Although clear signs of recovery are emerging for agricultural and marine products from Fukushima Prefecture, consumer fears founded on harmful rumors about radiation are proving difficult to banish.
The local fishing and farming industries were brought to their knees by the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011. Now, four years on, the number of fish species being caught off the Fukushima coast on a trial basis has steadily increased, and every bag of rice grown in the prefecture in 2014 was checked and has cleared the national standard for radioactive substances. These and other products have been proven safe. Despite this, many retailers and consumers remain reluctant to buy them.
On March 6, ships unloaded a constant stream of boxes of Pacific cod at the Matsukawaura fishing port in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture. Pacific cod is a winter delicacy, and the harvest impressed the fishermen.
At the end of January, Pacific cod was added to the list of species of marine life permitted to be caught in these waters on a trial basis. While the cod was being packed into boxes at this port north of the 20-kilometer no-entry zone around the nuclear plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Soma-Futaba Fisheries Cooperative Association checked the fish for radioactive cesium in a nearby shed. All 16 species of fish examined on this day recorded results of “no radiation detected.”
Fishing on a trial basis began in June 2012. Currently, fishermen are able to work in waters off Fukushima Prefecture, except for the area within a 20-kilometer radius around the nuclear plant, and some other areas. Species of fish that have continually recorded radioactive cesium levels well below the government-set threshold of 100 becquerels per kilogram in ongoing monitoring surveys conducted by the prefecture are eligible to be caught on a trial basis.
All other fishing remains prohibited. Initially, three species were declared safe to be caught, and this has since expanded to 58.
In June 2011, three months after the nuclear accident, 50 percent of specimens caught were found to have cesium levels above the safe level. All specimens caught in February this year were within safe levels.
However, the volume of fish from coastal fishing unloaded at ports along the prefecture’s coast in February was about 60 tons, barely 5 percent of that posted in February 2011.
The Tsukiji market in Tokyo was the biggest destination for many products from the prefecture before the nuclear accident. But these days, many brokers at the market steer clear of any goods bearing a Fukushima label.
“Even if a product is of good quality, many consumers will avoid it when they hear it comes from Fukushima,” one broker said.
At the end of February, it was discovered that contaminated rainwater at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant had been leaking into the ocean around the crippled plant.
“We’d been conducting strict checks and confirming that our products were safe, and then this happened,” said a visibly annoyed Hiroyuki Sato, 59, chief of the Soma-Futaba Fisheries Cooperative Association. “Now consumers might become reluctant to buy from us again.”
Rice checks to continue
The Consumer Affairs Agency regularly surveys about 5,000 people in the Tokyo metropolitan area and other locations about this issue. According to a survey conducted in February, 17.4 percent of respondents said they hesitate to purchase food products from Fukushima, a figure down only slightly from the 19.4 percent recorded in the survey conducted in February 2013. These findings underline the fact that consumers’ radiation fears will not be easily changed.
The impact is also evident in the price of agricultural and livestock products. At the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, the retail price for peaches grown in Fukushima Prefecture — the nation’s No. 2 producer of the fruit, according to volume — was ¥358 per kilogram last year, more than 20 percent cheaper than the average price for domestic peaches.
The price for beef from the prefecture was ¥1,685 per kilogram, about ¥300 cheaper than the national average. The value of agricultural products shipped from the prefecture was ¥204.9 billion in 2013, which was still below the ¥233 billion level reached before the nuclear accident.
The prefectural government has conducted exhaustive screenings for radioactive substances since March 2011. Over this period, samples have been taken from about 130,000 food products and tested. In 2012, contamination checks began on every bag of newly harvested rice in the prefecture.
Seventy-one bags were found to have exceeded the government-set safety standards that year. However, countermeasures such as sprinkling potassium in paddies, which prevents rice from absorbing cesium, have proven highly effective. As a result, all of the about 11 million bags of rice produced in the prefecture in 2014 had radiation levels below the government-set standard. This news was warmly welcomed by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, with one official saying, “The safety of all rice harvested in Fukushima Prefecture is guaranteed.”
The prefecture plans to continue testing every bag of rice harvested in 2015. Screening every bag over the past three years has cost about ¥20 billion, but people involved in the industry point out that the price of koshihikari rice grown in the Hamadori region of eastern Fukushima Prefecture in 2014 was more than 20 percent lower than the national average for this brand.
“Wholesalers in other prefectures very much want the checks on every rice bag to continue,” one industry insider said. “At a time when there is a nationwide surplus of rice, we must ensure that rice grown in Fukushima Prefecture is completely safe so that more shops are willing to sell it.”
According to the agriculture ministry, at least 12 nations and territories had suspended imports of marine products, milk, feedstuff and other produce from Fukushima and other prefectures as of March 3
As of the end of January, at least 97 people affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 11, 2011, had died unattended in temporary housing units in disaster-hit Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, information obtained from police headquarters in the three prefectures.
Long periods of evacuee life have caused many people to grow isolated or develop physical or mental problems. Local governments and social welfare organizations are taking measures to keep an eye on such people by mobilizing large numbers of staffers or installing sensors in temporary housing units.
