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Fear and favor

Nuclear diaspora makes home a hard place to define
By Zachariah Bryan

Hisako Shiga spilled an envelope full of photographs onto the table. She flipped through them. Most are of her grandchildren. Baby picture after baby picture after baby picture. Then, she stopped. She pointed: Her old house in Naraha. Her home.

Kiyoko Shiga, 88, lived in Naraha for over 60 years. Family photos are the only memories she has to remember her longtime home.  Photo by Parker Seibold 

These photographs are the only reminders the Shiga family keeps of their old life. Now, they live in a temporary housing complex in Iwaki, almost an hour’s drive away from Naraha. Hisako, 60, her brother Takao, 56, and their mother Kiyoko Shiga, 88, all share a small house there. They have to fit their entire lives into one bedroom, one bathroom, a living area, a narrow kitchen and a loft.


This house is not home. Takao, Hisako and Kiyoko spent the majority of their lives in Naraha, a coastal town in Fukushima Prefecture. They were forced to evacuate when the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant experienced a triple meltdown following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, showering radiation throughout the area.


Their story is just one of many. After the meltdown, the government ordered an estimated 154,000 people to evacuate their towns within a 30-kilometer radius. They dispersed in all different directions throughout Japan searching for new lives and new homes. While many of these evacuation orders have been lifted, the task of rebuilding communities proves challenging.


Naraha’s evacuation order was lifted nearly two years ago but only 20 percent of its previous population of more than 7,000 has returned, according to town officials. Immediately after evacuation was ordered about 80 percent of the residents moved to Iwaki.  Roughly 2,000 households still live there, Naraha town officials said.


The two towns are not far apart physically, but the 34-kilometer separation makes people reluctant to move back. They have built new lives, have gotten used to the comforts that the city can provide and have access to jobs and necessities unavailable in Naraha.


For the rural communities of Fukushima, the nuclear crisis has exacerbated a long-term flight to urban communities that was underway well before 3.11. In Naraha, the population fell by 8 percent from 8,400 in 1995 to 7,700 in 2010.


A new school opened in Naraha this year, bringing hope that families and especially kids will return. But they will be coming back to a changed town. Reminders of the nuclear disaster are everywhere. The invisible presence of radiation lurks in the water and in the trees. And rowdy workers, who have come in search of money, not community, swarm the restaurants and grocery store.

From left to right, Hisako, Takao and Kiyoko Shiga sit in their house in Iwaki, where they have lived for over five years. It’s small, they say, but they added personal touches to make it feel more like a home. Photo by Parker Seibold

No going back


Tatsuya Nemoto remembers the day his life changed. He was visiting his parents in Naraha before his college graduation ceremony in Tokyo. The earthquake and tsunami happened the day prior. In the morning, the siren went off. Usually, it wouldn’t mean anything; the siren goes off every morning.


This time, it was followed by an announcement: Something had happened at the nuclear power plant and everyone needed to leave immediately. There was panic throughout the town, Nemoto said. Nobody knew what was going on. No one had ever thought about the dangers of radiation before.


Like many others, he and his family took the bare essentials: mobile phone, wallet, warm clothes. They thought they would be back in a few days, not several years.


The Shiga family thought the same. Over the next six months, they shuffled from place to place as they slowly learned that this would be a long-term event. They initially evacuated to Iwaki City and stayed at an elementary school for 10 days, with other refugees. Then, they moved to Tokyo with Hisako’s daughter. While Hisako stayed behind, Takao and Kiyoko took off after 10 days to live with another relative on the northern island of Hokkaido.


Finally, on Aug. 1 of 2011, they settled in Takaku Temporary Housing in Iwaki, an area specially set up for Naraha refugees. It provides free rent for residents, paid for by Fukushima Prefecture, allowing the Shiga family time to breathe. For years, they survived off of compensation from TEPCO – 100,000 yen (around $900 USD) per person per month.


The money helped, but it came with its own host of problems. Bad rumors, or fuhyo higai, in Japanese, spread fast. If they went to the grocery store and bought too much, people would whisper about the money they got for being evacuees, Hisako said. When she went to an onsen -- a public bath -- to relax, someone accosted her for using evacuee money for luxury.


It was an emotional time, she said. It made her miss home.


“We used to say we’re from Naraha. Now we say we’re from Iwaki,” she said.


Compensation ended last September, a year after the evacuation order was lifted. Next year, they will have to move out of their house, when the owners plan to close down the temporary housing complex and sell off the land for development. Takao recently got a job doing night security for a disability center, so he hopes he can get a home loan to buy a house in Iwaki City. Hisako doesn’t work because she doesn’t drive, though she hopes she can once they move.


Whatever happens, there will be stress, Takao said. Money will be tight. He said he wished the compensation would continue.


