IWAKI, Fukushima Prefecture–A teenage girl whose family has fallen apart since the Fukushima nuclear crisis unfolded is finally coming to terms with her father’s job.
Haruka Yashiro’s father, 51, works for Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Her family lived in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, within 20 kilometers of the plant, where a triple meltdown was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.
“You said it would be OK, but it wasn’t OK in the end!” her mother, now 49, bawled at her husband in the summer of 2011, the 18-year-old Haruka recalls. They were staying in an apartment–the family’s fourth evacuation shelter–in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture.
Her father just remained silent, she says.
Haruka, then a first-year high school student, recalls shutting herself up in the lavatory. Weeping quietly so she would not be overheard, she tried to comprehend how this had happened to her family.
On the second day of the nuclear crisis, the family had to evacuate and sleep in their car.
Haruka’s father was called back to the nuclear plant to help bring the situation under control. He was only able to return to his family’s shelter eight days a month. Haruka watched as her father’s slender build became even skinnier, and his cheeks grew hollow.
Her mother deleted about 30 names from her cellphone directory after acquaintances began accusing her of “pretending to be a victim” and calling on her to “take responsibility.”
Even Haruka’s grandmother, who evacuated to Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, did not want to be associated with the family. “Do you realize how ashamed I feel because your husband works for TEPCO?” she told her daughter, who broke into tears.
This was in spite of the fact that Haruka’s mother, who worked for a TEPCO group company in her youth, followed the advice of Haruka’s grandmother to marry an employee of TEPCO, which was considered a secure employer.
Soon after, Haruka’s parents stopped talking to each other. Instead, she would receive e-mails from her father and relay the messages to her mother.
Whenever she saw footage of anti-nuclear protests on TV news programs, Haruka says she felt resentful, as if the protesters were accusing her father.
“They didn’t even know the locations of nuclear plants that provided electricity to Tokyo,” she says of her thoughts at the time. “And none of them wants to learn how hard my father is working. They’re sort of irresponsible, aren’t they?”
But deep inside, she also worried that people would shun her if she talked about her father to anyone. As a result, she rarely mentioned him in conversation while in high school.
A turning point came in the summer of 2012, when Haruka was among 300 high school students from disaster-stricken areas in northeastern Japan invited to visit the United States on a short-term program organized by a nonprofit entity and a private company. As she sat through discussions with her fellow participants and U.S. students, Haruka realized she was gaining more courage to speak openly.
Back in Japan, Haruka joined a meeting in Tokyo where high school students from disaster areas discussed challenges facing northeastern Japan. She made up her mind to tell her own story after she listened to a high school student from Miyagi Prefecture who recounted how she lost her mother to the tsunami.
Haruka said she was so nervous that she trembled while speaking, but everybody listened to her story, some in tears.
The disaster gave her the opportunity to become stronger, she said.
After relocating to Iwaki in the spring of 2012, Haruka joined a group that organizes bus tours to the city in hopes of increasing tourism, which plummeted after the 3/11 disaster. The group was initiated by one of Haruka’s fellow high school participants in the U.S. visit program.
The bus tour program began in May 2013 with the support of a travel agency and is currently in its third phase.
On a recent tour, Haruka told tourists from the Tokyo metropolitan area that she is the daughter of a TEPCO employee who is working to end the nuclear crisis.
“Please never forget that we used to live in Naraha,” she told them.
One tourist responded with a hug. Another said her father and his colleagues were “heroes.”
Haruka says at that moment she felt that she finally spoke out for her father, who has turned taciturn and has seldom smiled since the onset of the nuclear disaster.
At home, however, relationships are still fractured. Her mother has not forgiven Haruka’s grandmother for what she said.
Her father, who is working to extract nuclear fuel from the No. 4 reactor at the crippled plant, comes home only on weekends. Even when he is back, he and Haruka’s mother don’t look each other in the eye.
Haruka graduated from high school on March 1. From April, she will be studying architecture at a university in Fukushima Prefecture.
“I wish our family could sit together in the living room and chat happily as we used to do,” she said. “But I have no idea what I could do to make that happen.”
However, with her newly found courage, she does plan to confront her grandmother and ask why she said what she did to her mother. She says she is confident that her action could help re-establish relationships within the family.