Nuclear disaster evacuee feels discrimination as ‘refugee’

December 04, 2012


Natsumi Takakura cannot cast her vote in the Dec. 16 Lower House election in her hometown. Nor can she find a polling station near her new home--her family’s seventh in less than two years.

It is just one of the many inconveniences--some minor, others aggravating--that continue to plague residents who evacuated after the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year.

Takakura also wonders if Fukushima evacuees are now being discriminated against.

Takakura, her husband, Yoshishige, and their 3-year-old daughter, Ayano, lost their newly renovated home in the town of Namie in the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

The tsunami also swamped the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, near Namie, causing a triple meltdown.

Takakura, 31, now lives with Ayano in Aizu-Wakamatsu, also in Fukushima Prefecture, nearly 100 kilometers from her lost home in Namie. Yoshishige, 41, works in Minami-Soma in the same prefecture and stays with his wife and daughter only on weekends.

Like the Takakuras, about 160,000 Fukushima residents remain evacuated in or outside the prefecture 21 months after the accident unfolded.

Takakura said she was shocked and hurt when her friend described Fukushima evacuees as “refugees,” a category different from disaster victims and with a negative connotation, during a casual conversation.

“People in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures are disaster victims, but those in Fukushima Prefecture are evacuees or refugees,” said the friend, who lives outside Fukushima Prefecture.

Another person outside the prefecture refused a local confectionery that Takakura presented as a sign of her gratitude. She said the refusal was presumably due to radiation fears.

One driver honked the horn at Takakura’s car, which carried a number plate showing it is from the area around the crippled Fukushima plant.

Takakura is concerned that Ayano may later face problems trying to get married because she is from Namie.

A dosimeter has been installed at a park near their home in Aizu-Wakamatsu, although radiation levels are relatively low compared with other municipalities in the prefecture.

The apartment for evacuees in Aizu-Wakamatsu is the seventh home for Takakura since she left Namie. She will be required to move out in just over a year.

“I cannot imagine my life beyond that,” Takakura said.

Most parts of Namie are still designated within a no-entry zone due to high radiation levels. A police checkpoint restricts access to the town on a national road, which is about 90 kilometers from Aizu-Wakamatsu, or a three-hour drive.

The Namie municipal government has set up polling stations in many places in Fukushima Prefecture for displaced residents, but Aizu-Wakamatsu is not on the list.

“Where should I go to vote?” Takakura asked.

Soichiro Suzuki, a schoolmate of Takakura’s, and his wife, Yuriko, will move from Tokyo to Sendai by the end of December.

Suzuki, 31, evacuated from Namie after the nuclear accident. He married Yuriko, also 31, in August 2011.

The couple wants to raise their 1-month-old daughter, Kanna, in the Tohoku region. Before the disaster, they planned to live in Namie, but Suzuki now believes the town is not safe for the family, given the high radiation levels.

“I have no plans to return,” Suzuki said.

The Suzukis live in a 36-story apartment building in Tokyo’s Koto Ward for government workers. It is now home to about 1,200 Fukushima evacuees.

Suzuki said he rarely thinks about radiation in Tokyo, a major difference from his friends back in Fukushima Prefecture.

“I feel that my senses are getting out of touch,” he said of his extended stay in Tokyo.

When Suzuki speaks about his life as an evacuee, people often say, “It was tough, wasn’t it?” He says he wants to reply, “It still is.”

He also feels that the memories of the disasters are fading outside Fukushima Prefecture.

Suzuki received a form to request an absentee ballot on Dec. 1. He plans to cast his vote based on the abilities of political parties and candidates to follow through on their policies.

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Natsumi Takakura with her daughter, Ayano, in an apartment for evacuees in Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture (Jun Kaneko)

Natsumi Takakura with her daughter, Ayano, in an apartment for evacuees in Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture (Jun Kaneko)

  • Natsumi Takakura with her daughter, Ayano, in an apartment for evacuees in Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture (Jun Kaneko)
  • Soichiro Suzuki near his home in Tokyo’s Koto Ward (Naoko Kawamura)
  • A police checkpoint restricts access to Namie, Fukushima Prefecture. (Jun Kaneko)

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