Can Japan revive its nuclear ghost towns?

The instability of the Fukushima Daiichi plant continues to keep evacuees away from the disaster zone.

The Kanos have taken to farming a small rice field in Miyagi 'just to keep busy' [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]
The Kanos have taken to farming a small rice field in Miyagi 'just to keep busy' [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

Nihonmatsu, Japan – It’s from a distance that Naoki Kobayashi tries to manage the reformation of his town Namie, which sits empty 10km away from the leaking nuclear plant that has wrought chaos on the lives of those in its radioactive reach.

In the relocated town office in Nihonmatsu, roughly 66km west of Namie, Kobayashi and his colleagues are wrestling with a major dilemma: How do you rebuild a town when you’re not sure anyone – especially the young – even wants to go back?

At least that’s the upshot from questionnaires sent to former residents.

So they've been told 'You can't go back for at least five years' - but whether it's 10 years or 15 years, there's still no answer to that … So there's a lot of people who just give up on the idea of going back.

- Fuminori Tamba, Fukushima University

Of the 60 percent who responded, about 30 percent said they don’t plan to return to Namie, and another 30 percent indicated they’re not sure they’ll ever go back.

“We had 21,000 people in Namie, but it’s impossible to rebuild for 21,000 … It’s mostly the younger people who don’t want to come back, and the main reason is fear of radiation,” said Kobayashi, an administrative officer for Namie’s revitalisation and recovery department.

“The reality is that after three years of living in different places, if you put your kids in school, if you find a job, if you find a place for your parents, then most people don’t see a reason to come back.”

Kobayashi also told Al Jazeera even after decontamination, people don’t want radioactive debris stored in their fields – even for the minimum of three years. One-third of any field that has been decontaminated is taken up by the storage of black bags filled with radioactive debris.

Tax breaks for business and other incentives are being formulated to sweeten the deal for those who might return, but so far what Kobayashi and his team have found works best is engaging former Namie residents in the rebuilding process. They’ve even sent questionnaires to children, asking them what kind of town they want Namie to be.

“Mostly, they want it to be what it used to be,” said Kobayashi.

Working against any rebuilding effort is time: The timeline for decontaminating (though not rebuilding) the town is 2017, and if they want people to go back, then infrastructure must be in place to support even a gradual move back by a fraction of the population.

According to a recent government report, 136,000 people in Fukushima prefecture are still displaced from their homes after the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear-plant meldowns devastated the area.  

Scattered communities

Fuminori Tamba, associate professor in the faculty of administration and social services at Fukushima University, is not sure that rebuilding a town as it was is possible.

In a chapter he co-wrote for Fukushima – A Political and Economic Analysis of a Nuclear Disaster, Tamba advocates for doing ,”what can be done to help them regain at least something resembling a ‘hometown’ … even in cases where it may be necessary to consider how to rebuild the community in a different place”.

Tamba is critical of how poorly officials communicated with affected communities.

“Because there wasn’t enough information from the government, people decided what to do from watching TV … Those in high-exposure zones were throwing things in the car and taking buses to get out of town,” he told Al Jazeera.

Tamba has been researching issues facing evacuees in Namie, Futaba and Okuma – all within the exclusion zone – in a project with the Institute of Disaster Recovery and Revitalisation. He said part of the problem is that not only were families split apart, some members have been moved on multiple occasions.

“Within the first six months, some people were moved five times or more,” said Tamba. More than 85 percent of evacuees in the three towns were moved at least three times, according to his research.

The thought of living with bags of radioactive debris for years is holding back residents’ return in Namie [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

These moves led to Fukushima prefecture having the highest number of people dying as a result of poorly handled evacuations – often the elderly and the ill, Tamba said. The prefecture lost 1,603 people to the earthquake and tsunami. An additional 1,664 died during the evacuation process.

Reconstruction won’t even start in Namie until 2017, said Tamba, as the radiation levels are still too high for the homes there to be reconstructed.

And almost all homes need to be rebuilt because although only 10 percent were destroyed by the tsunami, the rest have essentially gone to seed.

“Once you abandon your house for years, you’re going to have mushrooms growing out of your tatamis [traditional Japanese floor covering], pigs in your house and rats defecating everywhere,” said Tamba.

“So they’ve been told ‘You can’t go back for at least five years’ – but whether it’s 10 years or 15 years, there’s still no answer to that. If they don’t have an answer, they can’t plan [their lives] … so there’s a lot of people who just give up on the idea of going back.”

How soon is now?

Meanwhile, in Iitate village, 45km away from the Daiichi nuclear plant, a farmer figuratively drums his fingers wondering when he can get back to planting vegetables.

Mueno Kano, 63, met with Al Jazeera at his farmhouse in 2012, when he was frustrated and wondering why nothing had been done to decontaminate his farm a year after the nuclear accident.

Kano and his wife, Chie, and his 90-year-old father were evacuated to Date, a 40-minute drive away, separating them from their son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. He’d already had enough back then.

Now, with two more years gone by, Kano strikes a similar pose seated at his kotatsu, a low, blanket-covered table with a heating element underneath.

“I’m willing to try to come back but of course, I can’t do it alone,” said Kano. “We don’t know who is willing to come back. We need to be a community.”

But the farms nestled in the stunning, rolling hills of northeast Japan remain empty and inactive, a thick blanket of snow covers rusty farm equipment and fields lie fallow.

Kano said for those who lost their homes in the earthquake or tsunami, at least there was something physical to mourn and rebuild. But for those dealing with radiation issues, there’s been no progress.

“We don’t know when we can come back to farm … our hope is diminished,” said Kano.

Residents of Iitate – all in temporary housing of some sort – are allowed to return periodically, and the Kanos come back three or four times a week, often to meet with academics and journalists to show them what’s become of their village.

According to Iitate’s government decontamination chief, Shoji Minoru, only two percent of the farmland has been decontaminated.

Kano also complained that there was little in the way of communication with Iitate farmers.

“In 2012, we provided one iPad per family – sometimes more when requested – so that residents can check the towns webpage and updated information,” said Minoru, when asked about how the government office communicates with the scattered residents.

But for Kano, who uses his iPad to track radiation levels on maps, it all boils down to the fact that little has been done to return his village back to normal, that the plant remains unstable, and Japanese officials are selling the country as a suitable place to hold the 2020 Olympics.

“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is telling the world that [the Daiichi] Fukushima plant is under control,” said Kano.

“I wonder if people around the world really believe that. Of course, I don’t.”

Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @dparvaz

Source : Al Jazeera

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