A 2011 quake and tsunami led to a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, killing thousands and displacing more. Two 'nuclear refugees' explain why returning home is more complicated than it seems.
Akiko Kamata and Keiko Owada. Photo by Tanja Houwerzijl
This month marks the seventh anniversary of the triple disaster that hit the east coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, when a 9.1 magnitude quake and tsunami led to a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Almost 16,000 people were declared dead.
While the nuclear disaster is becoming a distant memory for most Japanese, for some others it is their everyday reality. Nuclear refugees and evacuees face discrimination, separation from loved ones, and in some cases, they are even forced to return to the former evacuation zone.
The government, worried about people getting exposed to radiation, declared a 20-km evacuation zone around the plant and uprooted close to 165,000 people. As of today, there are still 50,000 people who haven’t returned to Fukushima.
Keiko Owada, 66, is one of them. When I meet her in Tokyo, she refers to the Japanese capital as her home for the past seven years. That will soon change due to the government’s decision to withdraw her free housing subsidies.
Because decontamination work has made progress and food declared safe from radiation, it has been deemed safe to return to most villages within the evacuation zone. The same goes for Owada’s village Naraha, where the evacuation order was lifted two years ago.
Owada is not excited about the prospect of returning to Naraha. “Would I continue to get financial support for my apartment here in Tokyo, I would have stayed here, yes. I’ll tell you why: there is no hospital in Naraha, only a small hospital for first aid. There is no supermarket, only a small convenience store. And the reason is simple: only a few people have returned.”
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Life as an evacuee hasn’t always been easy, Owada explains. “It wasn’t like people were treating me any different, but my neighbors never greeted me. I think it’s because of the compensation I received and the free housing. They knew I was from Fukushima, that’s why.”
According to Owada, some of the other evacuees in Tokyo she knows have faced harsher treatment. “I know of others whose cars were damaged on purpose because they had a Fukushima license plate. That’s why I never parked my car in the middle of the parking lot, but always in a corner, so no one could see it.”
If anything, Owada’s story illustrates how many evacuees continued to live in fear. Displaced from their homes, dropped in a new community—the disaster is anything but over for them.
As an evacuee in Tokyo, Owada went back to Fukushima on numerous occasions. She can still recall her first time back in June 2011. The town of Naraha was still a no-go-area, and she and her family only had one hour to visit. “We wore protective clothes against radiation, with only a small plastic bag for gathering some personal belongings. We had too little time, and the bag was too little for our entire family. But I can remember the smell—[there were] rats everywhere and small animals’ feces.”
Of course, there are things she misses about her old town, like growing vegetables and fruits on her land. But it doesn’t take away the concerns she has about the dangers of radiation exposure, despite the government’s reassurance that it is safe to live there.
“Even though the streets and houses are decontaminated, they didn’t even touch with mountains and forests. Radiation hasn’t been cleaned everywhere. My house is right next to the mountains, so my house might get contaminated.”
Akiko Kamata, 66, still remembers how she was surprised by the alarm warning for a tsunami in her village of Odaka. When I meet her at a Tokyo café, she recalls how she sheltered in Fukushima the first few weeks after the disaster. “I still remember taking my first bath after 10 days, it felt so good.”
When Kamata got in touch with relatives living in other parts of Japan, she was shocked to hear one sister-in-law’s initial response. “After the disaster, I wanted to flee to Chiba [a prefecture next to Tokyo], my sister-in-law picked up the telephone and told me I didn’t have to come to their house. ‘You’re contaminated,’ she told me.”
Eventually she did manage to find a place in Chiba, the region she grew up in as a child. “People were nice to us in Chiba. But still I noticed some skepticism. After I asked the regional authorities for financial support their answer was, ‘No, people in Chiba are victims of the earthquake as well.’”
Kamata did receive a one-off compensation payment from TEPCO: 7 million yen per person, or just over $65,600. Her husband received a similar amount.
Although Kamata is thankful for the financial support, they have not been compensated for the loss of income from their family business in Odaka. “I’m thinking about calling in the help of an organization that specializes evacuees with these type of claims,” she says.
Kamata has decided not to return to Odaka. Her husband’s illness (he suffers from a nerve disease that makes him reliant on Kamata’s support) got worse during the evacuation. She fears that it might worsen if they move back to Fukushima.
As Kamata remembers what life was like back in Fukushima, she uses a handkerchief to wipe a tear from her cheek. She barely speaks to her friends anymore.
“The disaster divided our communities, both physically as well as mentally. People got separated. One friend of mine in Chiba is thinking about divorcing her husband. He wants her to come back to Fukushima, but she doesn’t want this. One reason is exposure to radiation, but there are more reasons, such as her child’s school and the fact that they’ve gotten used to life in Tokyo.”
There is one more story she would like to share, Kamata says while crying. “One friend of mine is a farmer in Odaka. She had 10 cows. They evacuated to Chiba just like me and couldn’t go back to Fukushima to feed the cows. Once they could return for the first time to check on the animals, only three of them were still alive. The others died from starvation, and they were all looking at the same direction—the road the farmers would come from to feed them.”