Japan's evacuees face an uncertain future, six months on
By Takehiko Kambayashi Sep 6, 2011, 3:06 GMT
Nihonmatsu, Japan - In mid-August, Tsuneko Iwakura was finally moved into temporary housing, after five moves in as many months since evacuating her home near a damaged nuclear plant.
'We hear we can stay here for at least two years, so we are now relieved,' said Iwakura, 78.
She and her husband left their home in north-eastern Japan when the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Station started leaking radioactive material, only 5 kilometres away.
When the magnitude-9 earthquake struck the area on March 11, Iwakura watched as the walls of her house cracked and tiles fell from the roof.
The ensuing tsunami wrought widespread havoc on the region's Pacific cost. It knocked out the cooling systems at several of the plant's reactors, causing fires and explosions which damaged the structures, leading to the ongoing nuclear crisis.
The elderly homemaker and her veterinarian husband left their hometown of Namie with only the barest of necessities.
The couple first took shelter in a community centre. Along with other evacuees, they often had to huddled together to keep warm in the cold winter nights as fuel and electricity were cut off.
The disaster killed more than 15,700 while police continued to search for about 4,300 who are missing.
Iwakura now lives in temporary compounds consisting of 244 units built on an athletic field in Nihonmatsu city, 55 kilometres from the plant. All of the residents are evacuees from the town of Namie.
The couple was among tens of thousands forced to flee and who have been leading an uncertain, nomadic existence ever since, with no idea of when they might be able to return to their homes, if ever.
'Our house was located in the middle of Namie town. It was a very convenient location, so we now live a very different life,' Iwakura said.
'Since we are in our late 70s, maintaining good health is also a big challenge from now on.'
Many evacuees said they are worried their children's education and social networks, as they were separated from neighbours and friends.
There are also concerns about employment. Many people lost their livelihoods, and employment opportunities are scarce in the rural area, 250 kilometres north-east of Tokyo.
Before the quake, Toshiharu Onodera, another evacuee at the same complex, was a potter and teacher in the Obori Soma Ware style, a traditional craft.
While living in the shelter with his wife and three children, he found temporary employment with his hometown's administration.
'I was very lucky enough to get this job, but many people here still have no job,' Onodera said.
His contract expires soon, he said. 'I'm hoping to go back to teaching pottery' near his hometown.
But his house is less than 10 kilometres from the plant, which is still contaminating the environment with radioactive material. 'I don't think we will be able to go back in the near future to live,' even if the plant is finally brought under control, he said.
Many residents were allowed a return trip of about two hours after the government decided in mid-April to ban entry into the 20-kilometre exclusion zone around the plant.
'I found some of my pottery had crashed on the floor because of the strong aftershocks,' Onodera said.
In Miyagi prefecture, the hardest hit by the tsunami, about 3,300 people are still in makeshift shelters due to delays in building the temporary housing, a prefecture official said.
Some of the backlog was also due to evacuees refusing to accept accommodation in inconvenient locals, Koichi Sasaki said.
Locals say reconstruction has not been progressing as fast as it should.
Sasaki blamed a lack of clarity in government policy. 'For example, the government has not decided where they want to rebuild residential communities' in coastal cities, he said.
Some have argued that the new accommodation should be built on higher ground to avoid future disasters, while others advocate rebuilding the existing communities, Sasaki explained.
Meanwhile, in Nihonmatsu, Iwakura did not express any anger at the government or the plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. But she said she did not want to recall what the couple had to go through after the disaster.
'So many things happened while we moved from place to place in the past six months,' Iwakura said.
'But we cannot always look back on our past. Even if we complain, nobody would sympathize with us. Everyone here is in the same situation,' she said. 'We just have to carry on and look to the future.'