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Despite destruction, life goes on in Fukushima

 The Big Issue Japan 17 August 2019

After the horrific earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March, those affected are struggling to rebuild their lives. With many homeless and jobless, the future looks bleak for survivors in the Fukushima area, but they refuse to give up hope. (2047 Words) - By Alhara Hiroko


Fukushima Evacuees 1

Living space, separated by cardboard (Fukushima big palette)Courtesy of The Big Issue Japan

Fukushima Evacuees 2

Town Tomioka outreach provided on site prefabricated Big Palette FukushimaCourtesy of The Big Issue Japan

The number of the dead and missing caused by the earthquake in the Fukushima prefecture is only 1/7 compared to the Miyagi prefecture. However, there are approximately 100,000 evacuees in Fukushima, four times that of Miyagi. This is because there are more than 88,000 people who have been evacuated from the area within 30km from the nuclear power station. For that reason, in Fukushima, it has become a phenomenon that town and village offices are drifting together with the migration of villagers here and there. Depending on how the nuclear power station accidents can be controlled, it remains possible that the people who had left the 30km circle can never return to the area again and will continue to live as refugees in their own country. They want to return to Fukushima, but cannot do so. How do they feel as they go on with their daily lives, moving from shelter to shelter?

"The shelter life has become unusual. The goal I am struggling towards is to return to my homeland." - Mr. Tadano Katsuro, 67, from Tomioka town.

"The girl volunteer said to me, 'please hold out and carry on!'" Although I feel encouraged, I also became angry at the thought of 'in what way should I carry on?' and couldn't help but cry. I apologized to her afterwards though. People can hold out and carry on, if they have goals. But for me, there is no goal, no income or job, it is just eating and sleeping every day… In this place, there are a lot of people who don't have jobs. I guess everyone is feeling the same way."

Mr. Tadano Tatsuro lived in Tomioka town. After the earthquake, he came to Kooriyama City and lived his sheltered life in the convention centre named Big Palette Fukushima. From the look in his eyes it is easy to see his complete desolation. His living space is a two-mat wide floor in the hall, covered with sheets and towels which are closed off with a thin cloth. Mr Tadano has almost got used to this kind of living.

The anti-disaster headquarters of Tomioka town is in a prefabricated house on this site. Mr. Tadano decided that to stay close to the headquarters makes it easier to make an application for temporary housing and compensation, and in any case it is also easier to collect information. Therefore he lives here, alone and away from his family. His wife and his only son, a college student, are living in the city centre. His daughters, who have married into other families, are living in Kansai. The Tadanos had their own house in Yorunomori in the centre of Tomioka town. Now an evacuated area, the community had been famous for its cherry blossoms. His grandfather was one of those who planted the cherry blossom trees that became the town's symbol. Working as a manager in an affiliated company of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and running a boarding house, Mr. Tadano sent all of his children, four girls and a boy, to universities, a rare achievement in this part of the country. This is the proof that Mr. Tadano has strived to his fullest in life.

The unprecedented earthquake suddenly changed Mr. Tadano's peaceful life. His boarding house was accommodating 15 workers from TEPCO's cooperating company, but when the earthquake happened, everyone was evacuated, and the boarding house was closed. While the closure was regrettable, there are things that are far worse: when Mr. Tadano briefly returned to the house, someone has broken into the rooms of his boarding house and stolen all 15 TV sets that he only just bought in February to cope with the transfer into terrestrial digital signals. "Why don't they block off the roads when giving the evacuation direction? There should be lots of ways to prevent theft." Mr. Tadano is full of disheartened thoughts. Now more and more people are moving into temporary housing and the shelter space has become empty. Acquaintances left one by one. Mr. Tadano, who is also in charge of arranging the shelter's matters, became worried about the people who are left behind. "If people lead this kind of life for long, everyone will fall out of the normal spirit. While one does not want to interfere, there are often troubles like loud noises and quarrels in the middle of the night."

Recently, he said, he has been thinking of a way to "keep Futaba District (where Tomioka town is located) in existence". "The state buys out all the land and buildings using subsidies, and works towards returning everyone to their home in one way or another. We are not going on evacuation by our own choice, but only because we had to follow the state's orders. So it's ok to ask the state to do this at least, right?"

A few days ago, he joined a visit to the temporary houses in Otama village. However, he decided to apply for temporary housing in Iwaki city, stating: "I still prefer Hamadouri (the east of Fukushima) where I am used to living. I really want to go back to my town but I guess it is impossible to do so within two or three years. Since it's definitely easier to return to Tomioka, please by all means let me and my wife live in Iwaki." Their house in Tomioka town remains intact, so as long as the infrastructure is rebuilt, they can immediately start living there. Even so, because his neighbours are now scattered in shelters, he does not know whether he can return to the same neighbourhood community as before. Yet still, he wants to go back to Yorunomori, Tomioka where his grandfather had planted the famous cherry blossom trees. And that is now Mr. Tadano's "goal for carrying on".

