choose to remain where they are. One idea worth considering would be a program that allowed evacuees to divide their lives between two areas for a bridging period, giving them time to rebuild their hometowns while remaining in temporary housing. One way this could be accomplished is to provide residences where evacuees could live on a part-time basis as they work to rebuild their communities and repair their damaged and neglected homes.
(Originally published in Japanese on May 9, 2017. Banner photo: A photographer snaps photos of somei-yoshino cherries in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, on April 12, 2017. Most of the 2.2-kilometer stretch of cherry trees is barricaded off inside an evacuation area. Since this spring, the first 300 meters of the road have been opened to the public during the daytime. The district is now designated an “area closed to habitation provisionally.” © Jiji.)
The evacuation orders for most of the village of Iitate have been lifted. But where are the people?
The build-up of contaminated bags is slowly changing the landscape of Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture.
IITATE, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – Some day when I have done what I set out to do, I’ll return home one of these days, where the mountains are green, my old country home, where the waters are clear, my old country home.
— “Furusato,” Tatsuyuki Takano
A cherry tree is blooming in the spring sunshine outside the home of Masaaki Sakai but there is nobody to see it. The house is empty and boarded up. Weeds poke through the ground. All around are telltale signs of wild boar, which descend from the mountains to root and forage in the fields. Soon, the 60-year-old farmhouse Sakai shared with his mother and grandmother will be demolished.
“I don’t feel especially sad,” Sakai says. “We have rebuilt our lives elsewhere. I can come back and look around — just not live here.”
A few hundred meters away the road is blocked and a beeping dosimeter begins nagging at the bucolic peace. The reading here is a shade over 1 microsievert per hour — a fraction of what it was when Sakai’s family fled in 2011.
The radiation goes up and down, depending on the weather, Sakai says. In gullies and cracks in the road, and up in the trees, it soars. With almost everyone gone, the monkeys who live in the forests have grown bolder, stopping to stare at the odd car that appears instead of fleeing, as they used to.
A cluster of 20 small hamlets spread over 230 square kilometers, Iitate was undone by a quirk of the weather in the days that followed the nuclear accident in March 2011. Wind carried radioactive particles from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which is located about 45 kilometers away, that fell in rain and snow on the night of March 15, 2011. After more than a month of indecision, during which the villagers lived with some of the highest radiation recorded in the disaster (the reading outside the village office on the evening of March 15 was a startling 44.7 microsieverts per hour), the government ordered them to leave.
Now, the government says it is safe to go back. With great fanfare, all but the still heavily contaminated south of Iitate, Nagadoro, was reopened on March 31.
A radiation monitoring post is installed in the village of Iitate on March 27, ahead of the lifting of an evacuation order for most areas of the village. The post bears the message ‘Welcome home.’
The reopening fulfills a pledge made by Mayor Norio Kanno: Iitate was the first local authority in Fukushima Prefecture to set a date for ending evacuation in 2012, when the mayor promised to reboot the village in five years. The village has a new sports ground, convenience store and udon restaurant. A clinic sees patients twice a week. All that’s missing is people.
Waiting to meet Kanno in the government offices of Iitate, the eye falls on a book displayed in the reception: “The Most Beautiful Villages in Japan.” Listed at No. 12 is the beloved rolling patchwork of forests, hills and fields the mayor has governed for more than two decades — population 6,300, famous for its neat terraces of rice and vegetables, its industrious organic farmers, its wild mushrooms and the black wagyu cow that has taken the name of the area.
The description in the book is mocked by reality outside. The fields are mostly bald, shorn of vegetation in a Promethean attempt to decontaminate it of the radiation that fell six years ago. There is not a cow or a farmer in sight. Tractors sit idle in the fields. The local schools are empty. As for the population, the only part of the village that looks busy is the home for the elderly across the road from Kanno’s office.
A school sits deserted in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, in April.
“The village will never return to how it used to be before the disaster,” Kanno says, “but it may develop in a different way.”
