Photo/IllutrationSatoru Saeki, a resident police officer at the Okuma police substation, goes on patrol in the difficult-to-return zone in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture. (Taro Kotegawa)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

OKUMA, Fukushima Prefecture--On his rather lonely rounds, Satoru Saeki looks for anything out of place in an empty town center marred by broken windows, uncollected litter and overgrown weeds.

A calendar dated March 2011 is still pinned on a wall of a dilapidated shop.

Saeki, 39, is the only police officer in Okuma, a town that remains largely deserted since an evacuation order was issued following the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.

On his daily patrols alone in Okuma, which co-hosts the stricken nuclear plant, Saeki is mainly on the lookout for looters.

Saeki works out of the Futaba Police Station in the neighboring town of Tomioka.

On Dec. 4, Saeki, whose hobby is working out, eased his well-built physique into a minicar, his police cruiser. He soon arrived in front of the gate to the “difficult-to-return zone,” one of the areas most heavily polluted by radiation that is still essentially off-limits even to residents.

Saeki showed his ID to a security guard before going through the gate. Driving at a speed under 30 kph, the officer looked right and left for unfamiliar cars or any changes to the uninhabited houses.

He arrived at the Okuma town center in about 15 minutes and walked around a shopping district.

Okuma had a population of about 11,000 before the nuclear disaster. Now, it resembles a ghost town.

Construction trucks can be seen going in and out of the town for work to tear down the houses of residents who have decided not to return to Okuma.

Saeki walked some more and found a car parked in front of a house.

“Hello. Has anything changed here?” the smiling officer said to a man in a garden at the home.

“I came back to pick up some things I need because this house is set for demolition,” Hikaru Murai, 69, said.

Murai said he temporarily returned from Aizu-Wakamatsu, also in Fukushima Prefecture, where he has lived since evacuating Okuma, to tidy up his house.

It was only the third time for the two to meet, but they seemed to know each other quite well.

The officer asked Murai what time he started tidying up.

“I got here early because the expressway was so smooth,” Murai replied.

Before the disaster struck, two police officers were assigned to the substation in the Okuma town center. But since it was located in the difficult-to-return zone, the posts were left vacant for a while.

However, evacuees have started staying overnight in their Okuma homes in some areas since spring to prepare for their permanent return. To enforce law and order in the town, Saeki becoming the resident police officer in March this year.

Saeki commutes to the Futaba Police Station from Iwaki, also in the prefecture, where he lives with his family.

A string of break-ins and other crimes have been reported in Okuma.

In 2011, the number of criminal cases in areas under the Futaba Police Station’s jurisdiction was 1,015, more than twice the figure before the nuclear disaster. The number has since been decreasing and stood at 194 in 2017.

“A single case is enough to make residents concerned,” Saeki said.

The officer is adamant about closely liaising with town officials and private security guards, and sharing information no matter how trivial it might seem.

Saeki was born and raised on Shodoshima, an island with a population of about 28,000, in Kagawa Prefecture.

After graduating from college in Kanagawa Prefecture, Saeki became a vocational training school instructor and was assigned to an institution in Iwaki. He married a woman he met in the city and became a member of the Fukushima prefectural police in 2009.

Saeki was on duty when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck and spawned the tsunami that inundated the No. 1 nuclear plant.

He was involved in the search for bodies along the coast.

“It was really hard,” Saeki said. “I made up my mind to support people who made it through even if it means just a little.”

As Saeki continued his patrol in the difficult-to-return zone on Dec. 4, he found many “yuzu” citrus fruit growing on a tree in the garden of a house.

“Oh, it tastes great when you squeeze the juice and pour it into a glass of cocktail,” Saeki said to a resident in the garden.

Citrus fruits are widely cultivated on Shodoshima island.

“Okuma and Shodoshima are similar in the sense that both are rich in nature with the ocean and mountains,” Saeki said.

He said his daily patrols in the town show that recovery will be difficult. But he shared one hope-inspiring event that occurred in early September when the trees started taking on fall colors.

While on patrol in the Ogawara district, where evacuees have started staying overnight at their homes to prepare for their permanent return, a voice called out to Saeki: “Officer, over here.”

When Saeki looked over, he found about 80 evacuees who had returned to the town to enjoy a barbecue party.

“Let’s take a picture together,” one of them said.

With a slightly shy smile, Saeki joined the group for the photo shoots.