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In-depth A Four-Year Recovery Review
I Am Fukushima

Kainuma Hiroshi [Profile]


People are all too prone to attribute Fukushima Prefecture’s post-3/11 problems to a uniquely “Fukushima” set of circumstances. But on closer observation we find that some of Fukushima’s most serious problems stem from issues that are nationwide in scope. Addressing these problems effectively will hinge on approaching them from a national perspective.

Exaggerated Notions of Fukushima’s “Population Exodus”

Profound misunderstanding of the circumstances in Fukushima continues to impede efforts to restore life in the prefecture to normal. More than four years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and the accompanying nuclear power plant disaster, this misunderstanding is among the prefecture’s most pressing unresolved issues.

Typical of the misconceptions about Fukushima is the mistaken notion that some sort of massive population exodus has occurred there. I have given some 200 talks over the past four years, and I almost always open with the question “What percentage of the people who were living in Fukushima before the disaster are now residing outside the prefecture?” The answers are invariably in double digits: “Ten percent.” “No, surely more like 60 percent.” “I’d say around 40 percent.”

The true figure is around 2.5%. Fukushima’s pre-quake population was a little more than 1.9 million, and the number of pre-quake residents remaining outside the prefecture has hovered around 40,000 or so for the past year. The exaggerated notions evident in the foregoing responses, however, reflect broadly held misperceptions. Witness the findings of a March 2014 survey by Sekiya Naoya, a project associate professor at the University of Tokyo.

Sekiya conducted his survey on the Internet and secured responses from nearly 1,800 people. His survey consisted of a twofold question: Did the respondents think that a population exodus was continuing in Fukushima? And if they answered “Yes” to that question, what percentage of the population did they think had exited the prefecture? Of the respondents, 1,365 answered that they believed a population exodus was continuing. And the percentages for population loss offered by those respondents averaged 24.38%.

So three-fourths of the respondents in Sekiya’s survey believed that population had drained out of Fukushima and that the outflow was ongoing. And their notion of the magnitude of Fukushima’s population shrinkage was, on average, about one-fourth—10 times the actual figure.

A Curious Vulnerability to Misunderstanding

I wrote the book Hajimete no Fukushimagaku (A Fukushima Studies Primer [Tokyo: Eastpress, 2015]) to help narrow the gulf between perceptions of Fukushima and the prefecture’s reality. This book, published on the fourth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, presents broad-ranging statistical data, material drawn from authoritative sources, and interviews with Fukushima residents.

A central emphasis in Hajimete no Fukushimagaku is the importance of distinguishing between issues unique to Fukushima and those common to all or most Japanese prefectures. To be sure, Fukushima has more than its share of serious issues unique to the prefecture, largely due to the nuclear power plant disaster and lingering radiation—displaced persons, soil contamination, and legal claims against the plant operator and the government. But the prefecture also contends with daunting challenges in the realms of demographics, employment, education, and healthcare that are issues throughout Japan.

The prevalent stereotype of Fukushima centers on issues unique to the prefecture. Fukushima emerged from the disasters of March 2011 as a poster child for mass victimization. Its tragedy captured the attention of people worldwide who had formerly never heard of the prefecture, and that attention focused narrowly on the fallout—including its literal incarnation—from the disasters.

Fukushima’s sensational issues dominated perceptions of the prefecture to the exclusion of mundane but equally or even more significant developments. In this scheme of consciousness, precedence went to . . .

  • the sensational simplicity of victims who cried and howled in anger over the subtle complexity of victims who struggled quietly to regain a semblance of normalcy;
  • the rare agricultural produce in which radiation levels above the legal limit were detected over the vast majority of produce that cleared the world’s most-rigorous standards for radioactive contamination;
  • the infrequent cases of fraudulent misallocation of relief funding over the generally fair and effective allocation of funding; and
  • the extremely few instances of friction between displaced persons and community residents at evacuation sites over the harmony and constructive initiatives seen at most of the sites.

Focusing on the sensational is a natural human response, and it can be instrumental in alleviating distress. Alertness to people in need can elicit helping hands. But the last thing that anyone who has suffered calamity or deprivation needs or wants is to be viewed persistently as a tragic “other.” I have noted how even Japanese have a tenfold misperception of the population decline in Fukushima; perceptions overseas are surely even more skewed. If we wish to understand what is happening in Fukushima, we need to reappraise the issues in the light of objective data.

