Translation Sean Arclight
The commune of Iitate, in the department of Fukushima, was hard hit by the fallout from the disaster of March 2011. Deserted by the inhabitants after the evacuation order, it bears the aftermath of the accident and several years of abandonment. While authorities encourage return and abolish aid to refugees, former residents are afraid to return to an environment where radioactivity remains above international standards.
The Tohoku disaster, which was accompanied by an unprecedented industrial disaster with the explosion of the Fukushima daiichi power station on March 11, 2011, has not finished generating debate and tensions over the proposed solutions for the management of the protection of the inhabitants. The situation is complex, mixing international and national industrial interests, the need for local revitalization and health and social management. The inhabitants are torn between the desire for an impossible return, the policies of resilience constrained  and the difficult resettlement in their new host community (Asanuma-Brice, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017).
In this article, we propose to make an initial assessment of the situation in Iitate, an old village evacuated after the disaster, reopened to housing in 2017, and whose former residents saw the public financial aid suspended at the shelter in April 2018.
1. The village of Iitate: between ocean and mountain
The department of Fukushima is crossed by two large mountain ranges: Ousanmiyaku, the longest mountain range in Japan, which crosses the main island from Aomori Prefecture to the north, ending in the south of Tochigi, and Abukumakochi (commonly known as Abukumasanchi) stretching from south of Miyagi to the north of Ibaraki Department. These two rocky mountain ranges cut the territory into three zones: in the west the region of Aizu, in the center Nakadôri and in the east, the area of Hamadôri which runs along the coast to extend to the Pacific (figure 1 ).
Figure 1. Localization of Iitate in Hamadôri Region and Fukushima Prefecture
Iitate is located northwest of Hamadôri, on the emerged part of the Pacific Plate. The inhabited area is engulfed in the heart of the Abukumakochi Mountains, whose highest point on the perimeter of the community is Mount Hanatsukaya (918.5 meters). The population was approximately 6,000 at the time of the accident. The forests that cover almost the entire territory
(Figure 2) are rich in a variety of trees: ginkgo biloba, keyaki (Zelvoka serrata), fir, beech, harigiri (kaopanax pictus, a thorn), osmanthus, oaks … In addition to the forest (75% of the forest area of which about 50% is state-owned), the territory of the commune was mainly devoted to agriculture (8% of meadows for raising beef, known as “black beef”, 6.2% of rice fields, 4.9% of fields, the remaining 7% are scattered in various activities [source:http://iitate-madei.com/village01.html%5D
Figure 2. A forest environment about 40 kilometers from the Fukushima daiichi power station
The location of the urbanized areas within the basins between each mountain has made them particularly vulnerable to the deposits of isotopes carried by the winds coming from the Fukushima dai ichi plant (Asanuma-Brice, Libération, 2018).
The municipality is thus at the extreme north-west of the torch of contamination, the winds carrying the cloud laden with nuclear material having rushed into it. As the radioactive cloud flew over the area on March 14th, the snow deposited contamination on the ground, soiling for many years a lush nature.
Figure 3. Radiation doses and prohibited area after the disaster
In 2011, a few months after the readjustment of the evacuation zone first demarcated in a semi-circle of 20 km around the power plant (Figure 3), the village of Iitate is finally evacuated as well as all the communes on which the radioactive cloud had fallen (Figure 4). If since 2016 the evacuation order had been pushed back under the pressure of the inhabitants, it has been effective since March 2017. In April 2018, the financial aid to the shelter allocated to the former inhabitants of the village are abolished. Since 2014, the government had opted for a risk communication budget to influence refugees on their return. The government and international institutions maintain the argument of too high a cost that would be linked to a shelter policy (Asanuma-Brice, 2014).
Figure 4. Status of prohibition lifts in the area, situation in 2018
This decision is not without arousing the confusion of scientists specialized in nuclear physics who believe that it is still much too early to take such measures. This is particularly the case of Professor Imanaka Tetsuji, a professor at the Nuclear Experimentation Center at Kyôto University, or Kôji Itonaga, a professor in the Department of Biological Resources at Nihondaigaku University in Tokyo. Both of them presented the results of their expertise at the Iisora symposium, which was held in Fukushima on 17 February 2018 by former village residents and researchers of various persuasions to discuss the relevance or otherwise of this decision (figure 5).
