March 11, 2020 at 14:19 JST
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers questions from reporters in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 7 during his visit to the prefecture. (Pool)
Nine years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, leaving more than 18,000 people dead or missing.
The catastrophe triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that contaminated more than a million tons of water with radiation. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared the situation "under control" in the successful bidding process for the 2020 Olympics.
The Tokyo Olympics, dubbed "Fukko Gorin" (Recovery Olympics, in reference to recovery from the mega-quake and tsunami), are now less than five months away.
Levees have been raised and progress has been made in the recovery of disaster-ravaged areas over the years, but many land plots in those areas still remain vacant and idle.
In Fukushima Prefecture in particular, 40,000 people are still living as evacuees. There are still high-radiation areas designated as "difficult-to-return zones" that remain uninhabitable.
During a March 7 visit to the prefecture, the prime minister noted, "Without Fukushima's recovery, there is no reconstruction for Japan."
But Abe had nothing to say about his personal thoughts on Fukushima's current state.
UNCONVINCING PRAISE FOR RECOVERY
On March 26, the Olympic torch relay will start from the J-Village, a soccer training center in the prefecture that served as a disaster-response base in the aftermath of the nuclear meltdown.
In the town of Futaba, which co-hosts the crippled No. 1 nuclear power plant, all the former residents are still living elsewhere as evacuees. However, human traffic returned to the area around Futaba Station of the Joban Line before train services will fully resume on March 14.
The Olympic flame will be brought by train to Futaba, and will make one and a half laps around the new plaza in front of the station.
A home electronics appliance store, a drugstore and a school lie a short distance from the plaza. But with no shopkeepers, customers or schoolchildren, these structures look like something out of a movie set.
Futaba's municipal office has started handling resident registration documents at its liaison office in front of the train station, in preparation for the return of residents two years hence. However, many people have already set down roots in communities they relocated to after the disaster. According to a survey taken last autumn, more than 60 percent of pre-disaster Futaba households do not intend to return.
Not only in Futaba, but in many other nearby towns and villages, piles of bulging plastic bags are lying around, filled with contaminated soil and other debris. They are not readily visible from the Olympic torch relay route, but locals suspect that the authorities' praise for post-disaster recovery is "just for show."
In Futaba, reconstruction has only just begun.
TOUGH ISSUES TO BE TACKLED
The government must be fully aware that although Cabinet-approved basic policy guidelines for the post recovery and reconstruction period state that areas affected by the quake and tsunami are now in the final stages of overall recovery, they also point out that mid- to long-term measures are vital to address damage stemming from the nuclear disaster.
Traveling toward the coast from Futaba Station, one comes across the vast expanse of a government-managed interim storage facility for contaminated soil. Roughly the size of 340 Tokyo Dome baseball stadiums, the storage area occupies the woods, fields and privately-owned land of homeowners from the towns of Futaba and Okuma that co-host the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear facility.
The contaminated soil is supposed to be transported out of Fukushima Prefecture after 30 years in storage. But one former resident, who gave up his land, noted with skepticism, "Who on earth will accept the soil when the time comes?"
And no progress has been made, either, in deciding how to dispose of melted nuclear fuel and radioactive waste from decommissioned nuclear reactors.
As for tritiated water stored at the nuclear plant after purifying contaminated water, a government-appointed panel of experts took three years to compile a report recommending that the best solution would be to dilute it and dump it in the ocean. However, nothing specific was recommended as to where and how. Deep concerns remain about the impact of various rumors making the rounds.
All these tough issues need to be tackled head-on by the entire nation. Failing to do so will place an unfair burden on Fukushima Prefecture.
However, the experts' report on tritiated water contained this line: "The longer the disposal is delayed, the less attention it will attract from society." This is almost tantamount to hoping for the nuclear disaster to fade from the public consciousness with the passage of time.
The road to recovery is long. In the town of Okuma where residents started returning home in spring last year, more than 10,000 have filed their registration of residency, but only 730 people are actually living there. And except for about 100, the rest are all workers in the employ of Tokyo Electric Power Co. or its affiliates, according to town officials.
At a public housing complex, built far from the train station where a shopping street used to be, elderly residents are particularly noticeable. In Okuma, a survey found that 60 percent of pre-disaster households do not intend to return.
A 62-year-old confectionery shop owner reopened for business seven years ago in the southeastern Fukushima Prefecture city of Iwaki. But he cannot yet envisage a time when his shop will be in demand and making profit in Okuma, due to the sparse number of inhabitants. The man noted that there are hardly any women and children living in the area.
CREATING NEW TOWNS
Having faced these harsh realities for years, the people of Futaba now are thinking of starting out with the creation of small, intimate communities. "I am now focused on remaking the town from scratch," said Mayor Shiro Izawa.
A 66-year-old man, who built a home in the Saitama Prefecture city of Kazo where he took refuge, is thinking of renting a house in Futaba so he can go back and forth. His purpose is to help save Futaba from decay, but he now feels his former hometown has become more a place to "visit" than "go back to."
People have different visions of post-disaster recovery, and they also change over time.
For some, it means returning to their hometowns, while others satisfy themselves with just going back from time to time.
But many also keep in touch with their former neighbors who now live far away, and try to keep alive traditional local culture and events like festivals, and create new communities where newcomers will be welcome.
By taking interest in post-disaster recovery or getting involved in regional support programs, people can help expand the population of those who seek "community relations" or "exchanges."
What can the government and local administrative entities do in building towns and lives that look to the future of their children and grandchildren's generations? How far can each individual get involved in the process?
These are all things that every citizen should keep thinking about.
--The Asahi Shimbun, March 11
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