07:22 1 March 2017
FEATURE: Fukushima evacuees face tough decision as housing aid ends
By Satoshi Iizuka
TOKYO, March 1, Kyodo
In March, housing subsidies run out for those who fled the Fukushima nuclear disaster from areas other than the government-designated evacuation zones, and as the clock ticks down, they have had to decide whether to return or move once again.
Many of these so-called voluntary evacuees are mothers concerned to avoid any risk to their children's health, with the fathers remaining back in Fukushima Prefecture, according to freelance journalist Chia Yoshida.
This is one of the reasons why the term "voluntary evacuee" is a misleading expression as it gives an impression that such people fled Fukushima "in a selfish manner," Yoshida told a press conference in January in Tokyo.
At the same press conference, another journalist proposed using the term "domestic refugee" to describe the situation they face.
The Fukushima prefectural government has been paying the cost of public and private housing for voluntary evacuees under the Disaster Relief Act since the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant triggered by the March 2011 massive earthquake and tsunami.
The number of evacuees from the Fukushima disaster, including those from mandatory evacuation areas, peaked at 164,865 as of May 2012, according to the prefectural government.
Its latest tally earlier this year shows that 11,321 out of the 12,239 voluntary evacuee households have already decided where to live after April, while 250 have not.
The prefectural government announced the plan to end the rent subsidy this March in June 2015, saying decontamination work in Fukushima has advanced and food safety has been secured.
Still, evacuation orders have not been lifted in "difficult-to-return zones," which include the towns of Futaba and Okuma, home to the crippled nuclear facility.
Those no-entry areas are subject to radiation of over 50 millisieverts per year, compared with the Japanese government's long-term annual target of less than 1 millisieverts after decontamination work.
Rika Mashiko, 46, is one of the voluntary evacuees living in Tokyo. She has decided to move to a rented house near the Fukushima government-paid apartment where she and her daughter, now an elementary school six grader, are currently living so that her daughter will not miss her friends.
Mashiko and her daughter fled Fukushima about two months after the nuclear disaster, leaving her husband in their house in Miharu located in the center of the prefecture.
Mashiko said that many women evacuated from Fukushima with their children, compelled by their instinct as mothers to avoid foreseeable danger. "Maybe nothing might have happened, but if it had, it would have been too late," she said.
Mashiko, who first moved to a house in Higashiyamato in eastern Tokyo, which was leased for free, said mothers like her who fled the nuclear disaster feel they should not need to pay their housing costs and are angry at being "victims of the state's nuclear policy."
Many voluntary evacuees are financially struggling as they have to cover the living costs for their families' double lives split between their hometowns, where typically fathers remain, and the new places where the mothers and children moved.
In that sense, the free housing has been a "lifeline" for the voluntary evacuees, particularly in the Tokyo metropolitan area where housing costs are high, according to journalist Yoshida.
In an attempt to extend support to those families, Makoto Yamada, a veteran pediatrician in Tokyo, established a fund with 3 million yen ($26,700) from his own pocket to help them rent new houses, for example by covering the deposit.
The initiative was the latest example of the support he has been providing to evacuees. Three months after the disaster, he held a counseling session in Fukushima city that attracted some 400 people concerned about radiation exposure. He has continued to hold similar sessions in Tokyo.
Yamada, 75, says misunderstanding of the plight of voluntary evacuees has also played a role in a series of bullying cases involving evacuee children that has surfaced across Japan since last year.
In one high-profile case, a first grader at junior high school in Yokohama was called a "germ" at school, in reference to his supposed exposure to radiation.
Society appears to generally feel that voluntary evacuees have received a lot of money on top of the one-off compensation payment made by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., the operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant. But if people understood that voluntary evacuees had no wish to leave but felt they had to, such bullying case would be eliminated, he says.
The first financial support from Yamada's fund went to a total of 10 mothers and their children on Jan. 15. He was surprised to see the recipients shed tears of joy upon receiving 200,000 or 300,000 yen each.
Yamada said the government has strived to reduce the number of evacuees from Fukushima to claim the number of such people has decreased and that the accident has been overcome.
Journalist Yoshida echoed the view, describing the voluntary evacuees as "people who will be eliminated from history as the government seeks to trivialize the damage from radiation contamination and say their evacuation was unnecessary."
So long as there are evacuees living outside Fukushima, they will remain a symbol showing the situation has yet to be solved, Yamada said.
"If you say 'we will not forget about Fukushima,' you should never forget the terror of radiation, bearing in mind that people will not live in safety as long as nuclear plants exist in the world," he said. "So, I want to continue to think about the evacuees."