There is no precise definition of the Japanese term kodokushi, meaning “solitary death,” and police do not record statistics on such deaths.
The Yomiuri Shimbun therefore asked the Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectural police about “cases in which people living alone in temporary housing units were found dead in their units” to compile an estimated number of cases.
By prefecture, 47 people were found dead in such conditions in Miyagi Prefecture, 22 in Iwate Prefecture and 28 in Fukushima Prefecture. Men comprised 71 of these people, more than twice as many as women at 26. Among the people who died, 58 were aged 65 or older, accounting for about 60 percent of all the solitary deaths in temporary housing units.
Yoshimitsu Shiozaki, a professor emeritus at Kobe University who is familiar with issues concerning solitary deaths, said of these findings: “Many elderly men cannot cook, so they became unable to maintain a balanced diet as they did before the disaster, or they develop a habit of turning to alcohol to alleviate psychological pain. As a result, they can easily fall ill.”
In the wake of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, many people died alone and unnoticed in temporary housing units. According to the Hyogo prefectural police, 188 people died unattended in the three years beginning in 1995. Even as Hyogo disaster victims have moved to public disaster reconstruction housing complexes, such cases have continued to occur frequently, with 1,057 people in total having died unattended as of the end of 2013.
In the three prefectures devastated by the March 11, 2011, earthquake, the number of occupied temporary housing units peaked at 48,628. The figure is nearly identical to the peak of 46,617 temporary housing units occupied in the wake of the 1995 Hanshin earthquake.
Comparing on that simple metric, it is possible to conclude that the number of people having died alone and unnoticed after the 2011 disaster has been kept to less than half that after the 1995 earthquake.
However, the number of unattended deaths after the 2011 earthquake has been growing each year, with 16 in 2011, 38 in 2012 and 41 in 2013. If the roughly 61,000 housing units rented by local governments from the private sector were to be included in the calculations, the number of solitary death cases would likely increase.
In November, a woman in her 80s was found dead in a bathtub at a temporary housing unit in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, where she lived alone. It was found that she died close to a week earlier, due to illness.
The same temporary housing facility houses around 220 households who have taken refuge after evacuating from the Fukushima town of Tomioka near the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
“We thought she had been away visiting her family living nearby,” Nobuo Kawakami, the 70-year-old head of the facility’s residents association, said of the woman.
After the woman’s death, the association has made it a custom to have the 40-odd residents who live alone put up yellow flags near their doors every morning to let their neighbors know that they are well.
“We’ve gotten the consent of residents to use spare keys to enter their rooms if we are unable to contact them for two days,” Kawakami said. “We don’t want to see any more residents die alone.”
In the areas affected by the 2011 disaster, various measures have been taken to prevent people from dying alone.
In Miyagi Prefecture, about 800 people, including those affected by the disaster, have been employed to watch over such elderly people and provide them with assistance. The Iwate Prefectural Council of Social Welfare also has had around 180 people patrolling temporary housing units and informing health workers when they find matters of concern at housing units.
The Sendai city government, meanwhile, has lent mobile phones to disaster-hit residents who live on their own for use in emergencies. It has also equipped the bathroom doors in temporary housing units with sensors to confirm the safety of the residents. The sensors send a signal if they do not detect any movement of the door for more than 12 hours.
However, some residents find these efforts a nuisance. The city social welfare council in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture has halted daily patrols and reduced the number of patrol to once in every three to seven days.
The council checks mailboxes, whether curtains are left open or drawn and other conditions at the housing units of residents who have declined visits by the workers. But Hideo Otsuki, the council’s secretary general, said: “Watching over them from outside the house has its limits. Those affected by the disaster also need to be aware of the risk of dying alone.”
With the third anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake approaching, numbers do not match reality in terms of progress on reconstruction, adding to the woes of people affected.
As of late last year, official statistics released by the Reconstruction Agency and other government bodies showed significant progress especially on “town rebuilding” efforts, such as the disposal of debris and reconstructing medical institutions and schools, over the past year. In many areas where collective relocation had been in the planning stages last year, 87 percent of construction has begun on the planned projects, while 91 percent of debris disposal has been completed.
In the fishery sector, which was hit hard by the 2011 disaster, the region’s fish haul has recovered to 70 percent of predisaster levels. Sixty-three percent of farmland damaged by tsunami is said to have been restored.
Despite these figures, local people in the farming sector appear glum.
“Farmland that was filled with debris appears to have been restored over the past year, but…” Yukiyoshi Aizawa, a 63-year-old farmer, said of a plot of land in the district of Rokugo in eastern Sendai.
In fiscal 2012, the central government launched farmland restoration work in the district about 1.5 kilometers from the sea. In addition to debris disposal, work to remove salt by repeatedly pouring freshwater onto the farmland was carried out. Such efforts are supposed to help farmland return to normal.
However, soybeans Aizawa planted in June grew to 20 centimeters before the leaves turned yellow and the plants died. He planted soybeans again in July, with the same result.
In cooperation with other farmers, Aizawa planted soybeans in a nearby 45-hectare field, but they were unable to harvest any soybeans in a 30-hectare area. The concentration of salt in the soil of the farmland might have remained too high.
