Photo/IllutrationMakiko Sekine tends flowers at a public housing unit for disaster survivors in Kawauchi, Fukushima Prefecture, with her husband, Hiroshi, on June 14. That day, the evacuation order was lifted for parts of the village, including the couple's home district of Kainosaka. (Susumu Okamoto)

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KAWAUCHI, Fukushima Prefecture--In a rush of sorts, evacuation orders are being lifted from municipalities of this northeastern prefecture that were affected by the 2011 nuclear disaster.

The order was lifted for part of the village of Katsurao on June 12, followed by an area of Kawauchi village on June 14. It will be lifted for a section of Minami-Soma city on July 12.

The central government has decided to have all evacuation orders lifted by March next year, except for in “difficult-to-return” zones where radiation levels remain elevated.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, having toured Katsurao and Kawauchi on June 3, said, “I want to make sure that the livelihood of the communities, as well as family and community ties, is revived as soon as possible.”

Having covered news in Fukushima Prefecture for four years, I cannot believe that everything is so rosy simply because evacuation orders are being lifted.

It is certainly good news that disaster-affected areas are becoming freely accessible again, but I know that some residents are being left behind in the process.

Hiroshi Sekine, 88, and his wife, Makiko, 81, a couple I have known for three years, are from the Kainosaka district of Kawauchi, where the evacuation order has been lifted.

They moved there from the neighboring city of Iwaki in 1959, five years before the first Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.

Deep within the mountains far from the center of the village, the couple reclaimed wasteland and turned it into farmland. They raised four children.

The Sekines, who now live in a public housing unit for disaster survivors elsewhere in Kawauchi, said they are not returning home.

Before the nuclear disaster, Kainosaka, home to 13 households, functioned as a small “community” where people helped out each other.

After five years spent in evacuation, the couple no longer have the energy to restart life in their inconveniently situated home district.

Even if they returned, they would be unable to sustain their life because nobody else is going back to Kainosaka.

“The lifting of the evacuation order is about deregulation,” a central government official told the Sekines. “It is up to you to decide whether you are going back or not.”

Once the evacuation order is lifted, however, the couple’s status switches from “those being forced by the central government into evacuation” to “those choosing to remain in evacuation despite having the option of returning.”

This new status will oblige them to feel apologetic, wary of what others may think of them.

The lifting of evacuation orders scheduled through next spring will allow around 46,000 people to return to their homes.

But many communities, like the Kainosaka district, will never be like what they were before.

How can we prevent people like the Sekines from being made to feel small because the evacuation order has been lifted? That is a complicated question about moral dignity, which cannot be solved with cash.

The Law on Special Measures for the Reconstruction and Revitalization of Fukushima was enacted a year after the onset of the nuclear disaster.

The law designates only “people who have been evacuated from zones under evacuation orders” and “people who have moved back to zones where evacuation orders have been lifted” as those entitled to coverage under the central government’s measures for “ensuring stability.”

When the law was enacted, nobody expected the cleanup of radioactive substances to take so long that it would delay the lifting of the evacuation orders, and that so many residents would choose not to return home after the orders are lifted, a central government official said.

The Sekines will be obliged to continue to live a life different from the one they had before the disaster.

I think people like the Sekines should be given the clearly defined status of “evacuees” by, for example, legally guaranteeing them the right to remain in evacuation.

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Susumu Okamoto is chief of The Asahi Shimbun’s Iwaki Bureau.