Recovery has started, Kanno says, wondering whether returnees will be able to start building a village they like.
“Who knows? Maybe one day that may help bring back evacuees or newcomers,” Kanno says. “Life doesn’t improve if you remain pessimistic.”
Even for those who have permanently left, he adds, “it doesn’t mean that their furusato can just disappear.”
The pull of the furusato (hometown) is exceptionally strong in Japan, says Tom Gill, a British anthropologist who has written extensively about Iitate.
Yearning for it “is expressed in countless sentimental ballads,” Gill says. “One particular song, simply titled ‘Furusato,’ has been sung by children attending state schools in Japan since 1914.”
The appeal has persisted despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that the rural/urban imbalance in Japan is more skewed than in any other developed nation, Gill says; just 10 percent of the nation’s population live in the country.
This may partly explain the extraordinary efforts to bring east Fukushima back to life. By one study, more than ¥2.34 trillion has been spent decontaminating an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island.
There has been no official talk of abandoning it. Indeed, any suggestion otherwise could be controversial: When industry minister Yoshio Hachiro called the abandoned communities “towns of death” in September 2011, the subsequent outrage forced him to quit a week later.
Instead, the area was divided into three zones with awkward euphemisms to suggest just the opposite: Communities with annual radiation measuring 20 millisieverts or less (the typical worldwide limit for workers in nuclear plants) are “being prepared for lifting of evacuation order,” districts of 20-50 millisieverts per year are “no-residence zones” and the most heavily contaminated areas of 50 millisieverts or more per year, such as Nagadoro, are “difficult-to-return.”
In September 2015, Naraha, which is located 15 kilometers south of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, became the first town in the prefecture to completely lift the evacuation order imposed after the triple meltdown. Naraha has a publicly built shopping street, a new factory making lithium batteries, a kindergarten and a secondary school.
A team of decontamination workers has been sent to every house — in some cases several times. Of the pre-disaster 7,400 residents, about 1,500 mainly elderly people have returned, the local government says, although that figure is likely inflated.
In Iitate, the cost of decontamination works out at about ¥200 million per household. That, and the passage of time, has dramatically reduced radiation in many areas to below 20 millisieverts a year. However, Kanno says, the cleanup extends to only 20 meters around each house, and three-quarters of the village is forested mountains. In windy weather, radioactive elements are blown back onto the fields and homes.
“All that money, and for what?” asks Nobuyoshi Itoh, a farmer and critic of the mayor. “Would you bring children here and let them roam in the fields and forests?”
Nobuyoshi Itoh walks through a forest by his land in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture.
Itoh opted to stay in one of the more heavily toxic parts of the village after everyone fled, with little apparent ill effect, although he says his immune system has weakened.
One of the reasons why Iitate was such a pleasant place to live before the nuclear crisis, he recalls, was its unofficial barter system. “Most people here never bought vegetables; they grew them,” he says. “I would bring someone potatoes and they would give me eggs. That’s gone now.”
At most, he says, a few hundred people are back — but they’re invariably older or retired.
“They alone will not sustain the village,” Itoh says. “Who will drive them around or look after them when they are sick?”
As the depth of the disaster facing Iitate became clear, local people began to squabble among themselves. Some were barely scraping a living and wanted to leave, although saying so out loud — abandoning the furusato — was often difficult. Many joined lawsuits against the government.
Even before disaster struck, the village had lost a third of its population since 1970 as its young folk relocated to the cities, mirroring the hollowing-out of rural areas across the country. Some wanted to shift the entire village elsewhere, but Kanno wouldn’t hear of it.
Compensation could be a considerable incentive. In addition to ¥100,000 a month to cover the “mental anguish” of being torn from their old lives, there was extra money for people with houses or farms. A five-year lump sum was worth ¥6 million per person — twice that for Nagadoro. One researcher estimates a rough figure of ¥50 million for the average household, sufficient to leave behind the uncertainties and worries of Iitate and buy a house a few dozen miles away, close enough to return for work or to the village’s cool, tranquil summers.
