Five years after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that devastated northern Japan in March 2011, some 100,000 evacuees have still not returned to their homes in Fukushima Prefecture, parts of which were heavily contaminated by radiation in the wake of the reactor meltdowns.
Of these evacuees, just over half are living inside the prefecture, while 43,000 are scattered across the rest of the archipelago. Of the roughly 57,000 displaced within Fukushima, 18,322 are still living in temporary housing units.
The government has begun lifting the compulsory evacuation orders for some communities in the former no-go zone surrounding Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and plans to remove any remaining restrictions in March of next year.
However, many Fukushima evacuees are reluctant to return. They fear that radiation in some areas is still high despite the huge decontamination effort that has been underway for the past five years. They also worry that compensation for their ordeal since March 2011 from the government and Tepco will be cut or disappear altogether if they decide to restart life in their former hometowns. Those who chose to vacate their homes outside the designated exclusion zone are also deeply concerned about the prospect of losing the right to stay in temporary accommodation a year from now and being left with no choice but to return.
At a recent event in Tokyo titled “Voices of the Evacuees of Fukushima,” and at a press conference last week organized by the Liaison Committee for Organizations of Victims of the Nuclear Disaster, a handful of representatives of these thousands of uprooted Fukushima residents spoke out about the ordeal that began five years ago with the earthquake, tsunami and multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, and which continues to exact a toll to this day. Here are some of those voices:
Mr. Segaya, who would only be identified by his surname due to privacy concerns, has been living in Saitama Prefecture with his family since opting to evacuate from his home in Koriyama, 60 km west of Fukushima No. 1.
“Many evacuees have fears about whether the decontamination efforts by the government are accurate or not and how they are carried out,” Segaya said. “In Koriyama and Fukushima, sometimes they cut down trees and sometimes they don’t. In one city, where they cut down trees, they burn them non-stop. In the other, the trees can’t be burned in incinerators. We are not sure which is better. To be honest, some say that the radiation doesn’t drop if trees are cut down. So you hear stories of people with different accounts — some have cut their trees chopped in half and saw a lowering of radiation, others didn’t see any drop.”
Segaya is most concerned about the safety of his children if he moves back to Koriyama.
“When our kids come back from playing in the dirt in Saitama, my wife yells at them saying, ‘What are you doing?’ I just smile at them because they are boys and just pat them lightly on the head to scold them, but if this were to happen in Fukushima, soft scolding wouldn’t be enough,” he said. “In Fukushima we don’t know which areas are decontaminated and which aren’t. At our home in Koriyama the geiger counter sadly still rings.”
Segaya explained that in Koriyama it rains a lot, which is another source of fear for evacuees who return.
The water, he said, can reach “up to around my knees, and the dirt rises and spreads when it dries up. When I call the Koriyama council to tell them about the situation, all I get is ‘At this point, we cannot tell you what to do about this issue.’ So even if I’m told it’s safe to go back, I don’t feel like I want to return.”
Segaya said that following the disaster, his two eldest sons were covered in cysts “like frogs,” and he feared the growths might be cancerous.
“The Fukushima Medical University doctors say that cysts are common, and that they show up and disappear, but I can’t trust them. Similarly, he said, “Even if they say it’s decontaminated, I can’t bring myself to (have my family) return to somewhere where the radiation is still so high.”
Speaking about job prospects and the difficulties in getting back on his feet, Segaya said the Japanese job-hunting system — shūkatsu in Japanese — can be a drawn-out process involving months of sitting written tests and attending group workshops and interviews.
“At my age, to go through applying for another job, sadly, I don’t have the courage,” Segaya explained. “And now our savings are depleting. When the housing compensation stops, what do we do?
“Do I sell our house, which is surrounded with bags full of contaminated soil? I know it will sell. People living in the Hamadori region (on the coast) would buy the house because the radiation level there is much higher than here. But is it right to sell a house like that? Something in me questions the ethics of that.”
Kayo Watanabe left her home in Fukushima city, 60 km northwest of the No. 1 plant, at the height of uncertainty about the true extent of the 2011 nuclear disaster. She now lives with her children in Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture, 45 km farther inland from the stricken nuclear plant on the coast. As is the case with many other evacuee families, her husband didn’t follow them. He is still working in Fukushima, the city where his extended family also lives.
“We are in the fifth floor of a welfare housing building with no elevator, so I have to climb the stairs every day,” Watanabe said. “It’s an old building dating back to 1985. At the time (of the disasters) there was no heating and we had to take cold showers. Daily life is very inconvenient.”
There are still many mother-and-children clusters of evacuees, Watanabe explained, but some have gone back, preferring for their families to be together.
However, she said, “I’m still concerned about going back while the decontamination is not finished.”
Watanabe said that her husband visits after work, but the journeys back and forth on top of his work commute leave him exhausted.
“My children are getting used to the situation of not having a father around, which is not good,” she said. “There are a lot of divorces, too. When families are apart, this happens.”
During the unfolding nuclear disaster, Mr. Suzuki, his wife and four children made the decision to leave their home in Nihonmatsu, 45 km northwest of the stricken No. 1 nuclear plant.
“Why did I and my family evacuate? Simple: It’s because I feared radiation. I still remember the 1986 Chernobyl accident and knew how terrible radiation is,” said Suzuki, who didn’t give his first name. “Our house in Fukushima was an old one. It was my wife’s father’s old wooden house, with thin walls and space where outside air comes through.”
“We were at this house on March 27, 2011, and when I measured the radiation, it was about 9 microsieverts outside, and inside 3 to 4 microsieverts. When I measured it after the decontamination, it was about 0.2 microsieverts, and now it’s between 0.1 and 0.2 microsieverts, and it’s basically the same inside the house and outside. So, when dust and wind comes in, or when the cat we have comes in, radiation enters the house. But I can’t just kill the cat.”
