Photo/IllutrationKatsuhiko Namie drives his daughter, Yuka, to their home in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, from her school 100 kilometers away in Iwaki. (Shigetaka Kodama)

  • Photo/Illustraion

KORIYAMA, Fukushima Prefecture--The near-daily drives start around 6 a.m. from the latest home of Katsuhiko Namie here.

Weary from only a few hours of sleep, he takes the wheel for a 90-minute drive to Iwaki, 100 kilometers away, with his daughter, Yuka, fast asleep in the passenger’s seat.

It’s a routine he has continued for two years, despite the often wintry conditions and his deteriorated health from trying to rebuild after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

But when he sees the progress his 15-year-old daughter has made at her school in Iwaki and her positive attitude toward life, Namie knows the sacrifice is well worth it.

The Namie family’s life was turned upside down in March 2011, when they were forced to flee from Futaba, a town co-hosting the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Over the five months following the triple meltdown, Namie, his wife, his mother, Yuka, who was a third-grader at that time, and another daughter ended up staying at six locations in and outside of Fukushima Prefecture. They finally found a sense of stability when they moved to a temporary housing unit in Iwaki.

Two years later, Namie, a 54-year-old company employee, decided to start afresh in Koriyama by building a new home there.

With the house still under construction, and the family living in the temporary housing unit, word spread that the shuttered Futaba Junior High School would resume classes for its students by setting up classrooms in Iwaki in April 2014.

Yuka was eager to be reunited with her classmates from Futaba.

“I want to go to school there,” she excitedly told her father.

Namie approved the idea, agreeing that it would be for only a year.

All 7,000 residents from Futaba are now dispersed in Tokyo, Hokkaido and 36 other prefectures.

Although only three of Yuka’s classmates from her elementary school in Futaba attended the reopened school, a profound change occurred in Yuka after she joined the classes.

Long known as introverted, Yuka became more active and open-minded. She had not been good at sports, but she joined a badminton club at school and competed in the long jump at an athletic meet.

And her academic performance improved.

About half a year after she started attending the classes in Iwaki, Yuka told her father that she wanted to continue going to the school, insisting that she never wants to be separated from her friends again.

“I do not want to transfer to another school,” she said.

Yuka’s remarks came as no surprise to her father.

But the home in Koriyama was near completion. And if the family moved there, Namie and Yuka would have to wake up at 5 a.m. on weekdays for the 90-minute drive to Iwaki.

Namie finally gave in, worried that transferring Yuka to another school would have a negative effect on her progress and positivity she made in Iwaki.

The family moved to Koriyama, and Namie’s long early morning drives to Iwaki began.

He initially wanted to find a job in Koriyama but decided to continue working in Iwaki for a company that manages temporary housing to make it easier to pick up Yuka for the drive home.

The travel forces them to catch an average of about four hours of sleep a day.

Namie also takes medicine to deal with his high blood pressure, a condition he developed during the ordeal of evacuating from one place to the next.

Before the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, triggered the nuclear disaster, Yuka had been too shy to speak in public.

But she managed to give accounts of her experiences in the nuclear disaster before an audience of students from other schools.

At junior high school, she became even more outgoing over the past two years. And her athletic ability soared. As a third-year student, she entered the 100-meter sprint at a competition and became the first student to move on to the prefectural meet since the junior high school reopened.

Yuka, who is good at English, aspires for a career that will take her overseas.

Lately, her sleep time has shrunk. She sometimes goes to bed shortly before 1 a.m. after doing homework and preparing for exams. She catches up on shut-eye warmed by the heater in the car as the vehicle moves through the chilly February weather.

“I also draw solace that my daughter attends the junior high school that both myself and my wife had graduated from,” Namie said.

Although the family members still consider Futaba as their hometown, they will be unable to return to their original home anytime soon. Ninety-six percent of Futaba is a government-designated “difficult-to-return zone” because of the high radiation levels there.

Despite the difficulties that the family has faced, Namie said that in some ways he thinks he is a “fortunate father.”

“I could closely watch my daughter grow up through our drives to her school,” he said.

Starting this spring, Yuka will attend a senior high school in Koriyama. The father-daughter daily long commutes together will come to an end on March 13.