Population Decline as a Reflection of Japanese Demographics

Three facets of the misperceptions of Fukushima’s population decline in the wake of the nuclear power plant disaster warrant special consideration. The first pertains to the evacuees forced by circumstances to remain outside the prefecture. A lot of the evacuees outside Fukushima have been unable to secure steady employment or permanent housing. The diaspora has thus engendered a sense of helpless isolation for some. Government support has been inadequate, partly because the relatively few evacuees outside the prefecture have commanded low priority. And assistance from nonprofit organizations is dwindling by the day.

The second pertains to the continuing residents. Let us recall that more than 97% of the prefecture’s residents at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake are there today. The subject of evacuation has received disproportionate emphasis in discussion of post-quake Fukushima. Numerous evacuees continue to reside at sites in the prefecture, of course, just as some remain at sites elsewhere in Japan. But the main story of Fukushima is one of people maintaining or rebuilding their lives in their original homes and neighborhoods there. Their bread-and-butter concerns ought to be front and center in our perception of issues for the prefecture.

The third is demographic. Japan’s total population has long been aging rapidly and has recently begun shrinking annually. Fukushima is part of this overall trend. The population outflow associated with the events of March 2011 is but a blip in the long-term downward trend. This is glaringly apparent in the graph below.

Fukushima’s population peaked in the late 1990s and then entered what demographics dictate will be a prolonged decline. Fukushima’s population shrinkage accelerated suddenly after the disasters of March 2011, and that fueled the tenfold misperception of the scale of the prefecture’s population decline. But it has had little bearing on the long-term trend. Fukushima’s population continued declining in 2012, 2013, and 2014. Interestingly, the pace of decline has been slower than in some prefectures, such as Kochi and Akita.

The shrinking and graying of Japan’s population are, of course, an issue of transcendent concern for the nation. Tokyo and Japan’s other large metropolises have traditionally drawn young people from the nation’s nonurban prefectures, which has aggravated the problem of population shrinkage and aging in those prefectures. The book Chihō shōmetsu—Tokyo ikkyokushūchū ga maneku jinkō kyūgen (The Demise of Japan’s Regions—Population Collapse Caused by Overconcentration in Tokyo [Tokyo: Chuokoronshinsha, 2014]) articulates the mounting sense of demographic crisis throughout nonurban Japan.

Fukushima’s population decline is thus part of Japan’s overall demographic fate. The same problems of population shrinkage and aging that are occurring in Fukushima also bedevil the nation’s other nonurban regions. So Japanese everywhere should regard Fukushima as demographic kin and not as a demographic anomaly.

  • [2015.06.03]

The author, a sociologist, has worked since 2012 as a researcher at Fukushima University’s Fukushima Future Center for Regional Revitalization and has served since 2014 as a member of the nuclear energy subcommittee of a natural resources and energy advisory committee to Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy. Kainuma is a native of Iwaki, Fukushima, where he was born in 1984. He holds undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Tokyo and is pursuing a doctoral degree in that university’s Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies. Kainuma is the author of Hajimete no Fukushimagaku (A Fukushima Studies Primer, 2015), Hyōhaku sareru shakai (Bleached Society, 2013), and “Fukushima”-ron—genshiryokumura wa naze umaretanoka (Fukushima Studies—The Birth of a Nuclear Power Village, 2011).

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  • Rebuilding OnagawaOnagawa has recovered relatively quickly from the 2011 tsunami, despite being one of the hardest-hit communities. Journalist Kikuchi Masanori returns to the town to interview Mayor Suda Yoshiaki for the second time and see what has changed in the two years since they last talked.
  • A Tōhoku Town Returns to LifeOnagawa was hit hard by the tsunami from the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. But four years later, it is starting to recover, with the fishing industry in particular making a rapid comeback. Journalist Kikuchi Masanori goes back to the town he has visited repeatedly since the year of the disaster for an update on its progress.
  • No Way Home: The Inescapable Plight of One Fukushima CommunityThe 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.
  • Earthquake Orphans’ Hard Road to Emotional HealingOver 1,700 children were orphaned by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Sustained efforts to lend them a sympathetic ear, along with support from the community and society, will be crucial in healing their emotional scars.

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