Late last month, Yoichi Yatsuda slept in his own house for the first time in more than a decade. As a resident of Futaba, a town in the shadow of the shattered Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, there was a time when just spending the night in his family home seemed like an impossible dream. The 70-year-old was one of tens of thousands of people forced to flee and start a life in nuclear limbo when the plant suffered a triple meltdown in March 2011.
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As Japan reeled from the earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people and triggered the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl, Yatsuda, his wife Analisa and some 160,000 other residents of Fukushima prefecture packed up some belongings and left, thinking they would be back in a few weeks.
“If I had been told at the beginning that I would have to wait that long to go home, I would have given up right away,” says Yatsuda, a retired professional keirin cyclist who has lived in more than 10 places after the disaster.
Today the couple is trying to rebuild their lives in Futaba, the latest of dozens of cities and towns that have been delisted after radiation levels were deemed low enough for people to return.
They have made regular visits to repair and refurbish their house, which had been invaded by wild boars, and as a rehearsal, since the end of January they have been allowed to spend the night. Local authorities hope more people will follow when the evacuation order in place in parts of the town is officially lifted later this year.
Return to an empty town
Yatsuda’s return home has been bittersweet. Before the catastrophe, about 7,000 people lived in Futaba. Just 15 residents applied to participate in the trial and to date only three, including Yasuda and his wife, have returned permanently.
Many of their former neighbors have found work and started new lives in other parts of the region and throughout Japan. In a survey conducted by the reconstruction agency, only 10% of former Futaba residents say they would like to return, while 60% say they have no plans to return.
Those with young children are the most reluctant to contemplate returning to a town that has no schools, shops, restaurants, hospitals or public services. Homes that survived the tsunami – which claimed the lives of 50 people in Futaba – have been demolished, leaving the town littered with empty plots.
Yatsuda’s only neighbor is Yasushi Hosozawa, who lives a short drive away, in a tiny room above a parking space and a shed filled with his beloved fishing rods.
“I was born here and I always felt that if I was ever given the chance to come back, I would take it,” says Hosozawa, whose wife and son run a restaurant in another Fukushima town further inland. “I love to fish and I have my own boat moored here…that was a big factor in deciding to come back.”
The 78-year-old former plumber and cafe owner returned late last month to find his water supply still hadn’t been restored, so he had to drive to the train station to use the toilet. . “There used to be a lot of people here,” he says, pointing to patches of grass where his neighbors’ houses used to be. “But look now…it’s a wasteland.”
“Very few people want to return”
Like many citizens of Fukushima, Yatsuda has almost nothing positive to say about Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the company that operates the nuclear plant, where decommissioning work is expected to last decades. “I believed Tepco when they said something like the 2011 disaster could never happen,” he says. “It’s all about trust. When I came back to Fukushima 40 years ago, I was assured that it was a safe place to live.”
No one expects life in Futaba to return to pre-disaster normality, but local authorities believe more people will be resettled. The town has set a goal of attracting around 2,000 people, including new residents, over the next five years. In October, new public housing for 25 families will open.
“Very few people want to come back, so can you really say the town has recovered?” says Yatsuda, who will plant flowers in his garden this spring and hopes to reopen the gym behind his house where he used to train the kids. wannabe keirin bikers before the disaster.
“The problem is that people can’t see the physical signs of recovery with their own eyes. Unless the authorities do more to create jobs and attract new residents, I don’t think things will get much better in the next 10 years.” years,” he says.
The stress of life as an evacuee has taken a toll on his mental and physical health, but he has no regrets about returning to a town that, apart from its three current residents, still feels like a nuclear ghost town. “This is our house. This is where we used to play with our children when they were little.”
Although the couple is not worried about radiation, they have accepted that, for now, they must leave town to spend time with their eight grandchildren. “We used to enjoy seeing friends and playing with our grandchildren here,” says Analisa. “It would be wonderful if younger families came… I am desperate to see and hear children playing again.”
Translation of Julian Cnochaert.