The roads in the village of Kawauchi are largely deserted, with the rare movement usually being an individual braving the winter cold to decontaminate radiation from the surfaces of empty buildings.
Snow covers surrounding fields that once produced rich harvests but will now likely remain idle for the foreseeable future.
Kawauchi Mayor Yuko Endo has announced bold plans to bring the life back to his village that was sapped after the accident started at the nearby Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March last year.
Endo said Jan. 31 that he wants to start bringing all evacuees home in April, after the village office and public facilities, including elementary and junior high schools, reopen on April 1.
He is the first local leader to formulate such a schedule among the nine municipalities that were designated evacuation zones around the Fukushima plant. And he is quickly learning that the majority of evacuees do not want to return.
“There are no jobs. The declaration seems a bit too soon,” said Shinichi Kubota, 53, who ran a sewing factory that produced women’s clothing in Kawauchi before the nuclear accident.
Kawauchi’s population exceeded 3,000 before the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the meltdowns at the nuclear plant.
All residents moved out of the village when the central government designated parts of Kawauchi either a no-entry zone or an emergency evacuation preparation zone.
The municipality transferred its office functions, set up a provisional clinic and provided classes for Kawauchi children at elementary and junior high schools in Koriyama city, also in Fukushima Prefecture.
Although the central government in September lifted the voluntary evacuation zone designation for Kawauchi, which accounted for two-thirds of the village area, only about 200 people returned. Most of the other evacuees remain scattered in 26 prefectures.
In April, the central government is expected to re-examine the evacuation zones in Fukushima Prefecture and redefine them into three zones, depending on the level of radiation, for decontamination work.
The evacuation directive for Kawauchi, whose radiation levels have fallen to relatively low levels, will likely be lifted when infrastructure is adequate.
But many villagers remain worried about the radiation.
A survey of 210 parents who have left Kawauchi showed that less than 20 percent plan to return in April and have their children attend local day-care centers and elementary and junior high schools in the village.
“Villagers who are concerned about radiation can wait and see before they decide,” Endo said. “We want to start rebuilding the village with those who can come back.”
Many challenges await those who do return home.
Heavy snow and a labor shortage have delayed initial plans to complete decontamination work on all 950 houses in areas other than the no-entry zone by March. The municipality has since changed the plan to prioritize households with children.
To create jobs for about 400 people, Kawauchi plans to operate an indoor farm to grow vegetables or lure a factory for cellphone parts.
Rice cultivation will be restricted at about 320 rice farming households in the village. A similar restriction was also imposed last year.
The Kawauchi government plans to provide agricultural subsidies and encourage farmers to voluntarily manage their fields.
“The village administration will return first and respond to residents who intend to return,” Endo said. “It may take time, but we want to take the first step forward.”
Kubota, who now lives in Koriyama with his wife, 52, son, 27, and mother, 76, said his decision on whether to return depends on his next job.
Most of the 20 workers at his sewing factory left the village and said they would not return to Kawauchi.
Currently, Kubota travels to Kawauchi to take part in an 18-member anti-crime patrol team. He earns about 7,000 yen ($91.8) a day.
“If everyone returns home, I will lose this job. What shall I do then?” he said.
Keiichi Shiga, who lives in temporary housing in Koriyama with his parents, wife, and 10-year-old son, says he will wait until the decontamination work is finished before returning home.
The radiation level at the entrance of his house in Kawauchi remains high, at 1.1 microsievert per hour.
“Many things have to be done,” Shiga, 48, said.
Taketo Ide, 30, and his 5-year-old son, Koshi, moved from Kawauchi and started a new life in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, where they live with a relative.
Ide now works for an air-conditioner maintenance company and obtained certification as a boiler engineer and a hazardous materials officer.
Koshi has made many friends at a day-care center in Sayama.
But when heavy snow fell in late January, Koshi told his father, “I want to go home to Kawauchi and go sledding.”
Ide, who used to run a buckwheat noodle shop in Kawauchi, is also homesick for the village.
“Here, I still feel I’m divorced from everyday life,” Ide said. “I will definitely return.”
(This article was compiled from reports by Fumihiko Yamada, Yoichiro Kodera, Takuya Sumikawa and Go Kitaueda.)
- « Prev
- Next »