Masaaki Sakai stands outside his home in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture.
Many have already done so. Though nobody knows the true figure, the local talk is that perhaps half of the villagers have permanently left. Surveys suggest fewer than 30 percent want to return, and even less in the case of Nagadoro.
Yoshitomo Shigihara, head of the Nagadoro hamlet, says many families made their decision some time ago. His grandchildren, he says, should not have to live in such a place.
“It’s our job to protect them,” Shigihara says. He lives in the city of Fukushima but returns roughly every 10 days to inspect his house and weed the land.
Even with so much money spent, Shigihara doubts whether it will bring many of his friends or relatives back. At 70 years of age, he is not sure that he even wants to return, he says.
“I sometimes get upset thinking about it, but I can’t talk with anyone in Fukushima, even my family, because we often end up quarreling,” he says. “People try to feel out whether the others are receiving benefits, what they are getting or how much they received in compensation. It’s very stressful to talk to anyone in Iitate. I’m starting to hate myself because I end up treating others badly out of frustration.”
Kanno has won six elections since 1996 and has overseen every step of Iitate’s painful rehabilitation, navigating between the anger and despair of his constituents and the official response to the disaster from the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (Tepco), operator of the crippled nuclear plant.
Ground Self-Defense Force members decontaminate areas tainted with radioactive substances in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, in December 2011.
He wants more money to complete decontamination work (the government claims it is finished), repair roads and infrastructure. Returnees need financial support, he says. However, it is time, he believes, to end the monthly compensation, which, in his view, induces dependency.
“If people keep saying that life is hard, they will not be able to recover,” he says. “What we need is support for livelihoods.”
A new system gives seed money to people who voluntarily come back to start businesses or farms.
“We don’t want to give the impression that we are influencing people’s decisions or forcing them to return,” the mayor says, using the phrase “kokoro ni fumikomu,” which literally means “to step into hearts.”
Yet, next year, thousands of Iitate evacuees will face a choice: Go back or lose the money that has helped sustain them elsewhere for six years. Evacuation from areas exposed to less than 20 millisieverts per year will be regarded as “voluntary” under the official compensation scheme.
This dilemma was expressed with unusual starkness last month by Masahiro Imamura, the now sacked minister in charge of reconstructing Tohoku. Pressed by a freelance reporter, Imamura tetchily said it was up to the evacuees themselves — their “own responsibility, their own choice” — whether or not to return.
The comment touched a nerve. The government is forcing people to go back, some argued, employing a form of economic blackmail, or worse, kimin seisaku — abandoning them to their fate.
Itoh is angry at the resettlement. For him, politics drives the haste to put the disaster behind.
“It’s inhuman to make people go back to this,” he says. Like the physical damage of radiation, he says, the psychological damage is also invisible: “A lot of people are suffering in silence.”
Itoh believes the government wants to show that the problems of nuclear power can be overcome so it can switch the nation’s idling nuclear reactors back on. Just four are in operation while the fate of 42 others remains in political and legal limbo. Public opinion remains opposed to their restart.
Many people began with high hopes in Iitate but have gradually grown distrustful of the village government, says Kenichi Hasegawa, a farmer who wrote a book titled “Genpatsu ni Furusato o Ubawarete” (“Fukushima’s Stolen Lives”) in 2012. Right from the start, he says, the mayor desperately tried to hide the shocking radiation outside his office.
“Villagers have started losing interest,” Hasegawa says.
Meetings called by the mayor are poorly attended.
“But they hold meetings anyway,” Hasegawa says, “just to say they did.”
Kanno rejects talk of defeatism. A tourist shop is expected to open in August that will attract people to the area, he says. Some villagers are paving entrances to their houses, using money from the reconstruction budget. As for radiation, everyone “has their own idea” about its effects. The lifting of the evacuation is only the start.
Itoh says he once trusted public officials but those days are long gone. By trying to save the village, he says, the mayor may in fact be killing it.
Bags filled with contaminated waste sit in a field in the village of Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, in March 2016.