An elderly woman holds a container filled with fish given by her neighbor outside her temporary house. (Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images)
An elderly woman holds a container filled with fish given by her neighbor outside her temporary house. (Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images)

Three years after a massive earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant more than 100,000 former residents remain displaced.

In Japan, the government is forging ahead with plans to decontaminate and reopen the area currently deemed a “no-go zone,” but former residents have mixed feelings about returning.

KQED’s Mina Kim spoke with Associated Press reporter Yuri Kageyama about the cleanup efforts.

Many residents are concerned about the unknown health effects of radiation. After Chernobyl, there was a large increase in people with thyroid cancer  who were young children and adolescents at the time of the accident and lived in the most contaminated areas of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

“We may never know because it is very difficult to link individual sicknesses with whatever causes that sickness,” Kageyama said. “So the fear just keeps building, the distress keeps building and the people are still there living every day with that uncertainty.”

Some residents say they are afraid to publicly voice their concerns.

“There’s a lot of pressure on these people not to complain, and also there’s a lot of pressure on them to say their lives are back in order, that we are over the disaster,” Kageyama said. “The perception is prevalent that the government is playing down the bad things and being upbeat about the positive things.”

But most of all residents are afraid of being forgotten.

“I wish there were more interest, because the people of Fukushima are extremely worried about being forgotten. This is an important story, it’s probably the biggest story of my life. I’ve been with AP for more than 20 years and I think it’s up to us reporters to make sure that important stories are not forgotten,” she said.

Kageyama will continue to follow the decontamination efforts. You can read her story on Fukushima residents returning below.

TOMIOKA, Japan (AP) — Whenever Kazuhiro Onuki goes home, to his real home that is, the 66-year-old former librarian dons protective gear from head to toe and hangs a dosimeter around his neck.

Grass grows wild in the backyard. The ceiling leaks. Thieves have ransacked the shelves, leaving papers and clothing all over the floor so there is barely room to walk. Mouse dung is scattered like raisins. There is no running water or electricity.

Above all, radiation is everywhere.

It’s difficult to imagine ever living again in Tomioka, a ghost town about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the former Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. And yet more than three years after meltdowns at the plant forced this community of 16,000 people to flee, Onuki can’t quite make the psychological break to start anew.

His family lived here for four generations. Every time he goes back, he is overcome by emotion. Especially during that brief time in the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom.

“They flower as though nothing has happened,” he said. “They are weeping because all the people have left.”

The Japanese government is pushing ahead with efforts to decontaminate and reopen as much of a 20-kilometer (12-mile) no-go zone around the plant as it can. Authorities declared a tiny corner of the zone safe for living as of April 1, and hope to lift evacuation orders in more areas in the coming months and years.

Former residents have mixed feelings. In their hearts, many want their old lives back. But distrust about the decontamination program runs deep. Will it really be safe? Others among the more than 100,000 displaced have established new lives elsewhere, in the years since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami sent three of Fukushima’s reactors into meltdown.

If the evacuation order is lifted for their area, they will lose a monthly stipend of 100,000 yen ($1,000) they receive from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the owner of the Fukushima plant.

A survey last year found that 16 percent of Tomioka residents wanted to return, 40 percent had decided never to return, and 43 percent were undecided. Two-thirds said they were working before the disaster, but only one-third had jobs at the time of the survey, underlining the challenges to starting over.

Former resident Shigetoshi Suzuki, a friend of Onuki, is outraged the government would even ask such a question: Do you want to go back?

Of course, we all want to return, he said. People like him were effectively forced into retirement, the 65-year-old land surveyor said. If he hadn’t evacuated to a Tokyo suburb with his wife, he would have continued working for his longtime clients.

“It is a ridiculous question,” Suzuki said. “We could have led normal lives. What we have lost can’t be measured in money.”

In protest, he has refused to sign the forms that would allow his property to undergo decontamination.

The government has divided the no-go zone into three areas by radiation level.

The worst areas are marked in pink on official maps and classified as “difficult to return.” They are still enclosed by a barricade.

Yellow designates a “restricted” area, limiting visits to a few hours. No overnight stays are allowed.

The green zones are “in preparations to lift evacuation orders.” They must be decontaminated, which includes scrubbing building surfaces and scraping off the top layer of soil and is being carried out throughout the zones.

Tomioka has all three zones within its boundaries.

The green zones are those where authorities have confirmed radiation exposure can be brought below 20 millisieverts a year.

The long-term goal is to bring annual exposure down to 1 millisievert, or the equivalent of 10 chest X-rays, which was considered the safe level before the disaster, but the government is lifting evacuation orders at higher levels. It says it will monitor the health and exposure of people who move back to such areas.

In the yellow restricted zone, where Sukuki’s and Onuki’s homes lie, a visitor exceeds 1 millisievert in a matter of a few hours.

During a recent visit, Onuki and his wife Michiko walked beneath the pink petals floating from a tunnel of cherry trees, previously a local tourist attraction.

The streets were abandoned, except for a car passing through now and then. The neighborhood was eerily quiet except for the chirping of the nightingales.

“The prime minister says the accident is under control, but we feel the thing could explode the next minute,” said Michiko Onuki, who ran a ceramic and craft shop out of their Tomioka home. “We would have to live in fear of radiation. This town is dead.”

Both wore oversized white astronaut-like gear, which doesn’t keep out radioactive rays out but helps prevent radioactive material from being brought back, outside the no-go zone. Filtered masks covered half their faces. They discarded the gear when they left, so they wouldn’t bring any radiation back to their Tokyo apartment, which they share with an adult son and daughter.

