Three-and-a-half years after fleeing to central Japan, a mother received a package from her husband who had opted to remain at their home in Fukushima Prefecture despite the nuclear disaster.
From Tamura, about 35 kilometers west of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the father sent snacks for the couple’s two children. The cardboard box also contained divorce papers.
“I cannot send money to my family whom I cannot see,” the husband told his wife.
She still refused to return home.
Thanks to decontamination work, radiation levels have fallen around the nuclear plant since the triple meltdown caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. And families are returning to their hometowns, trying to resume normal lives.
But many mothers, distrustful of the government’s safety assurances, still harbor fears that radiation will affect the health of their children. As a result of these concerns, families are being torn apart, friendships have ended, and a social divide remains wide in Fukushima communities.
Around 70,000 people are still not allowed to return to their homes located in evacuation zones designated by the central government. And an estimated 18,000 people from Fukushima Prefecture whose homes were outside those zones remain living in evacuation.
The government is pushing for Fukushima residents to return home and trying to counter false rumors about the nuclear disaster.
More families in Fukushima Prefecture are willing to buy food produced in the prefecture–but not all.
A 40-year-old mother who once lived on the coast of Fukushima Prefecture and moved farther inland to Koriyama said she still fears for the health of her 11-year-old daughter.
Her classmates started serving “kyushoku” school lunches containing Fukushima rice and vegetables that passed the screening for radioactive materials. But the fifth-grader has instead eaten from a bento lunch box prepared by her mother.
The daughter says that eating her own lunch led to teasing from her classmates. She heard one of them say behind her back: “You aren’t eating kyushoku. Are you neurotic?”
She does not talk to that classmate anymore, although they used to be friends.
“I now feel a bit more at ease even when I am different from other students,” the daughter said.
Her mother expressed concerns about her daughter’s social life, but protecting her child’s health takes precedence.
“My daughter may fall ill sometime,” the mother said. “I feel almost overwhelmed by such a fear.”
An official of the Fukushima prefectural board of education said a certain number of students act differently from other students because of health concerns over radiation.
“Although the number is limited, some students bring bento to their schools,” the official said. “Some students wear surgical masks when they participate in footraces during outdoor school athletic meets.
“The feelings toward radiation vary from person to person, so we cannot force them (to behave in the same way as other students).”
Sung Woncheol, a professor of sociology at Chukyo University, and others have conducted surveys on mothers whose children were 1 to 2 years old when the nuclear disaster started. The mothers live in Fukushima city and eight other municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture.
Of the 1,200 mothers who responded to the survey in 2015, 50 percent said they had concerns about child-rearing in Fukushima Prefecture.
Nearly 30 percent said they avoid or try to avoid using food products from Fukushima Prefecture, compared with more than 80 percent six months after the disaster.
But for some mothers, the passage of nearly five years since the disaster unfolded has not erased their fears of radiation.
The 36-year-old mother who received the divorce papers from her husband in autumn 2014 continues to live with her children in the central Japan city to which she had no previous connection.
A month after the nuclear disaster, she fled with her then 1-year-old son and her daughter, 10, from their home, even though it was not located in an evacuation zone.
She said she left Fukushima Prefecture because she “could not trust the data released by the central government.”
The mother still has not told her children that their parents are divorced.
“I believe I could protect the health of my children,” the woman said. “But my family has collapsed.”