The last city of Fukushima to reopen welcomes its first inhabitants | Japan

Late last month, Yoichi Yatsuda slept in his own home for the first time in over a decade.

As a resident of Futaba, a town in the shadow of the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, there was a time when just spending the night at your family home seemed like an impossible dream.

The 70-year-old was among tens of thousands who were forced to flee and start a life in nuclear limbo when the plant suffered a triple meltdown in March 2011.

As Japan reeled from the earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people and triggered the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, Yatsuda and his wife, Analisa, and about 160,000 other residents of the Fukushima Prefecture packed up some personal belongings and left, believing they would. be back in a few weeks.

“If you had told me in the beginning that I would have to wait that long to get home, I would have given up right away,” said Yatsuda, a retired professional keirin cyclist who has lived in more than 10 places. since the disaster.

Now the couple are trying to rebuild their lives in Futaba, the latest of dozens of towns and villages to end their no-go status after radiation levels were deemed low enough for people to return.

Futaba is the latest of dozens of towns and villages to end their no-go zone status. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

They have made periodic visits to repair and renovate their home, which was once overrun with wild boar, and have been allowed to spend the night on a trial basis since late January. Local authorities hope more people will follow when the evacuation order is officially lifted in parts of the city later this year.

Yatsuda’s return was bittersweet. Before the disaster, Futaba was home to around 7,000 people. Only 15 residents applied to participate in the trial, and so far only three, including Yasuda and his wife, have returned permanently.

Many of its former neighbors have found jobs and built new lives in other parts of the region and across Japan. In a survey by the reconstruction agency, only 10% of former Futaba residents said they would like to return, while 60% had no intention of returning.

Those with young children are the most reluctant to consider returning to a city without schools, shops, restaurants, hospitals or public services. Those whose homes survived the tsunami – which killed 50 people in Futaba – had them demolished, leaving the town littered with empty land.

Yatsuda’s only neighbor – despite living a short drive away – is Yasushi Hosozawa, who lives in a small room above a parking lot and a shed full of his beloved fishing rods.

“I was born here and always thought that if ever given the chance to come back, I would take it,” said Hosozawa, whose wife and son run a restaurant in another Fukushima city further afield. inland. “I love to fish and have my own boat moored here…that was a big factor in deciding to come back.”

Yasushi Hosozawa
Yasushi Hosozawa: “Before, there were a lot of people here. But look at it now…it’s a wasteland. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

The 78-year-old, a former plumber and cafeteria owner, returned late last month to find that his water supply had not yet been reconnected, meaning he had to go to the station to use the toilet. “Before, there were a lot of people here,” he said, pointing to patches of grass where his neighbors’ homes once stood. “But look at it now…it’s a wasteland.”

Like many Fukushima residents, Yatsuda has little to say about Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the company that operates the nuclear plant, where decommissioning work is expected to take decades. “I believed Tepco when they said something like the 2011 disaster could never happen,” he said. “It’s all about trust. When I came back to Fukushima 40 years ago, I was assured that it was a safe place to live.

Although no one expects life in Futaba to ever return to its pre-disaster normalcy, local officials believe more people will resettle. The city has set a goal of attracting around 2,000 people, including new residents, over the next five years, and new social housing for 25 households will open in October.

The city currently has no open schools, shops, restaurants, hospitals or public services, but aims to attract 2,000 people over the next five years. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

“Very few people want to come back, so can we really say that the city has recovered?” said Yatsuda, who will plant flowers in his garden this spring and hopefully reopen the gymnasium behind his house where he trained aspiring keirin runners before the disaster.

“The problem is that people can’t see the physical signs of recovery with their own eyes. Unless the authorities do more to create jobs and attract new residents, I don’t see things improving much in the next 10 years.

The stresses of life as an evacuee have taken a toll on his mental and physical health, but he doesn’t regret returning to a town that, aside from its three current residents, still feels like a nuclear ghost town. “It’s our house. It’s where we used to play with our children when they were little,” he said.

Although the couple have no concerns about the radiation, they have accepted that for now they have to travel out of town to spend time with their eight grandchildren.

“We loved seeing friends and playing with our grandchildren here,” Analisa said. “It would be great if younger families moved here…I desperately want to see and hear from kids again.”

About Walter J. Leslie

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