Miyako Kumamoto longs for the days of sharing fresh home-grown produce with her friends in the clean mountain air of Fukushima Prefecture.
But now, the 73-year-old fears she will be forced to live alone on the streets of Tokyo under government policies concerning evacuees from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“It is wrong for the central government to say ‘return home’ and to lift evacuation orders even though its own declaration of an emergency situation for the nuclear accident remains in place,” Kumamoto told a protest rally of about 780 people at Tokyo’s Hibiya Park on March 2.
Saying the government is ignoring their opinions and safety concerns about radiation levels, the protesters slammed Tokyo’s push for evacuees to return to their homes near the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. They later marched near government offices and in front of the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the nuclear plant.
The rally was hosted by a national organization called Hidanren, which comprises plaintiffs in lawsuits against the central government and TEPCO, and joined by Fukushima residents who are still living in evacuation nearly five years after the nuclear disaster started in March 2011.
Before the rally, Hidanren gave a government official a letter addressed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The letter demanded a retraction of policies that “abandon the nuclear victims.”
The central government plans to lift evacuation orders around the Fukushima nuclear plant by the end of March 2017, except for “difficult-to-return” zones where annual radiation doses still exceed 50 millisieverts.
Fukushima residents who were not living in evacuation zones but still fled after the nuclear disaster unfolded have been provided free housing by the Fukushima prefectural government. The prefecture has decided to terminate that program for the “voluntary” evacuees in April 2017.
Kenichi Hasegawa, a 62-year-old co-representative of Hidanren, told the demonstrators that government officials showed no intention of changing the policies.
“I felt outrage,” Hasegawa said. “Let’s raise our voices and stand up against them together.”
According to the Fukushima prefectural government, around 165,000 people evacuated their homes due to the nuclear disaster as of May 2012. As of January 2016, 100,000 remained living in evacuation, including around 5,700 in Tokyo.
Kumamoto, whose husband died in 2007, has been living in public housing in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward since April 2011.
She had moved from Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, to Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, in 2003. For years in Tamura, she and her husband grew fruits and vegetables in a field. She said cooking and eating the food with her friends was more important than anything else.
The area where she lived in Tamura, between 20 and 30 kilometers from the nuclear plant, was designated an emergency evacuation preparation zone after the meltdowns. The designation was lifted in September 2011, and city workers have since decontaminated the area.
But Kumamoto said the radiation has not been lowered to a level that reassures her that she can safely return home.
The Tokyo metropolitan government has asked Kumamoto to reapply for public housing if she wants to continue living there after April 2017.
“If I am not picked in the lottery, I would have to wander around in the streets,” Kumamoto said.
Yukiko Kameya, 71, has lived with her husband in Tokyo’s Minato Ward since fleeing from Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, after the disaster.
Most areas in Futaba are still designated as “difficult-to-return zones,” with annual radiation doses exceeding 50 millisieverts.
Futaba is also a candidate site for interim storage of soil and debris contaminated with radioactive substances from the nuclear accident.
“Since we cannot return there, I want a place to live to be guaranteed,” Kameya said. “I want the land to be returned to the state before the accident.”
After the rally at Hibiya Park, Kameya led a march in front of a ministry office building and TEPCO’s headquarters.
She shouted, “Return my hometown.”
Aki Hashimoto, 60, who traveled from Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, to attend the rally, said a friend in Tokyo once asked, “Are you still making a fuss over the issue?”
Hashimoto said the frustration and disappointment over that comment have not eased.
“I do not want the nuclear accident to be forgotten,” Hashimoto said.
(This article was written by Miki Aoki, Mana Nagano, and Jun Sato.)