Ten years after a devastating earthquake and tsunami caused a nuclear collapse in northern Japan, residents are once again preparing for places that feel familiar and hostile at the same time.
FUKUSHIMA, Japan – After an earthquake and tsunami hit a nuclear power plant about 12 miles from their home, Tomoko Kobayashi and her husband joined the evacuation, leaving their Dalmatian expecting them to be home in a few days would return.
It took five years. Even now – a decade after those deadly natural disasters on March 11, 2011 that triggered a catastrophic meltdown – the Japanese government has not fully reopened villages and towns within the original 12-mile evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. And even if they did, many former residents have no plans to return.
Some of those who returned felt that returning home was worth the remaining radiation risk. Others, like Ms. Kobayashi, 68, had businesses restarted.
“We had reasons to come back and the means to come back,” said Ms. Kobayashi, who runs a guest house. “It made sense – to a certain extent.”
But the Fukushima they have returned to often feel more eerie than inviting.
On the nearby Pacific coast, for example, there is a huge new dam that was built to prevent future tsunamis from entering the facility. It’s a jarring feature in a pastoral region once known for its peaches and a thick type of ramen noodle.
In nearby towns like Futaba, weeds are pushing through the asphalt and climbing over the facades of abandoned apartment blocks.
A bicycle that its owner may have brought to school or the grocery store lies abandoned in the undergrowth.
For many returnees, withdrawing is a process of rediscovering places that feel both familiar and hostile at the same time.
“I’m always asked, ‘Why did you come back? How many people have returned? Asked Ms. Kobayashi. “But my question is: what does that even mean? This place no longer exists. “
The catastrophe that struck northern Japan in March 2011 killed more than 19,000 people and triggered a worldwide reckoning of the dangers of nuclear energy. It also gave the name Fukushima an international fame at the level of Chernobyl.
Within Japan, the legacy of the disaster still feels painfully immediate. A government proposal to dump about one million tons of contaminated water into the sea has angered local fishermen, and cases against the government and the operator are pending in the country’s highest courts. The issue of nuclear power is still very tense.
And miles around the facility there are physical memories of an accident that forced the exodus of around 164,000 people.
In Katsurao, about 20 miles inland from Ms. Kobayashi’s house, radioactive soil is in temporary landfills. From a distance, the green hills look like children’s toys arranged on a beige carpet.
In Futaba, the grounds of a Buddhist temple are still littered with debris from the earthquake.
Scientists have found evidence of persistent radiation in some of Fukushima’s forests.
Whenever new storms hit Japan’s Pacific coast, some people in Fukushima Prefecture shudder at memories of the 10 year trauma.
“I think there is a possibility that this will be a place where not many people can live,” said one resident, Hiroyoshi Yaginuma, two years ago after a typhoon crashed ashore and his body shop in the industrial city Koriyama had flooded.
This is how it can feel in the town of Namie, with sacks of radioactive waste piling up.
Or in the Tsushima district in Namie, where so many houses have been demolished because of the radiation that some streets are just streets flanked by empty foundations.
Or in fields where pumpkins, radishes and spring onions were once made and which now lie fallow.
Young families who have left the evacuation zone have started new lives elsewhere. Across Fukushima, local governments have built new schools, roads, social housing and other infrastructures, sometimes with funds from the nuclear power plant operator, to lure former residents back.
Some residents in their 60s and beyond see the appeal. It can be difficult for them to imagine living elsewhere.
“They want to be in their hometown,” said Tsunao Kato, 71, who reopened his third generation barber shop before the running water was restored. “You want to die here.”
One benefit is that the threat of prolonged radiation feels less immediate than that of the coronavirus, said Kato, whose store is in the town of Minami Soma. With that in mind, living amidst the memories of a nuclear disaster – in cities where street lights illuminate empty intersections – is a welcome form of social distancing.
In a Futaba kindergarten, umbrellas have been sitting untouched for a decade and protecting no one from the rain.
A collapsed house is still waiting for a demolition team nearby.
Mr. Kato said while happy to be back he tried hard to offset the desire to stay with the knowledge that it would probably be safer to live elsewhere.
“Logic and emotions cannot interlock,” he said, “like oil and water.”
Like Mr. Kato, Ms. Kobayashi had been running a family business, in her case a guest house, when the magnitude 9 earthquake broke out. The guest house in Minami Soma has been in the family for generations and was taken over by her mother in 2001.
The guest house suffered significant water damage from the tsunami. But Ms. Kobayashi’s family restored and reopened it. (Your Dalmatian, who survived the nuclear accident, died shortly before the renovation was complete.)
They weren’t expecting a flood of tourists, she said, but they were hoping to serve people who wanted to return to the area and had nowhere to stay.
“There is no longer a city,” she said. “When you come back, you have to rebuild.”
Hikari Hida reported from Tokyo and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.