“It’s not our fault,” he said. “We were forced to evacuate. If the nuclear power accident had not happened, we could have continued the same life in Naraha. We could have continued jobs in Naraha. At our age, it is difficult to get a new job.”


If the plan to buy a house doesn’t pan out, Takao said he wasn’t sure what they would do. They still have their house back in Naraha, which is newly renovated, but there are no jobs to go with it.

Six years after the disaster, many houses still sit abandoned in Naraha. Work is underway to demolish these houses to make way for new ones. Photo by Parker Seibold

Lunch and groceries:

Business in Naraha makes a slow return


Ryoichi Matsumoto, an English teacher at Naraha’s new junior high, grew up in Naraha and now lives in Iwaki. Though he commutes almost an hour each way every day, he said he wouldn’t move back anytime soon. He has three daughters, the youngest of whom is six. They go to school and have friends in Iwaki. Moving back would throw their lives into turmoil, he said; he couldn’t do that to them.


Still, as he drives to his hometown, especially on brilliantly sunny days during the summer, he said he feels pangs of reminiscence.


“The feeling I want to live in this place is stronger,” he said.


When talking about Naraha, people say the same things. It’s beautiful. It's a broad agricultural valley, divided by a river and bound by mountains to the west and the sea to the east.


It’s hard to enjoy the bounty of scenery fully these days. Reminders of the nuclear disaster persist everywhere people go. Huge swaths of land dug up during the cleanup process. Meters in parks and in buildings measuring the rate of radiation. Signs warning of wild boars, which came to town in search of food during the evacuation period. Thousands of large black bags, bulging with radioactive soil and debris, piled up in fields.


“That still looks very strange to me,” Matsumoto said of the bags.


The presence of radiation affects daily life and activities. Nemoto said when he goes fishing, he can’t eat the fish he catches. Saki, a middle school student, said her parents won’t let her swim in the ocean. Matsumoto said he mostly feels safe, but worries about rain washing radioactive contaminants in the forests and mountains down into town.


Few people these days enjoy Tenjinmisaki Sports Park, the town’s recreational crown jewel. No kids are playing on the elaborate play structures, not even the large pirate ship playground, and no one is strolling the footpaths. From a lookout in one corner of the park, a vast, blue expanse of ocean unravels, so calm that it’s easy to forget the tsunami ever happened.


Then, there are the strangers: swarms of workers who have never lived in Naraha, who have come to chase quick money. Matsumoto said they sometimes unnerve longtime residents.


At Orahotei restaurant, which means “us” in the Japanese Tohoku dialect, these workers line up in blue and gray jumpsuits, popping coins into a ticket vendor presenting a variety of options: Curry and rice, udon noodles, soba. The workers fill up every seat in the house, creating a cacophony of cooking, noodle slurping, talking, laughing. One customer said it’s usually even busier and more boisterous, but a typhoon was coming through, so some people didn’t make the trip.


With radiation cleanup work done, these workers are mainly here to knock down abandoned houses. Shimizu, a small, shaved-headed jokester, waxed poetic about his work: “To build a new life, you have to destroy.” Another worker called the job entertaining for about 30 seconds, then boring and tedious for the rest of the time.


Shimizu lives in a small, two-bedroom apartment by the Iwaki train station with five other workers. He pointed to his roommate, sitting across the table, “He smells!” He cackled as his roommate covered his face in mock shame.


None of the workers lives in Naraha, Shimizu said; their employers only allow them to stay in the area eight hours at a time. He himself moved to Iwaki just for the job. His family lives in another prefecture, and once this job is done, probably sometime next year, he said he will move back.


These strangers are reshaping Naraha’s community. For the owner of Orahotei, Mitsuo Yokota, they have become a business opportunity. He said he started his restaurant in 2013, when there was no place for workers to eat, he said. They were just bringing cold lunches.


“I wanted to provide food for cheap. I don’t make too much profit,” he said. He called his work volunteerism.


Two doors down in the same strip mall, Tatsuya Nemoto has been running a grocery store for three years now. His grandfather started the business a half century ago, and before the disaster, his father was running both grocery stores in town. They were much larger than the current operation, but business has been good, he said. A couple of years ago, when cleanup work was still going strong, it was one of the highest performing stores in all of Japan, he claimed.


Nemoto said he started his business for a very simple reason: he doesn’t like the city. He’s a country bumpkin at heart. And while he feels some sense of connection to his father and grandfather’s business, he said he would be lying if he said he wasn’t mostly doing it for the money. The town had a need for a grocery store, so he went for it.


These businesses currently reside in a temporary strip mall, which may be demolished in the near future to make way for a permanent commercial complex. Both owners plan to move into the new building. Yokota said he wants to add a bar to his restaurant, providing people the first place to drink since the 2011 disasters.


When the house wrecking crews finish their work, Yokota said he will look to serve drinks to tired engineers working at the Naraha Remote Technology Development Center, which opened fully last year as part of Japan’s “Innovation Coast,” aimed at decommissioning nuclear power plants.

