The Lonely Towns of Fukushima
Thousands of people fled from their homes, offices and schools six years ago after a devastating earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. To this day, few have returned, leaving behind ghost towns where eerie signs of the departed linger under a caking of dust.
Tomioka, a little more than six miles south of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, was home to 15,830 people before the accident. They left in a hurry. At this ramen restaurant on the main road through town, dishes were left in the sink.
Some towns, like most of Futaba, just four miles from the nuclear plant, may never be reoccupied. Wandering its deserted streets, catching a glimpse of a piece of a child’s artwork here, a worker’s old Rolodex file there, I am hit by an unstinting sense of loss and devastation.
Evidence of sudden flight is everywhere. The earthquake shook an elementary school so vigorously that students could not even stay standing. When the children left, they assumed they would return a few days later. Instead, they left and never came back.
The portraits of past principals lay scattered on the floor, the forgotten history of an abandoned school.
Most of the 21,434 people who lived in the town of Namie have put down roots elsewhere. They are now asking that the town simply demolish their homes. A little over 800 houses and shops have been knocked down already; another 1,280 are on a waiting list.
In Tomioka, I met Chiharu Matsumoto, 68, a former resident who volunteers at a rest center in town for people returning just to clean out or get things from their homes. She lives in a city to the west now and said she did not plan to move back. Her grown children have not visited Tomioka since evacuating after the disaster. “They do not know how much radiation they might receive,” she said.
The government says it will be safe for residents to return in April. So far, 304 people have moved back on temporary permits. With so few people returning, it makes little sense for many commercial operations to restart. Many of the convenience stores, restaurants and pachinko gambling parlors, like this one, have yet to be cleaned up or repaired.
Some scientists say radiation in many towns has fallen to levels that should not cause long-term health problems; others ask whether even low doses are safe. But “the situation is much beyond science,” said Dr. Otsura Niwa, chairman of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hiroshima, who has conducted extensive sampling in Fukushima since the disaster. “It’s the human element which is playing the biggest role,” he said.
The people most likely to return are the elderly. Ichiro Tagawa, 77, moved back to Namie on a special permit in September and reopened the bicycle repair shop that has been in his family for 80 years. “I am so old I don’t really care about the radiation levels,” he said, “and in fact it is very low.”
Another reason he wanted to return was to be near his family’s grave sites. One large cemetery near the coastline was heavily damaged by the tsunami.
“We want to visit our ancestors’ graves,” Mr. Tagawa said. “But we are living in a very lonely town.”