By YUKA HAYASHI
NIHONMATSU, Japan—In late January, Tamotsu Baba got the bad news from the government he had been dreading. Officials announced that most of Mr. Baba’s hometown of Namie, located four miles from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, would likely have to remain evacuated for “several years” or longer.
For 10 months, Mr. Baba has tried to keep the town unified after its displacement. The prognosis, the mayor feared, could be the fatal blow for a community with roots stretching back 1,000 years.
How do you keep a town together when it’s no longer habitable? A year after a tsunami crippled the Fukushima nuclear power plant, evacuees from nearby Namie are struggling to do just that. WSJ’s Yuka Hayashi reports.
“Our town will become divided. It will be a very difficult challenge to manage the situation,” Mayor Baba told reporters.
As the anniversary of the March 11 disasters nears, devastated communities across northeastern Japan continue to live with dislocation, and how to define their futures. The challenge is especially difficult for the 11 municipalities located inside the nuclear evacuation zone. Residents don’t know when, or if, they will ever be able to return to their homes.
The burden is particularly heavy for Namie, a coastal village known for its pottery, a bustling fishing port and a scenic river gorge.
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Namie has survived and thrived through hundreds of years of wars, natural disasters and economic distress. One local sake maker traces its roots back an unbroken 200 years. A pottery kiln has been in the same local family for 25 generations.
Over many years, Namie’s population of 21,000 has displayed remarkable cohesion. In a recent survey of the now-displaced inhabitants, 72% said they had lived there for at least 20 years.
Older residents like Mr. Baba, 63 years old, say the community can survive this latest ordeal as well, if Namie citizens can stay together and avoid permanent resettling elsewhere until the day they can return en masse.
Kyodo News/Associated Press
Residents returned to Namie in May to pray in their former hometown.
“We must aim to go back to the life we had before March 11,” he said, sitting in the cramped, windowless office he has set up at a community center in Nihonmatsu, 30 miles inland from his former workplace.
The neighboring city has become the unofficial headquarters of Namie, where the town hall and 2,800 of its residents have relocated.
But some younger residents are struggling. Sadayuki Yashima, 43, was a member of a young business leaders group promoting Namie for years before the accident. He represented the town last year at a national competition of local delicacies, sporting a large hat overflowing with plastic replicas of the town’s famous fried noodles. When the town won an award, he took the stage to chants of “Namie” from the audience and pledged in a booming voice to “get our town back no matter what it takes!”
In conversations, however, the third-generation Namie native admits that the goal is tough. His business and family are feeling the strains of a life in limbo, and the pressures to make a fresh start elsewhere.
“My work has disappeared as my community scattered,” he said.
Mr. Yashima was the owner of a small steel-beam company reliant on local customers, with sales down 90%. His wife and two children share a tiny two-room temporary home in Shinmachi, 30 miles from their former home.
A washing machine, squeezed next to a cafe-size table with two folding stools in the kitchen, drowns out mealtime conversation.
“I can’t even give my teenage daughter a place to change; she’s starting middle school but there is no place for her to study,” Mr. Yashima says.
Fukushima University’s November survey of households from Namie and seven other communities affected by nuclear evacuation showed 52% of the area’s residents age 34 or younger said they wouldn’t return to their hometowns under any circumstances, compared with 17% for those age 65 to 79.
Before March 11, Namie’s school system had 1,710 children in its elementary and middle schools. Close to half of those children now live outside Fukushima prefecture. New schools were opened in Nihonmatsu in August.
Current enrollment: 82. The need for Namie’s citizens to find permanent new homes will likely accelerate as the new school year in April looms.
More than half of Namie’s residents who had jobs before March 11 are unemployed, and the government began in January to end unemployment benefits to those who lost their jobs as a result of the March disaster.
Nearly half of Namie’s residents said they have moved at least three times since the accident. Still, community leaders work to preserve the town’s traditions, even without a town to anchor them.
For 130 years, Namie had an annual postharvest celebration. Lately, it boasted 400 stalls selling food and toys, drawing crowds of 100,000.
In early November, the street fair was re-created at the edge of Nihonmatsu’s center, with 70 stalls.
Some 50,000 visitors turned up, braving cold autumn rain to hold a reunion. There were a lot of handshakes, joyous squeals and some tears as friends and neighbors were reunited.
Seniors camped out in front of a stage where residents took turns singing karaoke. Mothers exchanged stories about how their children fit in at their new schools.
One preschooler showed off a dosimeter worn around her neck, a requirement for children in Nihonmatsu and other places relatively close to Fukushima Daiichi.
Long lines of people waited by stalls selling Namie yakisoba, the popular local dish of fried noodles that has become a symbol of the town’s battle to survive. Another stall sold cups and vases made by local potters.
The festival gave Asumi Kikuchi, a 13-year-old middle-school student, an opportunity to get together with three of her best friends, who are now scattered all over Fukushima prefecture.
“The hardest thing for me is not being able to see my friends,” she said as the girls reluctantly headed back toward the train station as the festival drew close to an end.