The government’s decontamination efforts have involved the removal of topsoil and other contaminated material in areas registering high radioactivity in a bid to bring levels down to an acceptable level. These materials are then sealed in black plastic bags and stored in their thousands at temporary sites across the prefecture. Material registering higher than 8,000 becquerels per kilogram is classed as radioactive waste.
“In 2012, when we measured the soil, it was 80,000 becquerels (per kg),” Suzuki said. “They will decontaminate the houses, but not the mountains. So we have to continue to stay away.”
Suzuki said that traveling between Yonezawa, where his family are living, Nihonmatsu and Fukushima city, he spends ¥50,000 on gasoline a month. This puts a strain on his finances because he only makes ¥150,000 a month.
“I want to say that the compensation should continue,” Suzuki said. “They (the government and Tepco) don’t even take any responsibility, and I want to tell them to go to hell. The responsibility lies with the government and Tepco, so they should provide us with a range of options. Instead, it’s only one option: ‘Go back because it’s safe,’ and also saying that we, those still staying away, are overreacting. But safety — our safety — is not what the government or Tepco should decide, right? The fact is, the radiation level at my house in Fukushima is still too high.”
Mr. Arai is a “voluntary” evacuee from Iwaki, a city 50 km south of Fukushima No. 1. He is now living with his family in a public housing unit in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, alongside 84 families from Tohoku, the majority from Fukushima.
“People think we live off high compensation money, but the fact is that it is very low. And this will end at the end of March next year,” said Arai. “It’s been years since the disaster and there are various concerns people harbor. But, I beg you, please let us live somewhere until we all feel assured, and then can say thank you.”
“It is not just economic issues,” Arai continued. “There are many evacuees who are elderly with illnesses, for whom moving around is not easy. I had to evacuate with my four children and 90-something-year-old parents when I first came to Tokyo, and moved around several times until I found this housing.
“It was very difficult and we stumbled upon many hardships along the way,” Arai explained. “Our children are having to struggle through with scholarships and side jobs. We can’t even live up to our responsibilities as parents to provide for our children.”
Kenichi Hasegawa, a dairy farmer from Iitate, a village 40 km northwest of Fukushima No. 1, was forced to evacuate on April 22, 2011. Although he has been living in a temporary housing facility in Date city, 20 km farther north, ever since, Hasegawa is completely against the lifting of the remaining evacuation orders for areas surrounding the nuclear plant.
“Those of us directly affected by the Fukushima accident are very much concerned and very much against this move,” he said. “However, the government is trying to push forward with the (Tokyo 2020) Olympics as a way to cover up the situation and send out the message that Japan is now safe.”
Hasegawa says decontamination work in Iitate has been going on for three years but is still only 50 percent complete. The government has declared that decontamination of the village will be complete by the end of the year.
“I believe that this is completely impossible,” said Hasegawa. “We are all being forced to face the decision of whether to abandon our village or to return despite the fact that radiation levels in the village are still very high.
“I believe that one of our greatest concerns as regards contamination and radiation levels in our village is the soil. As for my own home, there is a forest area just behind it, and the official word is that the decontamination there has already been finished. So, I did my own sampling of the soil in this area that has been declared decontaminated, and the result of this sampling was actually 2,600 becquerels per kg of the soil behind my house. This is three times the national standard.”
Hasegawa explained that the analysis of topsoil he collected was performed by Nihon University professor Koji Itonaga, who also measured radiation levels in his cedar trees.
Iitate was only evacuated a month after the nuclear meltdowns, although it was exposed to higher levels of radiation than most areas within the original evacuation zone at the height of the disaster.
“At first the designation was made with just this straight circle around the plant, and we were designated as being outside of the 30 km area,” explained Hasegawa. “We were completely left behind and not included at all within the evacuation. However, because the contamination levels in Iitate were so high that they could no longer be hidden, a month later Iitate was included in the compulsory evacuation area.
“We know now, for example, that the data from SPEEDI about where the flume was going and so on was very clear — that the radiation was going northwest of the plant at the time — yet this data was hidden,” said Hasegawa.
SPEEDI is a supercomputer that provides real-time assessment of radiation levels in nuclear emergencies.
Hasegawa says he is receiving monthly compensation of ¥100,000 from Tepco for mental stress caused by the disaster. However, compensation for individuals who lost their businesses following the disaster is calculated according to the amount of sales of that business.
“If the business did not actually have profits at the time — if it was even in the red, for example, prior to the disaster — then there is no compensation being given for this. So the compensation we are receiving corresponds to the profits that were declared by that business,” said Hasegawa.
Kazuhiko Amano worked as the head of the evacuation center set up at the Big Palette convention site from April 2011 until the following year.
“The nuclear accident is not over,” he said. “It is clear the evacuees need on-going support. They lost their jobs and daily lives through no fault of their own, so I believe the government needs to provide them with security.
“The evacuees are mentally weakened from thinking all day about whether they will or will not return to their hometowns. As their lives as evacuees lengthen, we are seeing many secondary deaths,” he said, referring to those recognized as being linked to the triple disaster rather than directly caused by the initial quake and tsunami. “These are especially high among those from Fukushima compared to evacuees from Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.”
Out of the overall total number of deaths, said Amano, “For Miyagi and Iwate, the percentage of secondary deaths is 8 percent. For Fukushima, it is 55 percent. This is an unusually high number. So, this also suggests that the biggest challenge for Fukushima is the ‘recovery of the soul.’ “