TOMIOKA, Fukushima Prefecture–When Keiko Sawauchi returned to her home here on a recent visit, the 60-year-old piano teacher could not even bring herself to look at her “partner.”
It has become too unbearable for her to see the continuing deterioration of her grand piano over time during each visit home.
Sawauchi, who gave piano lessons to children in her neighborhood, never approached the musical instrument during her brief stay in her home, about 7 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, on June 21.
“My son says I can save up my money and buy a new piano,” said Sawauchi, who has evacuated to Chiba Prefecture. “But none of my students will return to an area like this that has a reading of high radiation doses.”
She said her grand piano can no longer produce beautiful notes as it has been damaged by high humidity and neglect. It has been left unattended for the more than three years since she was forced to flee her home when the disaster unfolded at the nuclear complex on March 11, 2011, triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
On this visit, Sawauchi returned to examine the scope of the damage done to her house. She is one of about 3,000 plaintiffs who filed a damage suit against Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the plant, and the central government in March 2013. They are demanding the restoration of their lives before the disaster and compensation in the suit filed with the Fukushima District Court.
Sawauchi’s home sits in an area where the central government says former residents can eventually rebuild their communities after the current and future decontamination operation.
Her visit to her home was the first in about a year. But it is not the residence she had long known.
When she opened the front door, which was almost covered by overgrown plants, she smelled the foul stench of small animals.
Her living and dining rooms were filled with rat droppings.
There were also signs that small animals such as raccoon dogs and masked palm civets had entered and overrun the interior.
In addition, many of her kimono and sashes stored in a Japanese-style chest had been stolen.
“What a mess! This is not my house,” she whispered.
Sawauchi decided to join the suit after she heard Izutaro Managi, a lawyer who leads the secretariat of the team of lawyers representing the plaintiffs.
“It is not anything virtuous for people in Tohoku to endure this,” she recalled Managi saying, referring to the patience and perseverance for which people in the northeastern region are known.
She is aware of the enormity of her adversaries.
“I am just like an ant that is biting the foot of an elephant,” Sawauchi said. “But biting together with others, I want to have TEPCO feel even a slight pang of pain.”
Some of the plaintiffs are facing even the permanent loss of their homes.
Yuji Fukuda, 66, who operated a business to install machinery and devices in Futaba, a town that co-hosts the nuclear complex, said he has no idea when, or even if, he can return to his home to live.
The home of Fukuda and his wife, Ikuko, 59, is situated 5 kilometers from the plant. With an estimated annual radiation dose of more than 50 millisieverts, evacuees from the area are less likely to be able to return for many years.
Radiation levels dropped due to natural decay, but they are still registering at 6-7 microsieverts per hour.
“We cannot tell at all how long we should wait before we are able to return home,” Fukuda said. “We are evacuation refugees, sort of a derelict ship just drifting without anyone at the wheel.”
The floor of Fukuda’s home was so corroded that a group of 24 lawyers and plaintiffs who were visiting that day could not enter at the same time due to the danger of collapse. The house had been left virtually unattended for more than three years. It was difficult for the couple to return to care for their home even for a short period, because of high radiation levels in the neighborhood. Signs that small animals had broken into the house added to their misery.
“Do you understand how humiliating it is for us to have to show our IDs to strangers and gain permission from the central government to even visit our home?” Fukuda asked.
The legal team plans to ask the court to conduct onsite inspections of the homes of evacuees and related facilities by around October.