"First shelter, second shelter, and now leased housing. I have to start again from less than zero every time I moved."

"How can we talk about reconstruction? We haven't even got a starting point to stand on yet." The housewife from Minami-Soma city sighed. She is living her evacuee life in a hot spring hotel in Fukushima city. Right after the earthquake, she left her house which is in an evacuated area, and went to Soma Girl's High School, which was closed down, to seek refuge. The 12-member extended family, including her and her two kids, her grandparents, parents, and the family of her brother lived as evacuees for a while in the classrooms, with the floor covered by cardboard. After the major aftershock in April, the high school building can no longer be used as shelter, because it does not have earthquake-resistant structures. They moved to the second shelter in Fukushima city, which is 30 km away from Minami-soma. The business where she was employed was closed down, and she was fired by the proprietor.

Now her third grader children have got used to their new school life. Under the "out of region schooling", they can attend primary schools in Fukushima city without having to change their resident cards. Her brother and sister-in-law returned to Minami-soma city where they have jobs in order to repay their housing loans, and thus their lives have separated. Her grandparents also returned to Minami-soma city for a while, but they ended up coming back to Fukushima city because they feel insecure about the medical services there, as their family doctor's hospital is now taking outpatients only.

She has already found a two-generation house (house that is designed for two closely related families) for lease in Fukushima city, and signed the leasing contract. However, because the electric appliances that the city and the Red Cross have given her are not yet complete, they cannot yet move in. "First shelter, second shelter, and now leased housing. I have to start again from less than zero every time I moved. I thought I can organize my life style again after we move in the leased housing, but that is also difficult. The transitional method, that is, the life in the hot spring hotel now, has a lot of restrictions and I can't take it anymore. The children also cannot keep calm." Her face is clouded up as she talked.

"It would be nice to go back to Minami-soma city, but compared with everything else, I am most worried about the radiation. Also, the basics of our life, including the children's school, my job and the hospitals are all gone. The city might want its residents to come back, but it's impossible not to take these factors into account. The earthquake, the tsunami, the nuclear power station. We're almost becoming neurotic." She unleashed her unbearable thoughts.

Another man, aged 43, is taking shelter in the same hot spring hotel. When the earthquake and tsunami happened, his house floor in Kotaka community, Minami-soma city was flooded, and then stayed at the Soma Girl's High School before coming to this hotel. He used to work at an affiliated company of TEPCO but he can no longer return to that job.

"I have decided to lease a house about a month ago, but I still haven't got any electrical appliances and cannot move in yet. I also applied for temporary return to my own house a month ago, but have not heard anything back yet." He cannot hide his anxiety. "I don't want to go back to Minami-soma. I have no job there anyway. Although I can still get by with the unemployment insurance, I'm going to look for some jobs in Fukushima anyway."

What awaits after the evacuees' shelter life is the new life that is yet to be started. It is already the fourth month since the earthquake. The residents living in refuge are anxious and insecure because they cannot yet see the future. Their fatigue is beginning to reach its peak.

I cannot go back to the family life where we still have young people and children. - But I still want to keep the flavour of Kawauchi. Mrs. Nizuma Sachiko, 68.

"It is really sad to hear people saying 'I have to go seek shelter in some place far away', or 'I have lost my job'."

Said Mrs. Nizuma Sachiko who is the vice president of Kawauchi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the director for specialties in the village's business union. She has contributed in making Kawauchi village a "village of soba" with the village's specialty, hand-made soba noodles. Mrs. Nizuma herself has moved five times as an evacuee: starting from Iwaki city, then Big Palette Fukushima in Koriyama city, Hatori Hot Spring, Iwaki City again, and now Izumizaki Village.

Among the villagers, the people from their 20s to their 40s have moved to temporary housing or leased housing, and started their lives in a new world. As for the people over their 50s, they say that "since we are old already, taking in some radiation would not matter much. We want to go home right now." But they still don't know when they can return to their villages.

"The villagers are devastated. They are also worried when they can go back home. I hope we can put an end to this status soon," said Mrs. Nizuma. "Perhaps the families with young people and children will never come back to the village. The village will not look like it used to." She is looking at the severe situation calmly.

Mrs. Nizuma has her hopes. "I would like to preserve the flavour of Kawauchi and the hand-made soba noodles, for the sake of those in and out of our village who said they like Kawauchi's clear-cut four seasons and rich natural attraction." She attended the events held in the prefecture to share what she learnt deep within her: the technique and flavour of the hand-made soba that is Kawauchi village's specialty. She is also thinking about opening shops in the future and making them gathering spots for the villagers scattered in all the shelter areas. She hopes that the shops become the place to tell more people about the culture and history of the village as well as the flavour she takes pride in.

"This is my first step towards reviving the village: to keep the light on for Kawauchi." Quiet passion is burning inside her tiny body.

Translated into English by Lily Dali Su

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