FUTABA, Japan – Yasushi Hosozawa returned on the first possible day after a small part of his hometown, Futaba, reopened in January – 11 years after the nuclear meltdown at the nearby Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
This has not been easy.
Futaba, which hosts part of the factory, saw the evacuation of all 7,000 residents due to radiation after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that left more than 18,000 dead or missing on along the northeast coast of Japan.
Only seven returned permanently to live in the city.
“Futaba is my home… I wanted to come back since the disaster happened. It’s always been on my mind,” Hosozawa, 77, said in an interview with The Associated Press at his home, which is built above a shed full of homemade fishing gear.
An abandoned ramen shop sits next door, and so many houses and buildings around it have been demolished, the neighborhood looks barren.
A retired plumber, Hosozawa has had to move house three times over the past decade. Returning to Futaba was his dream, and he patiently waited for other cities to reopen sooner.
Much to his disappointment, the water supply was not restored on the day of his return. He had to fill plastic containers with water from a friend’s house in a nearby town.
The city has no clinics, convenience stores, or other commercial services for daily necessities. He has to leave Futaba to do his shopping or see his doctor for his diabetes medication.
On a typical day, he cooks 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 picnic and do some shopping.
He walks around in the afternoon, but “I don’t see anyone except police patrols”. He stops by the station from time to time to chat with city officials. After an evening sake at home, he goes to bed early listening to old-fashioned Japanese “enka” songs.
He looks forward to the spring fishing season and enjoys growing vegetables in his garden.
But Hosozawa wonders if this is the best way to spend his last years. “I won’t live very long, and if I have three or four years left, I would rather not be in a Futaba like this,” he says. “Coming back might have been a mistake.”
“Who would want to go back to a town without a school or a doctor? I don’t think young people with children will want to come,” he said.
When massive amounts of radiation were emitted from the plant, more than 160,000 residents were evacuated from Fukushima, including 33,000 who still cannot return home.
Of the 12 nearby towns that are fully or partially designated as no-go areas, Futaba is the latest to allow some people to return to live. There are still no-go zones in seven cities where intensive decontamination is only carried out in areas that are expected to reopen by 2023.
Many Futaba residents have been forced to abandon their land for the construction of a radioactive waste storage area, and Fukushima Daiichi’s uncertain prospects during its decades of cleanup make city planning difficult.
The Futaba Project, which helps revitalize the city through tourism, new businesses and migration from outside Fukushima, sees potential for educational tourism.
“Places with scars from the disaster remain in Futaba…and visitors can see its reality and think about the future,” said Hidehiko Yamasaki, staff member of the nonprofit Futaba Project.
Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, says those returning to the area should undergo health checks. He says the level of habitable radiation is the same as for nuclear workers and could lead to increased cancer risks within five years.
In June, Futaba is expected to officially reopen the 560-hectare (1,400-acre) area near the train station – about 10% of the city – and an area that was once a commercial district where more than half of the city’s residents once lived. . Daytime tours have been permitted since 2020 before 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 city and factory cleanup work, to set up new businesses as part of an effort to revitalize local industry. A temporary town hall is due to open in August and an 86-unit social housing complex is also under construction. The city’s goal is to have 2,000 inhabitants within five years.
The latest surveys show that only 11.3% of the 5,625 people still registered as residents of Futaba wish to return home to live there, and more than 60% say they will not. But 66% say they want to stay in touch with the city.
City officials who are expected to return and live in Futaba before the city hall reopens in August will need to figure out how to improve the environment for people to want to return, Mayor Shiro Izawa said. “We can do it if we don’t give up.”
Atsuko Yamamoto, 50, runs a Penguin fast food store in a food court in the Futaba Community Business Center, but she commutes from another city in Fukushima.
“I always thought I had to do something for (Futaba’s recovery), so I raised my hand” when she saw the offer for a space in the food court, which opened there two years ago, says the former resident. “When I evacuated, I never imagined that I could return to Futaba like this.
Despite her deep attachment to her hometown, living here is not possible, she says. The only way to make her business work is to stock up on food at Iwaki, a trading center on the coast of Fukushima where she now lives, and then drive about 60 kilometers (40 miles) to Futaba.
His mother used to sell donuts and burgers at a stall near the station, and it was a popular meeting place for local students and a landmark that Futaba residents remembered before the disaster.
“As Futaba is rapidly turning into an unfamiliar place, I hope this store will help former residents feel at home,” Yamamoto says. Familiar buildings and houses are increasingly demolished and day visitors are mostly new faces.
“From our point of view, the buildings that remind us of our hometown are disappearing, like the old houses of my friends, and it’s extremely sad,” she said, holding back tears. She says she can’t help but drive where demolished houses once stood, including her own, as if to feel the pain and remember the past.
“It’s hard to explain,” Yamamoto says. “So I hope people come back to visit and actually see this place.”
Takumi Yamada, an employee of Futaba’s only hotel, which opened last May, is from the nearby town of Namie.
Yamada, 23, spent most of his teenage years away from Namie after running away from elementary school – while still wearing his indoor class shoes – in 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 more about a field he barely remembered.
Yamada said he was overjoyed when he was working at the hotel reception and heard from 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 who are wondering if they should come back, I think it’s best to see the situation for themselves.”