In-depth A Four-Year Recovery Review
No Way Home: The Inescapable Plight of One Fukushima Community

Tom Gill [Profile]

[2015.06.09] Read in: 日本語 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | العربية |

The story of Nagadoro, a small hamlet in the Fukushima nuclear disaster zone, offers a hint to the fate of the area’s other displaced communities.

Slowly Eroded Hopes

It was a conversation with Takahashi Masato that finally convinced me that Nagadoro was finished.

I was visiting him and his wife at their unit in the Matsukawa Number Two temporary housing complex. They have been living in a cramped prefabricated apartment there for four years now. He explained that his oldest son, Masahiro, had recently signed a contract to acquire a plot of land in the city of Fukushima on which to build a house. He had asked Masato and his wife if they would like to come and live with them once the house is ready. And Masato had said yes. He would pay for the house to include a second kitchen and bathroom to avoid getting in the way of the younger generation.

Takahashi Masato treats the author to a shoulder massage at a Nagadoro hamlet reunion.

For four years Masato had been absolutely determined to return to his home in the irradiated hamlet of Nagadoro in the village of Iitate. He had lived there all his life and fully intended to end his days there. While others frankly stated that they would never return to Nagadoro, he made several visits a week—feeding his cat and the ornamental carp in his pond, and cleaning up the house to keep everything shipshape in readiness for his return. He got some friends together to petition the mayor to start decontamination of Nagadoro. He even did some decontamination of his own, sowing sunflower seeds in a field next to the government radiation monitoring post as well as cutting the grass near the monitoring post in a quixotic attempt to reduce the published radiation levels of his beloved Nagadoro.

And now, he said, “the dream is over.”

Delayed Response

Masato, a former headman of Nagadoro, was 75 years old when the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred. Hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant sent radioactive matter high into the sky and the prevailing winds carried it northwest over Iitate. In the days immediately after the explosions the government evacuated people within a 20-kilometer radius of the power plant and told those living 20–30 kilometers from the plant to stay indoors. Because Iitate is just outside the 30-kilometer radius, no evacuation order was issued. Yet some parts of Iitate had far higher levels of radiation than many places within the 20-kilometer radius. Nagadoro, being in the far south of the village, got hit hardest of all.

Masato stands in front of the barricade barring access to Nagadoro. Members of the hamlet have special passes that grant them admission, but some wonder why it is deemed safe for them to enter the hamlet but unsafe for outsiders to do so.

In Nagadoro an atmospheric radiation level of 95.2 microsieverts an hour was recorded on March 17, 2011. This is equivalent to 834 millisieverts a year at a time when the official safe annual limit was 1 millisievert. Yet there was no evacuation order until April 22, 42 days after the disaster, at which point all 20 of the hamlets making up Iitate were ordered to evacuate. But they were given until the end of May to do so— another 40 days—implying that the situation was not that urgent. In the case of Nagadoro, inhabitants who followed the government line and evacuated at the end of May absorbed about 50 millisieverts of radiation before departing. Only time will tell how serious the health effects of this wholly unnecessary delay may be.

Some of the men of the hamlet were sanguine. They stayed on in Nagadoro after the government evacuation date, often because they had pregnant cows that needed to calve before they could be sold. One inhabitant, Shiga Takamitsu, stayed on in Nagadoro for a whole year after the evacuation order with just his golden retriever Ray for company. He had read books about radiation and concluded that the levels around his house were not a serious threat to health. Besides, his work did not involve spending long periods outdoors. He ran a small business trading in dried seaweed, which he continued to cut and pack in Nagadoro until July 2012, when the government reorganized the evacuation zone. Officials designated Nagadoro a “hard-to-return district” (kikan konnan kuiki), put up barriers around the hamlet, and declared it uninhabitable for the next five years. At that point Takamitsu finally gave in and moved his business and residence to the city of Fukushima.

The crossroads at the center of the deserted hamlet of Nagadoro.

 

Shiga Takamitsu stayed on in Nagadoro for a whole year after everyone else had evacuated.

Leaving Home Behind

The people of Nagadoro were relocated, some like Masato to temporary housing and others like Takamitsu to rental housing they found themselves, with the rent paid for them by the prefecture. Some found themselves living in relatively luxurious condominiums, others in prefabricated huts. The community was scattered across Fukushima Prefecture; neighbors lost touch.

Prefabricated dwellings at the Matsukawa Number 1 temporary housing complex (left). People are still living there four years after the disaster. The complex has a noodle restaurant, run by a married couple from Iitate, and a small grocery store (right).

Little by little compensation money started coming in from Tokyo Electric Power, operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Basic payments were ¥100,000 per person per month to compensate for “mental suffering.” This was the same for all areas ordered to evacuate. But in the case of high-radiation districts like Nagadoro, two lump sums equivalent to five and six years’ worth of the monthly payments were made—the first in 2012 and the second in 2014. Further payments have been made, including compensation for housing, furniture, agricultural machinery, and loss of employment. For a family of five, total compensation is now in the region of ¥100 million—more money than anyone in Nagadoro has ever seen before.

Nagadoro hamlet headman Shigihara Yoshitomo looks toward the sea, which is just visible between a gap in the mountains. Many from Nagadoro blame that gap for allowing radiation to reach the hamlet.

For some time the people of Nagadoro were paralyzed by the disaster that had afflicted their hamlet. The mayor of Iitate, Kanno Norio, had promised to get the village repopulated in two years—a promise that he later admitted had no credible foundation. The temporary housing was also supposed to be just for two years. But that was extended to three years, then to four, and now a fifth year has been confirmed. As the years went by, however, more people found employment in the places where they were evacuated. In 2014 the trickle of people using their compensation money to buy houses grew into a flood. Now about 45 of Nagadoro’s 71 households have bought homes, many of them in Fukushima city or the neighboring city of Date. Children have settled in and made new friends. For the younger ones, life in Nagadoro has become a fuzzy, half-remembered thing of the past.

  • [2015.06.09]

Professor of social anthropology at the Faculty of International Studies, Meiji Gakuin University, Yokohama. Educated at King’s College, Cambridge and the London School of Economics and Political Science, he has research interests that include marginal labor, homelessness, and masculinity. His publications include Men of Uncertainty: The Social Organization of Day Laborers in Contemporary Japan and Japan Copes with Calamity: Ethnographies of the Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disasters of March 2011, co-edited with Brigitte Steger and David Slater, and Yokohama Street Life: The Precarious Career of a Japanese Day Laborer .

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