Figure 5. Iisora Symposium in Fukushima, February 17, 2018
Iisora Symposium in Fukushima, February 17, 2018 – Professor Imanaka (Kyota University Nuclear Experiment Center) presents his results: “Is 20 msv an acceptable safety rate? “. Photo: Cécile Asanuma-Brice
2. Did the decontamination work?
In the village of Iitate, the situation is still far from settled. The multiple decontamination campaigns have not been able to overcome the radioactivity rate, which is still equivalent to 10 times the pre-accident standard for measurements made around dwellings, and 20 times for measurements taken in the mountains. In August 2017, a measurement campaign carried out by Professor Itonaga’s team (University of Japan / Nihondaigaku) on 8 houses in the village revealed rates ranging between 0.15 and 0.4 microsievert / h for measurements made on the floor, and 0.23 to 0.78 microsievert / h for measurements made near the ceiling of dwellings. In 2014, the rates were considerably higher, up to 2 microsievert / hour depending on the case. There is therefore a drop, but nevertheless deemed insufficient by the two teachers to allow the return to housing, especially as outside homes, rates recorded are flying quickly. The average measured on the ground is 0.65 microsievert / h, that made at 1 meter from the ground is 0.59 microsievert / h. These houses surrounded by forest suffer the effects of surrounding vegetation that can not be decontaminated. These houses paradoxically become victims of their natural environment, polluted for many years to come. Rainfall following steep gradients carries isotopes to valleys where dwellings are located which in turn see the increased contamination rate despite repeated waves of decontamination.
On the sample taken, Professor Itonaga (Figure 6) estimates that it will take another fifty years before the average level of environmental irradiation returns to 1 msv / year, a rate internationally defined as acceptable for the population . In addition, this rate of acceptability has been increased to 20 msv / year, the municipality being part of the perimeter classified as a state of emergency. The removal of the evacuation order is therefore decided in the state by the administration which, while recognizing the instability of the environment still classified “emergency zone”, forced, by removing subsidies to the shelter and by closing temporary housing estates, residents return to live in areas still contaminated.
Figure 6. Iisora Symposium in Fukushima, February 17, 2018
Iisora Symposium in Fukushima, February 17, 2018 – Professor Itonaga (Department of Biological Resources, Nihondaigaku University, Tokyo) leads the debate with the speakers of the day, composed of scientists and former residents of the village of Iitate. Photo: Cécile Asanuma-Brice
In 2017, the authorities declared that they wanted to recycle all the waste below 8,000 Bq / kg, although the norm before the accident was 100 Bq / kg, in road works. Nevertheless, the radioactivity levels measured in the Iitate region are more than twice this threshold, with peaks of up to 40 000 Bq / kg for the measurement of only cesium 134 and 137 in the surrounding mountains. In June 2017, measurements on the sap of trees in the mountains adjacent to the dwellings revealed levels of 143 298 Bq / kg (by association of the measurement of 2 cesium 134 and 137) for an oak tree and 39 185 Bq / kg for the sap of a cherry tree (see Box 1).
Although the contamination is disparate and mobile depending on precipitation, and the decontamination is momentarily effective on a lot of soil for which 15 cm of surface soil replaced by healthy soil had been scraped off, the half-life of cesium 137 being thirty years, it seems difficult to consider a decline in the general rate of radiation irradiation before the end of this period.
Radioactivity, becquerels, cesium, what are we talking about?
The becquerel per gram (or per kilogram) characterizes the overall content of radioactive elements. Cesium 134 and 137 are the two main nuclides dispersed in the environment after the explosion of the Fukushima plant. It is found in large quantities and potentially far from the plant. Other nuclides such as plutonium or strontium are also present, but in smaller quantities and mainly within a hundred kilometers around the plant because these particles are heavier. The half-life of cesium is 30 years on average. However, “cesium is an alkali metal. For the human body, it strongly resembles potassium. But the body contains significant amounts of potassium, it is essential to humans […]. And for this reason, when the cesium is released into the environment, the body considers it as it does with the alkali metal potassium, that is to say, it integrates and accumulates in our body. “*
* Hirano, Kasai, 2016, extract translated from Japanese by Robert Stolz and English by Geoconfluences
3. The village of Iitate, an impossible return?
The village of Iitate which extends over 230 km² had already begun its demographic decline before the evacuation, from 9 385 inhabitants in 1970 to 6 209 in 2010 (Figure 7). It is only composed of 41 people according to the authorities in 2015. In 2018, part of the population returned to live in these territories, unable to pay rent elsewhere without subsidies from the state, and today about 700 people who returned to live in the village.
Figure 7. Communal population of the village of Iitate 1970-2015
Of the initial pre-disaster population, 4,934 persons  in 2,032 households fled to the interior of Fukushima Prefecture, with the vast majority in Fukushima itself (3,174 people) ( Figure 9). Only 297 persons, divided into 156 households, migrated out of the department, mainly to the Tokyo area (Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa and Tokyo departments, see Figure 8). A total of 90% of the population has moved in seven years while 546 people in 288 households plan to return to the village. For the latter, the breakdown by household shows that they are almost exclusively couples without children, the size of these households being 1.9 persons. They are preparing to enter an ecosystem mainly composed of forests, formerly anthropized, but left abandoned for 7 years. Thus, the rice fields formerly in activity would require a colossal work to be rehabilitated. The forests themselves are no longer maintained and nature has regained its rights in the vast majority of the territory.
