The Fourth Winter of Fukushima

Entrance to the no-go zone. Sign reads: "areas difficult to return to." Photo by Alexis Dudden

Entrance to the no-go zone. Sign reads: “areas difficult to return to.” Photo by Alexis Dudden

“No, nothing. I have nothing planned for New Year’s. Nothing at all. No one is coming.” A shy, round-faced woman spat these words like darts into the protective mask she wore. Moments earlier she had been laughing happily together with several other former residents of the small town of Tomioka as they reminisced about a friend they all knew. She quickly became raw, however, when asked about the coming holidays.

Tomioka counted 15,839 residents before the March 11, 2011 nightmare of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear explosion began. All but one person has left — Matsumura Naoto, the now well-known rice farmer who refuses to abandon his family’s fifth-generation farm.

Confusion and despair among the others is common, a state of existence that government officials bewilderingly made even worse on March 25, 2013 when they divided the roughly 25-square-mile seaside spot into three zones: never to return, return for short periods, and in preparation to return. Government-sponsored scientists determined such divisions here and in other areas near the nuclear plant based on so-called acceptable annual dosage rates. Such designations may make surreal sense in scientific terms. In daily life, however, it means streets separated down the middle, one side “safe” while houses around the corner are condemned for tens of thousands of years to come.

All involved understand that the official designations are of critical significance in terms of compensation. If your property was anywhere but “never to return” you won’t be paid for much longer. Less appreciated is how such nuances taken together are playing out among those on the verge of their fourth winter in limbo.


Life in Internal Exile


Many of the former residents of Tomioka are now living 25 miles to the west in the rural town of Miharu, famous for its 1,000-year-old cherry tree.  Miharu currently houses about 2,000 people of a total of nearly 140,000 officially classified as “displaced” by the crisis. The term “nuclear refugee” is out. All are lumped together as one. Yet those permanently shut out of their former lives since the Fukushima Daiichi power plant spiraled into meltdown include some who have been in as many as 10 shelters in three-and-a-half years.

On a recent afternoon a small group of Tomioka’s forever “displaced” villagers gathered to talk in a brightly lit common room hidden among twenty or so rows of tightly spaced sand-colored buildings that have been subdivided into small rooms for couples and individuals mainly in their sixties and seventies. A younger man in his fifties stood out. Before the crisis, his business supplied lunches for workers at the nuclear power plant. Vibrant and seemingly able to go anywhere, he is trapped by rules that among other things prevent him from living in Tomioka yet allow him several times a week to visit his beloved dachshund Chocolat, whom he refuses to leave to die.

Many of the displaced still believed in the possibility of return up to a few months ago. The group’s mayor Matsumoto-san no longer sees such a resolution. “If only they had told me then, told me that we wouldn’t be able to go back, I could have taken my family and moved to Aomori (in northern Japan), and we would be together,” he said. He was sharing what many express as the worst of it: families torn apart, children and grandchildren now living scattered throughout Japan and rarely if ever visiting. The shelters offer small, attached units, yet there is little open space, and certainly no land to farm. Freshly painted signs on the streets point to the housing units and appear welcoming, yet those inside say they know they are “in the way” and that “after a while you understand they don’t want you anymore.”


A Lottery Winner


One woman had a surprise for the others. “I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you before,” she began, perhaps taking advantage of the two strangers in the mix to break her news. “I applied to the (housing) lottery, and I’m sorry to tell you that I won. I’m very sorry. In a few weeks I’ll move away to a permanent unit. It isn’t much. I know I had a better chance because I’m on my own. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

Some might reduce these words to cultural essentialisms, yet a powerfully unprocessed atmosphere filled the room. The thin sense of community was yet again torn asunder, and while a few wished her luck — she had been in six different shelters before this — the rest gradually looked as if they would be sick and said nothing. Another woman fought off tears.

The newly published housing policy appears under the awkward slogan in Japanese and English — “Future From Fukushima” — and reveals itself for what it has been from the beginning: make it up as it goes along. Tiny details drive home the point. Even if you’re fortunate enough to win a permanent place and you manage to survive for more than 11 years, you’ll start having to pay rent.

The woman who won did not know this, nor did anyone fill her in if they did. She would escape to a place to call home this winter. Meanwhile, some among the others would become part of a sad statistic, one of the only clear facts to come out since March 2011. More people have died from stress-related causes than from the initial disasters in Fukushima.




