'Empty and lonely' Fukushima towns struggle in catastrophe's wake

IWAKI CITY, Japan -- Three years have passed since a mega-earthquake and tsunami slammed into Atsushi Fuda's hometown of Hirono, forcing him to leave with only the clothes on his back.

Today, Fuda, 72, is among more than 150,000 evacuees unable to return home. And he's worried that people have stopped paying attention.

"The media doesn't come here," said Fuda at the temporary shelter where he lives, about 10 miles away from Hirono. "I feel forgotten."

The boxy structure is cramped, Fuda said, but his former home in Hirono is still uninhabitable following the magnitude-9 earthquake, tsunami and meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Japan's northeastern coast. Fuda said the government continues to push back the deadline for when he must leave the shelter, and he's unsure when or if he'll ever live in Hirono again.

Fuda's struggle highlights the Japanese government's challenge in decontaminating large swaths of land and drawing residents back home following the March 11, 2011, catastrophe that killed 19,000 people.


The government has warned that some evacuees may need to wait 20 years or more before they can go home.

Under cloudy skies, Fuda, a retired funeral home worker, has been walking the neighborhood, a bit bored and admittedly lonely.

Fuda's 100-year-old mother, who was also born and brought up in the Hirono house, wants to die there, but there's little infrastructure and no hospitals. Fuda returns every week to open windows at his former home to let in sunshine and fresh air, but the structure has been badly damaged, and the government is still cleaning up radiation that spewed from Fukushima Daiichi reactors during the disaster.

"It's been reported in the newspapers that there's a leak of contaminated water [from the reactors]. I still fear ... the radiation," he said. "I don't think [nuclear power] is safe."

Fuda said he misses fishing in the sea and gathering vegetables in the mountains surrounding Hirono. He misses drinking and fishing with this friends. In his new community, Fuda said, few young people appear to be home. There's little sense of community except for sporadic tea ceremonies at the community center, he added.

A street over, Kiyoko Ohashi, 62, shares Fuda's frustration with the government's slow pace and the lack of attention from the media.

Standing in the doorway of her temporary home in a light robe, a piece of aluminum foil lodged in her dark hair, Ohashi said she doesn't know when she'll return to Hirono and doesn't know many people in Iwaki City.

She also feels forgotten.

"The media is not interested in Hirono anymore," Ohashi said.

Thousands of Hirono residents evacuated three years ago after the quake and tsunami slammed into Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima reactors almost 19 miles away. The crippled units released radioactive cesium throughout the region.

Others decided to leave on their own.

Researchers have found signs of depression among evacuees of Hirono living in temporary housing, and Fuda is no exception. He said he's afraid of radiation, the government is moving too slowly on providing permanent housing, and he's seen signs that his neighbors -- young and old -- are buckling under the stress.

"There's so much stress," he said. "I've seen many people get sick from that stress. In young people, too."

A study Brigham Young University psychology professor Niwako Yamawaki released in January showed Hirono residents are struggling with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Yamawaki and scholars from Saga University in Japan examined the mental health of 241 Hirono residents and found that more than half experienced "clinically concerning" symptoms of PTSD. Two-thirds reported signs of depression.

'I'm not afraid'

In his office at the center of Hirono, Mayor Satoshi Endo, 52, tried to cast a positive light on his town, which had 5,490 residents before the disaster.

Endo said almost a third of the city's inhabitants -- most of them men -- had returned by the end of May.

"In the beginning of July, we did our own investigation that's based on the usage of the water service and patrolling the town and checking the lights on," Endo said. "Based on the water usage, 50 percent of the people have been back."

Earlier this year, Endo defeated incumbent Mayor Motohoshi Yamada, 65, who had sought a third term. Yamada told the Mainichi Shimbun in his concession speech that he couldn't explain the government's slow action.

"The central government's efforts have been slow, and I could not explain the restoration work to town residents in a visible way," Yamada told the newspaper.

Today, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, is busy reassuring residents that Hirono is on the mend. The utility is coordinating mass volunteer efforts as a symbol of goodwill.

Endo said he's been reassured by TEPCO's efforts, adding that the utility must first control leaking radioactive water at its Fukushima Daichi reactors and regain public trust.

In a deserted neighborhood near the center of Hirono, TEPCO's efforts could be seen. More than two dozen current and former TEPCO employees donning blue work jumpers pulled weeds and cut grass in the rain to prepare for Hirono residents.

A TEPCO worker snapped photos in the background for an internal company newsletter.

Hiro Watanabe, 58, said he retired last year after working for TEPCO for 40 years. He said he had found a job with another company with connections to TEPCO that sent him to help revitalize his hometown of Hirono. Today, he was preparing a common space near a temple, cutting grass as other workers trimmed trees, pulled weeds and cleared paths.

Watanabe said the residents appreciate work he and his colleagues do, but acknowledged that his wife and other family members are living in Tokyo because they are afraid.

"Still the Fukushima Daiichi is not settled ... and so they might have another accident or leakage of radiation; that's why they're worried," he said, adding that there are parts of Hirono that still have elevated levels of radiation. "Our neighborhood hasn't come back yet."

Watanabe said he lives alone in the mountains, about 6 miles out of town. Unlike his family members, Watanabe said, a recent run-in with cancer has left him fearless when it comes to radiation in Hirono.

"I had cancer, the final stage of cancer; they told me I wouldn't live," he said. "Since I went through this experience, I'm not afraid."

'I thought the Earth was being destroyed'

One sign of returning normality in Hirono is a wayside noodle restaurant, where Noato Kanazawa, 33, stirs steaming pots of miso, broth and noodles.

Customers seated on cushions on the wooden floor of "Ramen Plaza" slurp broth from ceramic bowls. A broadcaster on the overhead television reports soccer scores amid the low buzz of conversation.

Kanazawa opened the restaurant in Hirono in the summer of 2012 after its prior location in Naraha -- a neighboring town that was once home to 8,000 people -- was damaged by the earthquake.

Naraha now sits vacant inside the 20-kilometer exclusion zone that surrounds the crippled Fukushima reactors.

Severely damaged homes lined with plastic bags of personal belongings show signs of quick retreat three years after the disaster.

Kanazawa said he was about to close his former restaurant when the earthquake hit, shaking the building violently. Kanazawa would later learn that his friends' parents had been swept away by the tsunami, but his 62-year-old mother, Fumika, was safe at home.

"I thought the Earth was being destroyed," Kanazawa said.

These days, Kanazawa said he mostly serves a limited number of TEPCO workers and contractors hired to decontaminate the surrounding area.

With so little business, Kanazawa said, there's no need to hire.

"I feel it's kind of empty and lonely," Kanazawa said. "But I'm from Hirono, so as long as I can do my business, it's fine with me."

Twitter: @HMNorthey | Email: hnorthey@eenews.net

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