Figures 8 and 9. Destination of refugees from the village of Iitate
The lifting of benefits in April 2018 led, for most of the elderly without resources, to a forced return to a deserted region. Of the 4,934 people who sought refuge within the department, 384 of them, divided into 233 households, were housed in seven temporary housing sites that were being closed. 363 persons (174 households) were rehoused in public housing, or 8% of the total, 1,053 (550 households) are relocated to private sector housing rented by the public services, and the 49%, made up of 3,119 people in 1,060 households, is hosted by parents. 15 single people are in retirement homes.
In December 2017, a survey conducted by Professor Itonaga’s laboratory of 52 households totaling 195 people revealed the main trends in residents’ intentions regarding the return policy (Figure 10).
Figure 10. Decisions of residents about their return and their house in Iitate.
These statistics show that of the 28.9% of households that decided to return, 11.1% of households do so to comply with the order of the administrative authorities, but 17.8% because they can not to assume their daily lives elsewhere without the help of the allowances. 20% of these households, despite the financial strain they are in, will not return, and 46.7% have not yet decided in December 2017.
The results of the multiple-choice questionnaire concerning the types of housing within the village of Iitate for the inhabitants who returned to live in the village show that while 25% of these 17 households were able to renovate their former home, 25% will preserve it in its current state, and 12.5% do not plan to rebuild it, for lack of physical and / or financial means. However, most buildings were made with natural materials and therefore perishable (wood structure, tatami, etc.). Japan is under the influence of a humid sub-continental climate in summer, which results in the simultaneous recording of high heat with a very high level of humidity. A monsoon season (May-June) precedes two typhoon seasons that sweep the archipelago in June and September, producing very high rainfall and generating regular floods. All these reasons make frequent renovation of buildings necessary. These buildings, which have been vacant for seven years, are for the most part in an advanced state of disrepair. In addition, animals have reconquered these spaces long uninhabited. Houses ravaged by wild boars or cattle, come to discover the places, are not rare. We can therefore assume that in the 37.5% of households that will preserve their habitat in the current state, a good part will live in precarious and unstable conditions.
The main reason (68.9%) for which the inhabitants do not wish to return to their village is the fact of having to live without the proximity of their children and grandchildren who, as for them, will not return.
A significant part of the former inhabitants justifies their decision of no return by the refusal to live in a territory where mountains and forests are still contaminated (64.4%). Forests covering more than 70% of the town, this point is important and can not be easily resolved. The same percentage of people (about 65%) are reluctant to return because of the renewal of nature on the village. Among other things, there is the overabundance of wild animals that have regained their rights over these territories .
For 62.2% of them, the absence of shops, hospitals and other daily services are at the origin of their decision of no return.
53.3% believe that the level of ambient radioactivity is still too high to consider returning to live in their village. 51.1% mention the impossibility of having an agricultural activity, 51.1% are worried about future health effects. A similarly large number of inhabitants, 46.7% will not return because of the presence of sacks of contaminated soil strewn on the territory of the municipality. Secondary reasons (below 40%) relate to the inability to consume mushrooms and other mountain plants, the absence of neighbors and the breakdown of community links. For some residents of Iitate, it’s simply “inhuman to get people to find that” (McNeill & Matsumoto, 2017).
4. What are the inhabitants’ demands?
The question of whether the government or TEPCO took responsibility for the accident led the residents to form associations to defend their rights in court. Nevertheless, these approaches are parallel and do not respond to situations of resettlement forced by the authorities. We list below some points regularly mentioned by the inhabitants during our field surveys:
it would be desirable for the authorities to recognize the difficulty of maintaining the right of residence in municipalities where the rate of contamination remains high due to “long-term industrial pollution”. Thus, for the inhabitants who wish to return, allowances should be put in place in order to allow the renovation of their habitat, as well as the decontamination works which are imposed at regular rate.
a constant and free health monitoring of the re-entrant populations
frequent radioactivity measurements, not only atmospheric, but also plants and other consumer products.
for those who decide to live outside the municipality: help and support should be established to ensure, if not possession, in any case the rental of a secure property in the place as well as job search support for people of working age. For people who are no longer able to work, a grant must be awarded to them to enable them to support their daily lives.
the problems relating to simultaneous membership of two separate communes due to the duplication of the place of settlement also remain to be resolved. This generates questions relating to the payment of local taxes, the right to vote as well as various everyday documents (driver’s license, administrative point of attachment for any employment procedure, etc.).
a recurring problem is the presence of radioactive waste in the territory that participates in maintaining a high level of ambient radioactivity. The need to create adapted legislative rules recognizing the damage caused by the obligation to live in a territory affected by an industrial disaster and to obtain the appropriate compensation.
