Evacuated Fukushima villagers return home, but not without worries

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Newly returned Fujio Hanzawa talks in the living room of his house in Katsurao, Fukushima Prefecture, on Sunday.

FUKUSHIMA — As day broke on a rainy Sunday, the barricade was opened on the road leading to the Noyuki district of the Fukushima Prefecture village of Katsurao.

For 11 years, the district had been designated as off-limits in the wake of the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s nearby Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

With the evacuation order lifted for much of the village, it aims to restart as a community through the building of an exchange facility and supporting the resumption of farming.

But the joy of returning to their old lives is tempered with worries about an uncertain future. Only two families actually returned to Noyuki on the first day, and one resident said that restarting life after a decade away leaves him with “80% unease.”

In Katsurao as a whole, the number of residents actually living there now is less than 40% of the 1,300 or so registered on the village rolls.

Katsurao Mayor Hiroshi Shinoki, standing to the side of the barricade when it was opened at 8 a.m. on Sunday, declared, “We’ve entered a new stage, but also a new start.”

Located among the Abukuma mountain range, Katsurao encompasses a total area of about 84 square kilometers, of which more than 80% is covered by forest. In June 2016, the evacuation order was lifted for much of the village — with Noyuki, which had been designated as a so-called difficult-to-return zone because of high radiation levels, among the exceptions.

Decontamination work has since lowered radiation levels below the criteria for lifting the order, and the 0.95-square-kilometer section of the district where residences are located opened Sunday.

Noyuki is located deep in the mountains in the northeastern part of the village. The village has set a five-year target of having around 80 people return to live in areas where evacuation orders have been lifted. But, the 11 years that have passed weigh heavily on small remote communities like Noyuki, and many residents have already rebuilt their lives and set down roots in areas where they evacuated.

Fujio Hanzawa was one who decided to return to his hometown. “I had been waiting for this day to come,” the 69-year-old said as he sipped tea on Sunday morning, looking out the window of the living room in his rebuilt house. “I want to take it easy while feeling the change of the seasons.”

After the rain that fell let up in the evening, he went out and worked for a bit in his rice paddy, then took a walk around the community before returning home.

Born in Noyuki as the eldest son of a farm family, Hanzawa grew up being told by his parents that it was his responsibility to defend his nest. Even while working as a village civil servant, he grew rice and vegetables and watched over the land that had been the family’s since the Meiji era (1868-1912).

At the time of the nuclear accident, Hanzawa was involved in helping evacuees, and he and his family had to relocate several times around the prefecture. About six years ago, when there was no prospect in sight of the evacuation order being lifted in Noyuki, Hanzawa built a cozy one-story house about 40 kilometers away in Koriyama City.

As his mother, who needs nursing care, lives in Koriyama, he plans to split his time between Katsurao and Koriyama.

In anticipation of the lifting of the evacuation order, test rice cultivation began in the Noyuki district last year. “It’s a thrill to plant the seedlings and harvest the rice,” said Hanzawa, who is head of the local agricultural cooperative.

However, most of the cooperative’s members “commute” from homes in evacuation sites. The members of the two families that returned this time, including Hanzawa’s, are all elderly.

Can they help each other in times of emergency? Can they resume careers in farming?

“Comparing my happiness and my uneasiness, I’m 80% uneasy,” Hanzawa said. “I want to take my time to determine what I can do. I hope seeing me will help persuade people to return to the village.”