In June 2015, the central government decided to retain evacuation orders up until March 2017 and set the target deadline for paying compensation to Fukushima residents affected by the 2011 nuclear disaster at March 2018 regardless of the timing of lifting evacuation orders.
Before the government made that decision, the period for paying compensation to residents of zones under the evacuation order had been set "until one year after the lifting of the evacuation order" under the then compensation standards set by the government in connection with the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.
Under the previous scheme, the later the evacuation order was to be lifted, the longer the government was to continue to pay compensation. The scheme, therefore, prompted some people within the central government and local bodies to argue that reparations were preventing affected residents from returning to their original hometowns or preventing them from becoming independent. However, the government's move to set the uniform deadline for compensation has raised questions that the scheme does not take into account the conditions of each individual region.
In the winter of 2014 -- nearly three years after the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis -- Tadamori Oshima, then chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Headquarters for Accelerating Reconstruction after the Great East Japan Earthquake, and Naraha Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto were seen at a small restaurant in the Fukushima Prefecture city of Iwaki. While the snow was falling silently outside, the two men were sipping sake. It was a get-together meeting aimed at discussing how to lift the evacuation order for Naraha, which could be the first among municipalities whose entire areas were under evacuation orders to do so.
In May 2014, about several months later, Naraha Mayor Matsumoto said at a news conference that Naraha residents would return to the town "after the spring of 2015." The LDP's Oshima, who had known what Matsumoto would say in advance, called for early lifting of the evacuation order by urging the mayor to drop the word "after." But Matsumoto adamantly refused to do so.
Behind the clash between Oshima and Matsumoto over the issue was the compensation period set until "one year after the lifting of the evacuation order." During the 13 rounds of town hall meetings held between April and May 2014, Matsumoto was told by local residents that "it will take several years from the lifting of the evacuation order before we settle down to a good life. We should also have the government continue to pay compensation." Therefore, Matsumoto called on the central government to keep paying compensation to the local residents, saying, "They need compensation money for a while even after the evacuation order is lifted." Unless his demand was accepted, it would be difficult for him to agree to lift the evacuation order.
"We needed a political decision that would change the rules over the lifting of the evacuation order for Naraha. Even for other municipalities, setting a deadline rather than idly postponing lifting of evacuation orders will lead to their independence," said LDP lower house legislator Masayoshi Yoshino from Fukushima Prefecture, a senior official of the LDP Headquarters for Accelerating Reconstruction after the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Under the ruling party proposal worked out by Oshima and others in May 2015 and presented to the central government, the evacuation orders for residence restriction zones and zones preparing for the lifting of the evacuation orders would be lifted by March 2017 at the latest. The proposal set the period for compensation for psychological difficulties up until March 2018 regardless of the timing of the lifting of evacuation orders. In June 2015, the government made a decision at a Cabinet meeting in line with the proposal.
For the central government, the lifting of the evacuation order for Naraha was more significant as compared with the Miyakoji district of Tamura city and the eastern part of Kawauchi village for which evacuation orders had already been lifted because it had a larger population. If the compensation period were to be set for March 2018 regardless of the timing of the lifting of the evacuation orders, there would be no point in delaying the return of local residents to their original hometowns. Using Naraha as a model, the central government would be able to push other municipalities to return to where they used to be and demonstrate its efforts to rebuild the disaster-stricken region.
The central government set the target period for lifting evacuation orders as March 2017 partly in order to bring it in line with the definition of difficult-to-return zones. That's because they were defined from the beginning as zones whose annual radiation dose would not likely drop below 20 millisieverts -- a minimum reference dose that would allow residents to return home -- even six years after the outbreak in March 2011 of the nuclear disaster.
Mayor Matsumoto subsequently accepted the central government's plan to lift the evacuation order for Naraha in September 2015. He welcomed the central government's Cabinet decision to extend the compensation period by about 18 months from the period until "one year after the lifting of the evacuation order," saying that his demands were "granted in full."
Matsumoto said, "When I said I want them (local residents) to become independent at a recent town hall meeting, most of them understood what I said."
The government's move to set the uniform deadlines for lifting evacuation orders and for the compensation period has sparked a backlash from some people and municipalities. That's because it is difficult for many of the municipalities where decontamination has been moving more slowly than in Naraha to predict how many of their residents will return home even if decontamination is completed and the evacuation orders are lifted as planned. If no one lives there, there will be no commercial activities there, either.
In the Fukushima Prefecture town of Namie, 44 percent of decontamination work on residences carried out by the Environment Ministry was completed as of Feb. 15, 2016.
According to a survey conducted in 2015 by the Reconstruction Agency, 48 percent of Namie residents decided not to return to the town, while only 17.8 percent of residents were willing to do so. "The central government is telling us to become independent, but even if I reopen my business, if no one returns, it will hardly pay its way," said Fumitaka Kanazawa, a 59-year-old man who used to run a funeral business with 20 employees in Namie. His five-member family lives mostly on compensation money for psychological damage -- 100,000 yen each a month. But if the evacuation order is to be lifted by March 2017 in accordance with the government plan, there will be no compensation payments one year later. Moreover, compensation for damages to business operations will stop after February 2017.