Nuclear refugees struggle to cope with uncertain future

Japan Times

Left in limbo by lack of official info, many don’t know where to turn


Staff writer

Like thousands of other people, Miwa Kamoshita’s life was turned upside down when the March 11 tsunami struck the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, leading her and her family to voluntarily evacuate their home in Iwaki, some 40 km south of the crippled power station.

For the past five months, Kamoshita and her two children have lived a life in exile, moving five times — from a relative’s house in Yokohama to an apartment in a western suburb of Tokyo, from the Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka to another hotel in Shibuya Ward, and finally to an apartment in Chiyoda Ward in late July that the metropolitan government has made available until the end of next July.

Although Kamoshita is relieved to have a secure abode for the next 12 months, the family has no idea where they will go when the exit date comes, still unable to figure out how to establish a stable family life now ruined by the nuclear disaster.  “There are too many things that I need to think over,” Kamoshita, a 41-year-old stay-at-home mother of two boys, aged 4 and 8, told The Japan Times in late July.

“It’s been like having a very long dream. I still get confused if what’s happening is real or not, because things have been so extraordinary.”  While the nuclear crisis drags on at the power plant, thousands of evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture — both forced and voluntary — have been in chaos, not knowing when they can return home and live there without fear of radiation exposure.

As of Tuesday, 51,576 Fukushima residents were living outside the prefecture, according to the prefectural government. The number is expected to increase by the end of this summer because many families with schoolchildren plan to move out before the new term begins.  According to a survey by the prefectural board of education, 1,081 children at public elementary and junior high schools plan to leave Fukushima during this summer holiday.

While those who have left may no longer need to worry about radiation exposure, many say life as evacuees is still highly stressful.  Kamoshita’s husband, Yuya, said before March 11 he had been planning to start a farming business in Fukushima next year.  The crisis has ended that dream. Instead he returned to Iwaki in early April to maintain his current job in the education industry, leaving his family behind in Tokyo.

Since then, he has been driving back and forth — a round trip of some 400 km — almost every weekend to spend time with his family. But five months of this double life is eating away at him, both physically and mentally.  “I’m not feeling well. Before (March 11), I never had a car accident, but recently I rolled my car on the capital expressway and my car was totaled,” he said. He was interviewed in late July in Tokyo while he was visiting his family.  “It’s getting tough . . . I don’t know” what to do.

Kanako Nishikata, a 33-year-old single mother of two who voluntarily fled the city of Fukushima for Yamagata Prefecture, said in early July it was much better for her children to be there because they can play outside without wearing a mask. But she was concerned about their future and she was having trouble finding a new job.  “I want something that gives me a sense of security and convinces me that I can make my own living in the future,” said Nishikata, who was in Tokyo in late July to participate in a demonstration headed by several citizens’ groups urging the government to include voluntary evacuees in its compensation guidelines.  Without knowing when she will return, Nishikata is still paying rent to keep her apartment back in Fukushima, fearing otherwise she won’t have a home to go back to.

Yukio Yamakawa, director general of the volunteer group Tokyo Saigai Shien Network (Tossnet), said the government should give evacuees better information about contamination in their hometowns and when the radiation will drop back to normal levels.  “What people really want to know is how long it will take for their hometowns to be free of contamination. (But) they don’t have that information,” Yamakawa said.  If people are told they can’t go back for the next five or 10 years, as long as that’s the truth, they can make some plans and move on with their lives, Yamakawa said.

But without concrete information about the future, the only option left for those who want a stable life under the current situation is to choose between giving up on Fukushima and starting a new life in another prefecture or returning home, she said.

The choice to return to Fukushima is available only for voluntary evacuees.  Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who will step down next week, plans to visit Fukushima on Saturday to tell residents that some areas near the nuclear plant are likely to remain off-limits for a long time, but details remain unclear.

Five months after the disaster struck, local governments have started closing shelters. This is forcing evacuees to scatter to separate apartments and temporary housing built by authorities.  The Fukushima Prefectural Government plans to shut down all shelters by the end of October.

Yamakawa stressed the importance of helping evacuees form a sense of community and provide a means of communication so they won’t be isolated.  Tossnet has set up an Internet-based mailing list for evacuees in Tokyo that allows them to share useful information, such as when gatherings and other events will be held.  About 50 people have signed up for the mailing list so far, Yamakawa said.

Yuya Kamoshita said he’s at a loss for ideas about what he should do for the future of his family. But he is adamant that his children will not return to Iwaki for at least a decade, considering that radioactive cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years. “Their youngest son often yearns to go back to his “real home.”

But Kamoshita said “almost everything” that gave them joy in their life in Iwaki has been contaminated with radioactive materials, ranging from the mushrooms they used to grow to the blueberry bushes in their garden.  “Iwaki is still a wonderfully beautiful place,” he said. “The air tastes much better than in Tokyo. If you don’t know (about the contamination), even the food tasted better than here.

“But for me, they no longer taste better. I have lost my appetite.”