Junji Oshida, 43, whose family ran an upscale restaurant in Tomioka that specialized in eel, was at first devastated that he lost the traditional sauce for the eel that had been passed down over generations.

He has since opened a new restaurant just outside the zone that caters to nuclear cleanup workers. He recreated the sauce and serves pork, which is cheaper than eel. He lives apart from his wife and sons, who are in a Tokyo suburb.

“There is no sense in looking back,” Oshida said, still wearing the eel restaurant’s emblem on his shirt.

Older residents can’t give up so easily, even those who will never be able to return — like Tomioka city assemblyman Seijun Ando, whose home lies in the most irradiated, pink zone.

Ando, 59, said that dividing Tomioka by radiation levels has pitted one group of residents against another, feeding resentment among some. One idea he has is to bring residents from various towns in the no-go zone together to start a new community in another, less radiated part of Fukushima — a place he described as “for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

“I can survive anywhere, although I had a plan for my life that was destroyed from its very roots,” said Ando, tears welling up in his eyes. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suffering. I’m just worried for Tomioka.”

  • Ronald Bushnell

    As horrific as the painting that is allowed to be viewed is, it is a poor representation of the actual circumstance of the Japanese people, and other citizens of the world. The Japanese government, complicit with the reactors owner General Electric and association conglomeration, have demonstrated a willingness to put the health and safety of millions – second to the ability to manufacture and possess nuclear weapons; as that is the only justification for nuclear power. There is clear and compelling evidence that Fukushima was and is, an ongoing act of war; if not in the cause, in the response, although there is ample evidence for the consideration of both. The evacuation zone in Japan is grossly inadequate, and radiation is accumulating in the northern hemisphere at a level, that gives all reasonable people pause – to consider the ultimate and inevitable outcome. Citizens of the world must take a cold look at the military complexes and associated crime syndicates, that are placing our collective existence in jeopardy. The response by the United States is a clear indicator, that it is a front corporation that serves the same Rothschild Conglomeration Crime Syndicate, based in most of the centers of the world. ~ The struggle seems to be for the citizens of the world to unite and assimilate the crime syndicate, in the formation of a world constitution under the rule of law – where single nepotistic entities of unreasonable power, are not allowed to exist, and the spirit of the earth is nurtured. Fukushima is a good place to unite – in a clear vision of the future – the citizens of the world demand by right.

  • Barry

    I for one will NEVER forget what the people of Fukushima and around the world are going through! The people in TEPCO that withheld the real radiation
    information from both the US Navy and the people around the world should be
    prosecuted for crimes against humanity! TEPCO was aware of the level of this
    disaster that was without question due to their own negligence! TEPCO also had
    the opportunity to supply the radiation detox mineral Zeolite to those that had
    become contaminated with radiation! I know because my company
    offered TEPCO a 100 percent FREE shipping container of ready to take medical
    grade micronized powdered zeolite that was enough to safely remove radiation
    and heavy metals from thousands of people! This free Zeolite offer came just
    after the disaster occurred and I put it through the Japanese consulate in
    Washington DC as well as directly through their satellite office in Washington
    DC! This same offer was also put out to the Japanese Government itself also
    through the Japanese consulate in Washington DC! Both TEPCO and The Japanese
    Government blew our free Zeolite offer off and refused our Zeolite! So believe
    me people, both TEPCO and the Japanese Government knew how our Clinoptilolite
    Zeolite could have helped thousands and thousands of people radiated just after
    their already gross negligence in allowing this disaster to happen due to
    TEPCO’s refusal to properly secure their nuclear power plant generators by
    relocating them to higher ground when they were told to do so far before the
    tsunami occurred!

  • gcowan49

    According to the Asahi Shimbun,

    The information presented at the Oct. 25 meeting showed that, on average, a family of four forced out of no-entry zones had received about 90 million yen in compensation [$219000 per person] from Tokyo Electric Power Co. as of Sept. 20.

    It also found that the average compensation amount for property, such as real estate, building and furniture, was 49.1 million yen [$120000 per person], while the average compensation for lost wages was 10.9 million yen [$26500 per person].

    (http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201310260046 ; hat tip http://www.hiroshimasyndrome.com/fukushima-evacuee-compensation-payments.html , where the basic evacuation compensation is figured as $7500 per person per month.

    This blog mentions only the $1000 per person per month “for mental anguish”. That is indeed being paid, since March of 2013, but it’s on top of the much larger payments shown above.

    The Japanese government is forcing TEPCO to pay this. For its own part, it is at least $100 million per month *ahead*, based on the natural gas tax rates in Figure 18.2, “Taxation of energy in Japan on a carbon emission basis”, of “Taxing energy use: a graphical analysis”, OECD 2013.

  • Barbara Billig

    So the people of Fukushima wouldn’t be forgotten I wrote the novel ‘#Betrayal’ released on 3/11/14 (the anniversary of the disaster). And because I had seen other instances of what Barry (below) wrote about I researched for two years what was going on over there. I think the title says it all. I hope people will take the time to read this fictional tale based on the true happenings of Fukushima and why it happened. In 2013 I donated 50% of my net proceeds from my 1st EBook to (The Nuclear Catastrophe) to a Fukushima children’s charity through Global Giving. My books can be found on Amazon and they are dedicated to (among others) people who are trying to alert the world of the dangers out there!

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