Living in Tokyo, I don’t hear much about Fukushima’s disaster recovery. Three years after the disaster, Tohoku’s recovery only directly affects me through little donation boxes supermarkets and drug stores.
The actual situation in Tohoku however is rocky. To find out more, I took a little trip last month to the area to get a firsthand view of the so-called “recovery”.
Bear in mind that the 2011 disaster is actually a collection of two disasters affecting different parts of Tohoku. The first is the earthquake and tsunami which has caused damage particularly to the coastal areas of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima. The second is the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, which had the greatest effect within Fukushima prefecture, resulting in forced evacuation areas due to nuclear radiation.
The first will be addressed in a different post. This article will deal with the second.
During my trip, I stopped over at a city in southeast Fukushima prefecture, Iwaki city, and through it I hope to raise the question: How much has Japan really recovered from the nuclear crisis in Fukushima?
View of the city from the station.
I myself arrived in Iwaki on a bright Saturday. I was expecting a lively mid-sized city. After all, Iwaki is the largest city in Fukushima prefecture in terms of population. It turns out it’s the largest in size as well and thus the population is spread thin.
Iwaki itself suffered from the earthquake. After Sendai, it had the second largest number of destroyed homes (40,000) and about 400 dead from landslides and the tsunami. While it originally had a direct link to Sendai through the Joban line of JR East, the nuclear radiation exclusion zone cut it in half. Train commuters now must take a long detour through the west using infrequent trains (about once every two hours) through central Fukushima prefecture to head northward.
Signboard at Mito-station, south of Iwaki. The blanked out part probably says “Sendai”.
You wouldn’t know any of this if you just stumbled into the city by mistake. The area around Iwaki station is tranquil and pristine with many 5 story buildings. Walk 10 minutes away from the station and you’ll arrive at rows of houses with 2 stories with only small signs of urban decay.
Example of temporary housing for disaster victims.
Iwaki is one of the cities with the highest number of disaster evacuees in the nation. There is temporary housing within 20 minutes’ walk from the station. As of last year, the city was sheltering around 24,000 refugees from the disaster areas. These refugees mainly come from the evacuated area north of Iwaki, which is within the vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Reactor.
Three years after the disaster, some Iwaki residents feel the refugees have overstayed their welcome. Below I have translated a number of comments from Iwaki netizens on Twitter:
“The people living in the temporary housing are living in luxury. They’re getting money. They’re getting money if they don’t work so some go on overseas holidays or even buy expensive cars. They get rebates at convenience stores so they shop there. The convenience stores are crowded and with the population increasing, traffic congestion is getting worse. Iwaki citizens have no such privileges.”
“Like, the refugee-samas ride and crash expensive cars which they have never tried before and that is why there’s always traffic jams. I just wish they’d stop it! “
“This I can say this without any hesitation. There are some people suffering in the temporary housing but a majority are getting money without working; their children who see the adults not working become dysfunctional hikikomoris living through the internet and become useless people spending their time on Niconico douga”.
This has been reported on by NHK, Huffington Post Japan and Japan Times in English. The major complaints are that the influx of refugees has caused a shortage of doctors, an increase in rent prices, and traffic. Actually it seems that, at least on the internet, all sorts of stuff is being blamed on the disaster survivors.
“Disaster Victims get Lost!”
Fates of the Survivors
Namie Town, deserted immediately after the disaster. Even now, staying overnight is forbidden in all areas of the town.
A large number of refugees still can’t go home. A further number can only go back home on day trips. In these areas, staying overnight has been forbidden due to elevated levels of radiation. For some lucky ones, the evacuation orders have been rescinded. But the choice to return home isn’t as obvious or easy as you may think.
Let’s take the example of Kawauchi village, to the immediate north of Iwaki. The eastern part of the village is within 20 km of the Fukushima nuclear reactors. But as of the 25th last month, the majority of the evacuation orders have been rescinded and only a small part of the village is still under quarantine.
Nonetheless, the population has not returned. NHK reported that out of 2758 people registered with the village, only 1476 have returned. The returnees have been mostly elderly – the young have not been returning as willingly.
Photo of decontamination works in Kawashima, 2012
NHK explains that there are three main reasons for the lack of young returnees. Firstly, fears about the radiation certainly remain. Secondly, education is a concern. Kawauchi’s high school students tended to commute to high schools in the towns to the east. Those are now ghost towns due to the radioactivity exclusion zone. The alternative has children take one hour bus rides to schools in the west – not very practical for anyone involved.
The third reason is financial. Many people in the area formerly worked in other towns to the East. NHK reports that 500 villagers lost their jobs due to the quarantine. The village is trying to attract new companies to provide jobs. However, it has so far only been able to attract 100 new job, many among these being low-paying, barely above minimum-wage positions. The NHK gives the example of a position in an agricultural factory which only pays 700 yen.
If you found yourself in their position, and had been living somewhere else for perhaps a year, would you choose to return?
Problems with Nuclear Energy
Mihama Nuclear Reactor
You can imagine how this looks. On one hand, energy prices have been sky high since the reactors were shut down and the business world is unhappy. On the other hand, Fukushima stands as a constant reminder of the dangers of nuclear energy. But there is another dimension here: Who exactly is for and against restarting the reactors?
You would think that the residents of towns and villages which host nuclear reactors who oppose the restarting the most. After all, it is them who have the most to lose. However, they also have the most to gain. The construction of nuclear power plants has often been linked with generous aid from electrical companies, and the nuclear power plants themselves do provide something highly in demand to rural Japan – jobs.
Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant in 1999, 12 years before the accident.
This is why, instead of opposing the restart of the nuclear reactors, cities hosting them actually support it. The opposition comes from neighboring cities and towns who don’t gain as much from the economics of nuclear power but still have much to lose. NHK reports that the percentage supporting the restarting of power plants is above 50% for municipalities with nuclear plants and is clearly weaker in surrounding towns.
At the moment it is only the reactor’s hosting municipality which has to give permission for restart once they are certified “safe” by the authorities. With the government wanting to restart ASAP, Japan’s success in balancing the economic livelihood of people, responsibility, and safety remains to be seen.
Namie Town village returning to their shop in the day, April 2011.
Clearly, Fukushima prefecture has a long way to go. Decontamination is still in progress at a speed which many criticize as unsatisfactory. There is even a question as to whether the areas closest to the reactors will become the Japanese Chernobyl.
Next, we will be looking at the situation in the tsunami disaster areas – which offers a different set of problems. Things are going to be more personal in the next article. Unlike Fukushima, I’ve been able to visit some of the directly affected areas. And it is a very different situation on the ground.
Please do take a look!
- Link to synopsis of NHK Mito report.
- Explanation about the compensation given to municipalities which host nuclear plants.
- Transcript of NHK online report on the differences in support and opposition towards the restarting of the reactors