10:19 2 March 2017
FEATURE: Protracted displacement taking toll on Fukushima evacuees
By Megumi Iizuka
TOKYO, March 2, Kyodo
Six years after the 2011 nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant triggered by a powerful earthquake and tsunami, prolonged displacement has been taking a heavy toll on evacuees, resulting in mental distress, deterioration of health and even death.
Shoko Monma, a 74-year-old evacuee from the Fukushima town of Namie, lost her husband over two and a half years ago. He suffered from depression, dementia and rheumatism that were aggravated during his displacement in Tokyo.
"He was very healthy before the incident. If it had not occurred, he and I would have had a happy life enjoying the beauty of our hometown," Monma said.
After fleeing from their home roughly 10 kilometers from the plant, the couple found temporary safety in an apartment near their daughter's in Tokyo but the husband's mental and physical health quickly deteriorated due to his stress from the nuclear crisis.
"He lost purpose in his life. He used to work for others around him as an accountant for the local district and enjoyed his hobbies. But there was nothing for him to do in Tokyo," Monma said.
During his stay in the capital, he lost about 10 kilograms and began to spend most of the day lying down. He started saying "There is no point to me being alive," so Monma needed to stay alert almost 24 hours a day as she feared he might commit suicide by throwing himself from the apartment balcony.
After suffering from a third bout of pneumonia, he died in July 2014 at age 70, and a local authority recognized a linkage between his death and the disaster.
"He was very frustrated by the nuclear accident because both of us had been supporting a local anti-nuclear plant movement for 40 years. But that effort did not bear fruit and in the end we ourselves were driven away from our home by the accident."
As of Feb. 20, 79,446 people from Fukushima Prefecture remained displaced both in and outside of the eastern Japanese prefecture following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, according to the prefectural government.
A total of 3,523 people were recognized as having died of indirect causes linked to the disaster by the end of September, with people from Fukushima accounting for more than 2,000, the Reconstruction Agency said.
Over 50 percent of nuclear crisis evacuees are also believed to be suffering from high levels of stress that are suspected of being post-traumatic stress disorder, according to preliminary data gathered by Waseda University and a support organization.
Psychological distress among evacuees is often related to difficulty in rebuilding their life and many find themselves shut out of society, medical experts said.
Shuei Ishizawa, one of five reconstruction support staffers of Namie, based in Saitama Prefecture, said, "Elderly people who live alone become isolated after fleeing to new locations. We organize events for townspeople but it is difficult for them to attend such gatherings due to their health problems."
In mid-February, Ishizawa and Shuichi Sato, also a Namie reconstruction support worker, visited 63-year-old Katsuichi Inoue, who has lived alone in an apartment in Kawaguchi, Saitama, north of Tokyo, for the last five and a half years.
Inoue, a former employee of a machinery parts maker in Namie, was enjoying his retirement and often went bowling until the nuclear crisis "drastically changed" his life. He now rarely meets anyone or goes out, except to buy his meals at a convenience store nearby.
"I don't feel like doing anything or going out anywhere. I feel as if I will forget the Japanese language because I spend the whole day not speaking with anyone," apart from when support workers visit him once or twice a month.
When Ishizawa and Sato asked him how he had been, Inoue replied he was "fine," but they worry about him as they observed his weak gait and found little trace of life in his apartment, which remains almost empty.
As the government is preparing to lift evacuation orders for more areas including some zones in Namie, some are excited about returning to the town but others are concerned that the areas are still dangerous and the development may eventually lead to the end of financial support for those who choose not to return, Ishizawa and Sato said.
The potential measure for areas in Namie in March would affect the places where Monma and Inoue come from. But Monma says she sees a contradiction between the government's rhetoric about safety and reality, as she believes radiation levels are still high in the area.
Just outside her home, she measured a radioactive level that would amount to 4 millisieverts per year, compared to an internationally recognized upper limit of 1 millisievert.
"Of course I miss my town, but the radioactive levels are high and none of my friends are there anymore" after the original community was torn apart, she said. "What kind of life would I have if I returned? I would probably suffer from depression like my husband."
Takuya Tsujiuchi, head of the Waseda Institute of Medical Anthropology on Disaster Reconstruction, told a recent symposium in Tokyo the survey figure representing high stress levels among evacuees six years after the disaster indicates they are in seriously dangerous mental condition.
"Evacuees are driven to a critical situation where they cannot foresee their future," he said, adding, "The government is forcing through a policy that places priority on returning" by lifting more evacuation orders and ending financial support needed during evacuations.
He pointed out the need to change government policies and establish financial support by involving a wide range of experts on medicine, law, housing and welfare to protect evacuees' human rights and prevent further deaths and suicides.
Monma, her voice trembling with anger, said more people could suffer from distress like her husband if proper protection measures are not taken. "We are not asking for anything luxurious. At least, the government and TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.) should guarantee compensation and life-time protection for those who lost everything and cannot return home," she said.