The percentage of farmland restored, 63 percent, has been calculated on areas of land returned to farmers. The figure does not show whether farmers were able to harvest any produce.
“We don’t have statistics on that,” an official of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry said.
Similar complaints have also been heard from farmers in Iwate Prefecture.
“After the disaster, we’ve seen seawater flowing back to five kilometers in the upper stream of some rivers due to land subsidence. Even after restoration work is done, people have been unable to harvest crops on some farmland because of the lack of freshwater,” an official of the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives in Ofunato said.
The job offers-to-seekers ratios of January in three disaster-stricken prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima were higher than the national average of 1.04, meaning there were 104 job offers for every 100 job seekers.
The ratios were 1.09 in Iwate Prefecture and 1.31 in Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.
By prefecture, the ratio of Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures ranked seventh and that of Iwate 17th among the nation’s 47 prefectures.
According to the Miyagi Labor Bureau, the special procurement boom based on reconstruction projects favorably affected the prefecture’s ratio. In addition, emergency employment measures were conducted by the central government to create more than 20,000 jobs only in Miyagi Prefecture in fiscal 2013.
Consequently, the number of job seekers, which is the denominator in calculating the ratio, fell by 20 percent to 44,000 from the February 2011 figure, just before the March 11, 2011, disaster.
These factors boosted the job-offers-to-seekers ratio in the prefecture, the bureau said.
Similar job tendency is also seen in Iwate and Fukushima prefectures.
The figures show the unemployment problem seems to have been resolved, but new problems have also arisen—as the government’s employment measures had job seekers turning away from fisheries and other local industries.
“No matter how hard we recruit employees through Hello Work, we can’t get a sufficient number of people,” said Tadatoshi Oshima, 65, president of a marine products processing company in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
The firm’s new plant, which is now under construction in the city, will start operation in September. It formerly employed about 100 people, but the number decreased by half after the disaster, and it remains at that level.
No more than one person in a month receives a job interview for the firm through the Hello Work public job placement offices. It remains uncertain when the company can solve its labor shortage, he said.
In Kesennuma, construction workers are now paid about ¥10,000 a day, and those who get a job via the government’s emergency employment program—such as patrolling temporary housing units—receive about ¥8,000 a day.
The daily wages are attractive for job seekers while the fishery processing firm pays about ¥6,000, observers said.
The Kesennuma Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that while local companies are beginning to be restored, the government’s emergency employment measures have begun to choke off the local key industries.
The percentage of fire insurance contracts in Japan that include earthquake coverage rose to 56.5 percent in fiscal 2012, hitting a record high for the 10th straight year, according to the General Insurance Rating Organization of Japan.
The margin of increase, however, dropped to 2.8 percentage points from 5.6 points in fiscal 2011, when the rate jumped after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
The top three prefectures for growth were Fukushima with an increase of 6.7 points to 64.8 percent, Tochigi with a rise of 5.0 points to 55.4 percent, and Ibaraki with a 4.9-point rise to 57.4 percent.
Twelve municipalities hit hard by the tsunami after the Great East Japan Earthquake plan to elevate the ground level in once-submerged urban areas–one by up to 17 meters–to aid in the rebuilding of towns and cities in their prior locations, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.
The targeted areas together measure 740 hectares, nearly 15 times larger than Tokyo Disneyland, and the quantity of dirt required is calculated to be 17.5 million cubic meters–enough to fill the Tokyo Dome 14 times. Some municipalities are concerned about the delay in beginning work due to a shortage of dirt and other logistical factors.
The Yomiuri Shimbun surveyed 37 municipalities in coastal areas in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Twelve of them, including Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, and Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, plan to conduct land readjustment to rebuild their urban areas in 26 districts.
As of Friday, none of these districts had started work, and only six have officially determined the districts in which work is to proceed based on the City Planning Law.
While most of them plan to raise the ground level by one to six meters, the municipal government of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, aims to raise it by up to 17 meters, which would make the area 18 meters above sea level. The mound will be as high as a five-story condominium.
So far, 11 municipalities have released cost estimates for the planned land elevation and readjustment, together totaling about 300 billion yen. If approved, the central government would pay for all of it. The work in 12 districts in eight municipalities is expected to be completed in fiscal 2017 or later. The project in the district around JR Ofunato Station in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, is slated to be finished in fiscal 2020.
The municipalities’ plan is to secure the necessary dirt by cutting away part of nearby hills or using dirt generated by projects to transfer groups of residents to higher ground. But districts in at least five municipalities are likely to have difficulty securing enough dirt because there are no such hills nearby, or because a large quantity of dirt is needed for other projects including dike construction. Though some are considering procuring dirt from the Tokyo metropolitan area, the transport cost could be immense.
Another concern is soft ground in some areas, which might cause land to sink after the mound work. Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, and other municipalities therefore insist on the need for ground improvement. “The necessity for conducting land improvement will largely affect the cost and schedule of the work,” said an expert.
The municipalities plan to widen roads and build parks that could be used as evacuation centers in a disaster in the newly heightened areas. Because the plans involve sections of private land, municipalities will need to reach a consensus with local residents on the issue.