A year on, frustration dominates in Fukushima

Those living closest to damaged nuclear plant deal with daily uncertainty, a year on from the earthquake and tsunami.

Large protest in Koriyama [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

Fukushima City, Japan – In Fukushima Prefecture, home to the nuclear plant damaged in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, spirits are low a year after the disasters struck.

“People aren’t genki,” said Jun Kitsunai, a community volunteer, using a Japanese term for being happy or upbeat.

The 30-year-old who owns a casual bar and restaurant in the city, said he too had been affected, mostly because around 48,000 of the city’s roughly 200,000 people left the after explosions at three of the reactors at the plant triggered major fears of radiation contamination.

Kitsunai is among those organising an event on Sunday, not so much to memorialise the anniversary of the event, but to help lift people’s spirits.

Early in the morning Kitsunai and other volunteers set up tents for food and music. He said people in the community have been supporting each other and that the government hasn’t done much to help them, especially given that radiation contamination is still an issue in the area and that people are still worried that another major earthquake could further compromise the nuclear plant, which is roughly 80km away.

“They think that that would be the end for us.”

For some, the past year has gone by fast, with little sign of progress.

“It doesn’t feel like a year, but for me, I wasn’t directly affected, but a lot of people are still affected, and there is still a lot of rubble,” said Ai Nagaura, 17. Her friend, Chisato Maki, also 17, said that for this year, she hoped the government “will get rid of the nuclear plant”.

Angry and frustrated

Just south of Fukushima City, the town of Koryiama holds many of the radiation refugees.

There’s almost a carnival atmosphere outside the train station, with clowns, balloon animals and stand-up comedians performing on a large stage. Banners announce that it is time to get genki.

But in front of the Koriyama City Hall, a massive crowd gathers to hear Nobel Laureate and noted anti-nuclear activist Kenzaburo Oe speak, and then takes to the streets to protest nuclear power.

No one talks about the almost 20,000 who died in the disasters last year, or mentions the 260,000 who remain displaced, with 110,000 still living in pre-fabricated portable housing. Here, it is apparent that the radiation issue is the top source of discontent.

“I feel like I’ve lost my voice, lost my motivation,” said Akiko Katori, an artist from Tokyo.

“In Tokyo, most people try not to think about [radiation contamination], but inside their hearts, they’re scared.”

Although some had come out to show solidarity with those most heavily hit by radiation, some, like Mitsuo Nakamuro, had specific issues to air.

Nakamuro, 60, is a member of the All Japan Day Workers Union – day labourers sent out by agencies to work on various constructions and public works projects –  told Al Jazeera that many day workers have been working as clean-up crews at the plant, but that unlike regular workers, who have cards keeping track of how many days they’ve worked in the plant (in an effort to limit the amount of radiation to which they are exposed), their exposure isn’t timed.

This, said Nakamura, is because organised crime is running a labour racket.

“Not everyone can turn down that work … and they don’t get a card because the mafia is involved,” he said, adding that while he himself hasn’t done any contamination clean up, one of his friends had.

It is unclear if what Nakamura is saying is the case, but it certainly hints at a sense of anger and mistrust that has surfaced in Japan.

A few metres away, third generation cattle rancher Masami Yoshiazawa stood atop a truck, yelling into a microphone. He had to abandon the cattle farm he was working in Namie Town, leaving 300 cows behind.

He places the blame squarely on Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operators of the Daiichi plant.

“Whatever I have left of my natural lifespan, I will spend fighting TEPCO,” he shouted.

Pushing for change

For the few minutes that Oe, a beloved figure in the anti-nuclear movement, stood up to speak at the packed Kaiseizan baseball field to a crowd of roughly 10,000, spirits soared.

Masami Yoshizawa refuses to kill the cattle he was forced to abandon at his ranch in Namie [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

He called on them to oppose the restarting of some of the nuclear plants that had been shut down months ago to undergo inspections after the disaster.

“We must oppose this for future generations,| said Oe, who wants the government to permanently shut down all nuclear plants in Japan.

“It’s an ethical choice, not an economic choice.”

In this crowd, Oe is preaching to the choir, but on this day, having a high-profile figure on their side seems to give the crowd the boost they need to withstand the frigid wind and go on a march around the city centre.

But first, the crowd fell into hush at 2:46 pm: the exact time that a year ago, the earthquake and tsunami hit the country’s northeast coast, setting off the chain of events that brought many of them to this anti-nuclear event.

“It was very touching to hear him speak,” said Haruo Ogiwara, 59. “To hear him say that a future without nuclear power is possible … and to know that the government is watching these protests – they will have to respond.”

Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @DParvaz

Source: Al Jazeera