Alexis Dudden is a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, and the author of Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States (Columbia University Press, 2008). 

  • fiddie

    What twaddle. There’s more misinformation than fact peppered throughout this piece.
    Does the author, or FPIF’s editors, know what a nuclear explosion is? How inconsequential a becquerel is? How that province’s radiation compares to natural background radiation on Mt. Fuji, the beaches of Guarapari , or the foothills of Iran?

    Those explosions were chemical explosions – hydrogen to be exact. Concentrations of hydrogen are known to explode without a spark or flame present; and that hydrogen was there because then PM Kan forbade the workers to react as they were trained to do – until his office gave them clearance to act. Yes, Kan wanted to micro-manage a distressed nuclear plant from Tokyo in between press conferences where he claimed to be on top of the situation. Without such interference the incident at Fukushima Dai-Ichi would have been no more serious than in Dai-Ini, and all this would have been a minor footnote in the overall tsunami disaster.

    The great majority of that evacuation zone was never at life threatening levels. Only a couple hundred acres, for a few days, should have been cleared. Crops and many animals in the area have been OK’d for consumption – only baseless fear make such food sales difficult. If many of those families weren’t getting rich (some families are getting +US$1million!) off the *Nuclear Disaster Relief* packages, most families would have returned two years ago.

    The final sentence is nearly accurate though. Zero have died or will die from the Fukushima nuclear incident. Thousands died from the initial tsunami, and many have died from the needless, enforced evacuation. And in the meantime fossil fuel interests and shipping companies are getting rich from the importation of LNG to keep the lights on. Japan is now drowning in a tsunami of debt thanks to ex-PM Kan’s ineptitude. That’s the ongoing story which needs to be told.

    • QuibONO

      BOTH sites you posted and your

      twaddle is more misinformation than fact peppered throughout this piece.

    • flobotera

      Well this article has nothing to do with the actual occurrences at the Daichi plant but with the aftermath and how people have to live with it. I’ve been in the region two times and none of the improvised ‘housing estates’ I visited screamed ‘rich’. Have you been there and interviewed the people about the millions they make? Perhaps there are a few people who profit, but the majority suffers in a way you just can’t imagine that this happens in such a wealthy nation. People lost their children (to the tsunami), their spouses (to the tsunami), their possessions (to the tsunami or the Daichi disaster), their past: Now go up to them and tell them: Well see, actually it’s not so bad. The other thing is that people fear so much what ‘could’ happen relating to radiation, that they even stopped believing in what the government says and that’s really something for Japanese.

      • fiddie

        No I haven’t been to Japan, it’s good that you have been able to witness some of the ongoing tragedy. I’ve seen several accounts of some who have been there. There’s a video of a couple of Triumph riders a few months after the incident – they really enjoyed having the roads to themselves! Then there are more serious accounts by people like Kristi Yamaguchi, Dr. Wade Allison (, and NRC officials.

        Your response mentions the plight of those affected by the tsumani – quite right! They deserve much more support than they have received so far. The earthquake also affected millions. But the nuclear incident damaged only TEPCOs profits and reputation, which they likely deserved. However the fear of radiation (including the forced evacuations) has killed hundreds and affected thousands. Among those needless deaths were hospital patients in critical care, evacuees who were cut off from access to vital medications, and suicides who had lost hope. The US$45 billion given to assist the Fukushima evacuees (including mental anguish!) should have been spent to alleviate the suffering of the earthquake and tsunami victims.

        Certainly many of those affected by the earthquake & tsunami are in Fukushima Province, but the problems at the Da-Ichi NPP did not affect those residents – other than loosing electricity at a critical time. Some areas may be higher in radiation than four years ago, but that’s OK. Natural background levels are nearly 20 times higher in Ramsar, Iran and the Muslims are quite healthy there.

        Did you see some of the public Geiger counters there in Japan? The low levels of radiation mean little if not put into perspective. Send the good folks of Fukushima on a much needed vacation – at govt expense. On Mt. Fuji they will find radiation levels near to the highest levels found back at their homes. Send them to a hot springs spa (I’ve heard there are many in Japan). In those hot springs they’ll receive additional radiation – just as folks did a century ago.