A decade after Fukushima, Japanese towns find it difficult to bounce back, despite incentives
Starting again
Published: Mar 11, 2021 04:38 PM
Masakazu Daibo has reopened his family's eel restaurant in a part of Japan declared a no-go zone after the 2011 nuclear disaster, but so far he barely has a single neighbor.

A decade after radiation forced tens of thousands to flee their homes in Fukushima, some towns in the region are still wrestling with the difficult question of how to rebuild a community from scratch.

After the disaster, 12 percent of Fukushima prefecture was off-limits and around 165,000 people fled their homes either under evacuation orders or voluntarily.

Akira Sato, wearing a protective suit, poses outside the old building of Fukushima First Bible Baptist Church inside the exclusion zone in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, on February 27. Photo: AFP

Akira Sato, wearing a protective suit, poses outside the old building of Fukushima First Bible Baptist Church inside the exclusion zone in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, on February 27. Photo: AFP

Numerous areas have since been declared safe after extensive decontamination efforts, and incentives are being offered to lure people back. But many are reluctant.

Daibo returned just in 2020, reopening a restaurant established by his grandfather in the town of Namie, around nine kilometers from the nuclear plant.

Namie and 11 neighboring communities were part of an exclusion zone around the plant, and for years Daibo could enter only on brief visits.

Daibo and his wife hesitated moving back, but after restrictions were lifted in 2017, they decided they would try to recreate the past.

"I want everyone to say 'Oh, this is a long-forgotten flavor,'" when they taste his food, Daibo said.

"I hope that my presence will shine a light on this town."

'Survival is our big issue' 

But few others have followed suit.

The restaurant is surrounded by empty lots overgrown with weeds. Wooden signboards are piled up next to a toppled bin on an abandoned building's porch, in what was once the downtown area.

Restrictions have been lifted on just 20 percent of Namie, and the town's population is 7 percent its former size of 21,000, despite incentives including reduced rents and money for moving and renovations.

Around 36 percent of residents are aged 65 or above, higher than the 29 percent national average, and just 30 students attend local elementary and junior high schools, compared with nearly 1,800 before.

Namie hopes to raise its population to 8,000 by 2035, helped by national subsidies of up to two million yen ($18,500) per new family moving to disaster-hit areas.

"Survival as a community is our big issue," Matsumoto said.

Just over 2 percent of Fukushima remains under evacuation orders, with the figure of evacuees officially at around 35,700, though some experts believe there could be near twice as many.

But there is no deadline for lifting all the evacuation orders, and doubts persist that Fukushima Daichii can be decommissioned on schedule by 2041 at the earliest.

Only partly open

For many, fears over lingering radiation and mistrust of the government's decontamination process are major obstacles to returning.

Around two-thirds of Fukushima, evacuees don't plan to return, according to a 2020 survey by researchers at Kwansei Gakuin University.

"Many people say they can't trust the decommissioning target, and their distrust of government measures runs deep," said Yoko Saito, an associate professor on disaster reduction who jointly conducted the survey.

The rate of return to reopened areas varies considerably.

In Kawauchi, which lifted its last evacuation order in 2016, the population is now 68 percent of its pre-2011 figure.

It's a different story in Futaba, which jointly hosts the crippled plant.

A tiny portion of the town was declared open in 2020 - but not a single person has returned.

All roads into the restricted zone are blocked by barricades, and those entering must wear hazmat suits and cover their hair and shoes. Radiation levels on their bodies are also measured when they leave.

'A little sad and lonely' 

For many in reopened areas, returning has brought conflicting feelings.

Takao Kohata went back to Minamisoma after authorities lifted restrictions but is still haunted by radiation fears.

Government officials tout strict screening of food in the region, but "many people are still nervous," the 83-year-old said.

The parents of his four grandchildren won't let them visit, because they worry about radiation.

"I fully understand their concerns, but I feel a little sad and lonely," he said.

Some evacuees say they feel forced to return as the government winds up support for the displaced.

"In the end, those who have no place to go and have low incomes are the ones left behind," said Shohei Yamane, a psychiatric social worker supporting evacuees.

"This disaster will never end as long as there are needy evacuees seeking help," he added.

Some who have returned have found it takes more than just reconstruction to rebuild a community.

Yuko Hikichi helps organize gatherings and group exercise sessions to strengthen community ties in Namie.

"We are just at the starting line... Community-building is not an easy job. It is endless," she said.

It's a struggle Masaru Kumakawa knows all too well.

He returned to Namie in 2018, despite losing his wife there in the tsunami, and now lives alone in a new housing district.

The 83-year-old heads a community association, but has struggled to make contact with his neighbors.

"They lived in evacuation for too long," he said at a newly built community center.

"We ring doorbells but no one comes out."