The removal of the evacuation order in the contaminated areas of Fukushima prefecture plunges the population into the deepest disarray. The impossible choices that the inhabitants have been facing for seven years now lead them too many times to turn to the ultimate exit: suicide.
On March 3, 2018, the local newspaper, Fukushima Minpo wrote: “In the heart of the shelter, more than 2,211 people died from reasons directly attributable to the stress of the shelter.” The most affected municipalities are Minamisôma (507 people), Namie (414) Tomioka (410 people), Futaba (147 people), in other words, the communes whose population was evacuated without support for a possible reintegration in their place of residence. ‘Home. The number of deaths in question here exceeds those attributable to the natural disaster (tsunami or earthquake). Of a total of 4,040 inhabitants of Fukushima County who lost their lives for reasons directly related to the disaster, 1,605 (39.7%) people died as a result of the natural disaster and 2,211 (54.7%) because of the mismanagement of the shelter.
The suicide of these people is attributable to the stress of the forced return policies, the prolongation of the accommodation for seven years in temporary housing (whereas this period is limited to four years in the law), the maintenance in the hope of a possible return of people, often elderly, who are confronted with a deplorable reality of the environment in which they return nevertheless, for not being able to assume their life elsewhere.
On February 21, 2018 national and local newspapers dedicated theirs to the suicide of a 102-year-old man from the village of Iitate. ” Oh ! I think I lived too long, “were the last words of Mr. Okubo, a farmer of Iitate like so many others.
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- MCNEILL David, MATSUMOTO Chie (2017) : “In Fukushima, a land where few return : The evacuation orders for most of the village of Iitate have been lifted. But where are the people?”, Japan Times, 2017 May 13.
- MIZOGUCHI Masaru (2013) : “Remediation of Paddy Soil Contaminated by Radiocesium in Iitate Village in Fukushima Prefecture”, in T.M. Nakanishi and K. Tanoi (eds.), Agricultural Implications of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, pp. 131 – 142.
- SATO Akihiko, (2017) : Challenges of just rebuilding, case studies of Iitate Village and Tomioka Town, Fukushima Prefecture, in Rebuilding Fukushima, Mitsuo Yamakawa, Daisaku Yamamoto, pp. 39-47.
- TSUJIUCHI Takuya, (2015) : Mental Health Impact of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: Post-Traumatic Stress and Psycho-Socio-Economic Factors, Fukushima Global Communication Programme Working Paper Series Number 8, United Nations University.
- “The struggle to repopulate Fukushima, Six years after the nuclear disaster, Japan is pushing villagers back to the homes they left”, The Economist, May 2017.
From the same author:
- Cécile Asanuma-Brice : (2018) « L’être en son milieu, du rapport humain-objet-milieu au Japon comme ailleurs sur la planète », Libération, 11 juin 2018,
- Cécile Asanuma-Brice (2017) “Atomic Fission and Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown: When politics prevails over scientific proof”, in Christophe Thouny and Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (eds.), Planetary Atmospheres and Urban Society After Fukushima, Palgrave McMillian.
- Cécile Asanuma-Brice, « Les migrants du nucléaire », Géoconfluences, octobre 2017.
- Cécile Asanuma-Brice (2016). La mémoire de l’oubli, une forme de résistance à la résilience, publication des actes du colloque « Après le désastre, réponses commémoratives et culturelles », Éditions de l’Université de Tôkyô (en français).
- Cécile Asanuma-Brice (2016) Franckushima, rédaction de la Préface et chapitres, Direction Géraud Bournet, L’utopiquant.
- Cécile Asanuma-Brice (2015) « De la vulnérabilité à la résilience, réflexions sur la protection en cas de désastre extrême : Le cas de la gestion des conséquences de l’explosion d’une centrale nucléaire à Fukushima », Revue Raison Publique, no. « Au-delà du risque Care, capacités et résistance en situation de désastre », Sandra Laugier, Solange Chavel, Marie Gaille (dir.)
- Cécile Asanuma-Brice (2015) « À Fukushima, la population est dans une situation inextricable », CNRS Le Journal, mars 2015.
- Cécile Asanuma-Brice (2014) « La légende Fukushima », Libération, septembre 2014.
- Cécile Asanuma-Brice (2013) « Fukushima, une démocratie en souffrance », Revue Outre terre, mars 2013.
- Cécile Asanuma-Brice (2012) « Les politiques publiques du logement face à la catastrophe du 11 mars », in C. Lévy, T. Ribault, numéro spécial de la revue EBISU de la Maison franco-japonaise n° 47, juin 2012.
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