Shigeo and Kumie Kimura, evacuees from Naraha, started a new restaurant in Iwaki City. They say they want to move back, but it won’t be feasible for a long time. Photo by Parker Seibold

Build for children and parents will follow


This April, the Naraha Elementary and Junior High schools welcomed students to a combined building. The opening gave kids a place to learn and served as a symbol for a community getting back on its feet.


The number of students pales in comparison to pre-disaster numbers, when there were three schools in town. There are 62 elementary and 43 junior high students now, compared to 302 elementary and 191 junior high students before 2011.


In the lunchroom, children sat down to eat at tables separated by class. On the menu: ramen. They said they are glad to be back in Naraha. The new school is bigger and nicer than the temporary school they were attending in Iwaki.


Some families have already moved back because of the school. Matsumoto, the English teacher, said he was surprised to see so many kids show up on the first day of class.


Social workers in Naraha said they hope the school will allow families to reunite. Currently, there is a higher ratio of elderly people in Naraha than before 2011, about 30 percent compared to 20 percent. The average age is about 73, compared to 64 before, according to social workers in the town office. Many of these people are separated from their children and grandchildren, and their mental health has suffered as a result, the social workers said.


“The level of mental health problems increased during evacuation. People were depressed,” said social worker Yukihiro Jujita. “We returned, things have gotten better. However, the community was broken.… The relationship of a neighborhood was broken.”


Not everyone who comes to the school actually lives in Naraha. Most teachers, eight elementary students and 11 junior high students commute from Iwaki.


Saki’s family was fragmented when she and her mother moved to Naraha in March. Her father, who works long hours as a truck driver, lives in Onahama with her sister. She doesn’t know when she will see them again.


“I miss my father and sister,” she said. “I feel lonely.”

Kids are coming back to Naraha with the opening of the elementary and junior high schools. Town officials believe the schools will go a long way toward restoring the community. Photo by Parker Seibold

New lives built elsewhere


Many evacuees may never return to their pre-disaster homes. Eighty percent of people who left Fukushima Prefecture due to fear of radiation said they have no plans to move back to their hometowns, according to a government survey released in April.


Those who say they would like to move back talk about it like it’s a faraway dream. Yes, they will move back, they said. Yes, returning home would be best, they said. Yes, they love Naraha, they said.


When they might actually move back is a different question.


Shigeo and Kumie Kimura own Kimura restaurant in downtown Iwaki City. Shigeo, wearing glasses and adorned with a neatly trimmed goatee, looked every bit the philosopher chef. His wife, Kumie, looked small next to him, but made up for it with frantic chatter, constantly cutting in to make sure her point was heard.


Before the disaster, they were running a fish market and restaurant in Naraha. They want to go back, they said, but are unsure of the practicalities.


“Coming here was not my will,” Kumie said.


Moving back is contingent on whether they can start a restaurant in Naraha. Living in Naraha and doing business there are two different things, Shigeo said. He needs a bigger population to make his business sustainable.


“It will take a long time,” he said.


Even if that happened, the Kimuras have settled in Iwaki. A year ago, they moved their restaurant into a new space. It’s big, can seat 130 people and Shigeo said it has become the No. 5 restaurant in Iwaki. It took years of slaving in a small bento box operation by the train station to get to this point, he said. Moving to Naraha would mean starting over again.


“Our time is occupied with the current business. We are much behind compared to other people,” he said, explaining that for years they had debt for both their restaurant in Naraha and debt for their restaurants in Iwaki. “Our priority is the business.”


Nemoto isn’t sure how long he will run his grocery store. He lives in Iwaki and has no plans to move back to Naraha. He has other dreams, he said. He’s young, just 29, and has the boyish looks to match. He wants to travel the world, live in another country, get married. He said he’s thinking about visiting America. He likes the culture and the cuss words and he has all of Eminem’s albums.


He summed up his future plan in poor but earnest English: “Get many money, live in other country, that’s my dream.” He laughed.


The Shiga family seem unlikely ever to return. They are working hard just to make ends meet, and they won’t be able to do that back in Naraha.


They have adjusted to their new life. Once a year, they enjoy the spring tradition called “hanami,” where people gather to watch the blooming cherry trees. They do that in Iwaki. Hisako goes to the gym twice a week. They have turned their temporary house into some semblance of home. Hisako’s Miffy bunny doll collection lines the shelves, colorful Hawaiian leis from Iwaki’s popular Spa Resort Hawaiians hang from the walls and family pictures are scattered about.


When thinking about his life since the 2011 disasters, Takao said he is calmer these days compared to a few years ago. He just hopes to live in the moment instead of the past. He’s resigned to the fact that things will never be what they once were.


“We have to let go of our old life because of the accident,” he said. “If we could live the same way we did in Naraha, it would be best. But it would be impossible.”

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