Hope, hard reality mix in Japanese town wrecked by disaster

FUTABA, Japan (AP) — Yasushi Hosozawa returned on the first day possible after a small section of his hometown, Futaba, reopened in January — 11 years after the nuclear meltdown at the nearby Fukushima Daiichi plant.

It has not been easy.

Futaba, which hosts part of the plant, saw the evacuation of all 7,000 residents because of radiation after the March 11, 2011, quake and subsequent tsunami that left more than 18,000 people dead or missing along Japan’s northeastern coast.

Only seven have permanently returned to live in the town.

“Futaba is my home … I’ve wanted to come back since the disaster happened. It was always in my mind,” Hosozawa, 77, said during an interview with The Associated Press at his house, which is built above a shed filled with handcrafted fishing equipment.

An abandoned ramen shop sits next door, and so many houses and buildings around him have been demolished, the neighborhood looks barren.

A retired plumber, Hosozawa had to relocate three times over the past decade. Returning to Futaba was his dream, and he patiently waited while other towns reopened earlier.

To his disappointment, the water supply was not reconnected the day he returned. He had to fill plastic containers with water from a friend’s house in a nearby town.

The town has no clinics, convenience stores or other commercial services for daily necessities. He has to leave Futaba to get groceries or to see his doctor for his diabetes medicine.

On a typical day, he makes a breakfast of rice, miso soup and natto. In the late morning, he drives about 10 minutes to Namie, a town just north of Futaba, to buy a packed lunch and to shop.

He takes a walk in the afternoon, but “I don’t see a soul except for patrolling police.” He drops by the train station once in a while to chat with town officials. After some evening sake at home, he goes to bed early while listening to old-fashioned Japanese “enka” songs.

He looks forward to the spring fishing season and likes to grow vegetables in his garden.

But Hosozawa wonders if this is the best way to spend his final years. “I won’t live much longer, and if I have three to four more years, I’d rather not be in a Futaba like this,” he says. “Coming back might have been a mistake.”

“Who would want to return to a town without a school or a doctor? I don’t think young people with children will want to come,” he said.

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When massive amounts of radiation spewed from the plant, more than 160,000 residents evacuated from across Fukushima, including 33,000 who are still unable to return home.

Of the 12 nearby towns that are fully or partially designated as no-go zones, Futaba is the last one to allow some people to return to live. There are still no-go zones in seven towns where intensive decontamination is conducted only in areas set to reopen by 2023.

Many Futaba residents were forced to give up their land for the building of a storage area for radioactive waste, and Fukushima Daiichi’s uncertain outlook during its decades-long cleanup makes town planning difficult.

Futaba Project, which helps revitalize the town through tourism, new businesses and migration from outside Fukushima, sees potential for educational tourism.

“Places with scars of the disaster remain in Futaba … and visitors can see its reality and think about the future,” said Hidehiko Yamasaki, staffer at the nonprofit Futaba Project.

Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, says that those returning to the area should have health checks. He says the uninhabitable radiation level is the same as for nuclear workers, and could cause increased cancer risks within five years.

In June, Futaba is set to officially reopen the 560-hectare (1,400-acre) area near the train station — about 10% of the town — and an area that was once a commercial district where more than half the town’s residents once lived. Daytime visits have been allowed since 2020 ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, when train and bus services resumed and a prefecture-run disaster museum opened.

Futaba has invited 24 companies, many of which are involved in town and plant cleanup work, to start new businesses as part of an effort to revitalize local industry. A temporary town hall is set to open in August, and an 86-unit public housing complex is also being built. The town’s goal is to have 2,000 residents within five years.

The latest surveys show that only 11.3% of the 5,625 people still registered as Futaba residents want to return home to live there, with more than 60% saying they will not. But 66% say they want to stay connected with the town.

Town officials set to return and live in Futaba ahead of the August town hall reopening will have to figure out how to improve the environment so people want to return, Mayor Shiro Izawa said. “We can do it if we don’t give up.”

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Atsuko Yamamoto, 50, runs a Penguin fast-food store at a food court in the Futaba business community center, but she commutes from another Fukushima town.

“I’ve always thought I have to do something for (Futaba’s recovery), so I raised my hand” when she saw the offer of a space in the food court, which opened two years ago, the former resident says. “When I evacuated, I never imagined I could return to Futaba like this.”

Despite her deep attachment to her hometown, living here isn’t possible, she says. The only way to make her business work is to get her food supplies in Iwaki, a business hub for coastal Fukushima where she now lives, and then to commute about 60 kilometers (40 miles) to Futaba.

Her mother used to sell donuts and hamburgers from a stand near the train station, and it was a popular hangout for local students and a landmark remembered by Futaba people before the disaster.

“As Futaba rapidly transforms into an unfamiliar place, I hope this store helps former residents feel at home,” Yamamoto says. Familiar buildings and houses are increasingly being torn down, and daytime visitors are predominantly new faces.

“In our view, the buildings that remind us of our hometown are disappearing, like my friends’ old houses, and it’s extremely sad,” she said, holding back her tears. She says she cannot help driving by where demolished houses, including her own, once were, as if to feel the pain and remember the past.

“It’s hard to explain,” Yamamoto says. “So I hope people will come back to visit and actually see this place.”

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Takumi Yamada, a worker at Futaba’s only hotel, which opened last May, is from nearby Namie town.

Yamada, 23, spent most of his teenage years outside of Namie after fleeing from his elementary school — while still wearing his indoor classroom shoes — to Saitama, near Tokyo, with his parents and two siblings.

After studying elsewhere in Fukushima and Tokyo, Yamada decided to return home to reconnect and learn about an area he hardly remembered.

Yamada said he was thrilled when he was working on the hotel’s reception desk and overheard former residents talking about the whereabouts of mutual friends.

“I think it’s great if this hotel becomes a meeting place for former residents,” Yamada said. “If there are people wondering whether to return, I think it’s best to see the situation for themselves.”

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