TAMURA, Fukushima Prefecture–One week after the central government lifted the evacuation order for an eastern strip of Tamura’s Miyakoji district, few houses in the area were lit up at night as many residents are still uncertain if it is safe for them to return home.
Located near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the area was home to 117 households with 357 residents before the evacuation order was imposed in March 2011, following the accident triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
Of the 117 households an Asahi Shimbun reporter visited between April 5 and April 8, 26 families directly confirmed that they have decided to return to their homes, following the lifting of the evacuation order on April 1. Two other families also have reportedly returned.
Most of the returning residents are elderly. Many of the original residents are still struggling with concerns over the stability of the situation at the nuclear plant, radiation fears and the inconvenience of living in an area that is lacking in many basic services.
“I don’t know whether I should return or not,” 71-year-old Yukiko Watanabe said on April 8, during her first visit to her home in the Miyakoji area, about 18 kilometers west of the Fukushima plant, since the evacuation order was lifted. “True, I feel at peace here, but I don’t feel like staying because I feel lonely and have anxiety.”
Part of a hill behind their home measures more than 1 millisievert per year of radiation. One millisievert or less is the government’s long-term decontamination goal.
Undecided, Watanabe and her 79-year-old husband, Toshiyuki, returned to their temporary housing unit 20 kilometers away that evening.
Toshiyuki suffered a stroke nine years ago and continues to have mobility issues in the right side of his body. The couple said they can call for help quickly in the event of an emergency at their temporary housing unit. They are unsure if emergency assistance would be readily available in Miyakoji. And they are not sure how many of their neighbors will return to their homes.
The nearest supermarket is in Okuma, 15 minutes by car from their Miyakoji home, but it remains closed due to radiation concerns.
Before the onset of the nuclear disaster, the couple lived in their two-story house with their daughter, Masumi, her husband and one granddaughter and one great-granddaughter. However, after the plant accident, the older Watanabes were alone in their temporary housing unit as the rest of the family evacuated to prefecture-subsidized apartments in Koriyama, some 40 kilometers away.
The Watanabes’ granddaughter, Konomi, said her 5-year-old girl has made new friends in Koriyama, and they do not expect to return to Miyakoji any time soon.
Masumi also does not plan to return. “We cannot return to the Miyakoji area,” Masumi said. “There are few jobs available.”
Evacuees currently receive compensation of 100,000 yen ($973) a month from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. But the compensation will end within a year after the evacuation designation is lifted.
Masumi and her husband are feeling pressured to find jobs as they can remain in their subsidized apartment only until March 31, 2015.
As an incentive to get evacuees to return to their homes, the central government has directed TEPCO to give each returnee a one-time payment of 900,000 yen.
But for Masumi, the money isn’t everything.
“The lump-sum payment won’t lead to future security,” she said. “It would be much easier to find work in Koriyama, where there are many prospective employers and a Hello Work public employment security office.”
After lifting the evacuation order in the Miyakoji area, no-entry zones remain in 10 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture, with about 800,000 people still forced to remain evacuated from their homes.
The central government is planning to soon lift evacuation orders in restricted areas where decontamination work has been completed, including a portion of Kawauchi, with 134 households and 275 people, and Naraha, with 2,729 households and 7,510 people.
However, not all the evacuees are happy about it.
At a meeting with government officials in Kawauchi in late March, some residents voiced anxieties about radiation levels and criticized the government’s move as “being too hasty.”