So-called "voluntary evacuees" who fled Fukushima Prefecture due to the ongoing nuclear crisis were cut off from free housing services at the end of March.
Since last fall, I have been reporting on the issue of termination of free housing for "voluntary evacuees" -- those who evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture out of radiation concerns, even though their places of residence did not come under the government's evacuation orders -- and have met many evacuees who faced termination amid straitened circumstances and with no prospects of living independently.
Six years have passed since the outbreak of the nuclear disaster, and I believe that insufficient assistance provided by the central government, the Fukushima Prefectural Government, and the municipalities to which Fukushima Prefecture residents evacuated led to the current state of affairs.
Following the onset of the nuclear crisis at Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011, some Fukushima Prefecture residents who did not live in areas designated by the central government as no-go zones "voluntarily" evacuated to other areas of Fukushima Prefecture and beyond. The Fukushima Prefectural Government regarded the homes such evacuees chose to live in as "temporary housing" provided to victims of disasters, and covered their rent. Unlike evacuees from areas designated as no-go zones, most "voluntary evacuees" have not been eligible for compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, leaving payment for housing from the Fukushima Prefectural Government as the only assistance such evacuees received. In June of 2015, however, the prefectural government announced that it would be terminating such assistance at the end of March 2017, saying that "an environment for leading everyday life in Fukushima is in the process of coming together."
Radiation levels in Fukushima Prefecture dropped significantly shortly after the outbreak of the disaster, and in some areas, radiation levels are not much different from those in the Kansai region, where I live. However, many former Fukushima prefectural residents are still concerned with radiation, and among some families, children do not want to move back to Fukushima because they've made friends where they live now. As of October 2016, there were approximately 10,000 households of "voluntary evacuees" from Fukushima Prefecture. This spring, many of those households were faced with the difficult question of whether to move back to their hometowns, or pay out of pocket in order to continue life where they are.
What I took from reporting on the issue is the polarization of "voluntary evacuees." Those who have been able to adapt to life where they've evacuated to and rebuild their lives said they wanted to leave behind their status as "evacuees." Some even said they'd become leaders of neighborhood community associations.
Meanwhile, others said they couldn't sleep at night because they were unable to find affordable housing, or that they didn't have the funds to move. Among the latter were those with family members who have disabilities, or members who are from other countries and do not speak Japanese well -- in other words, families who were vulnerable even before the outbreak of the nuclear disaster. I learned of cases in which people's lives turned for the worse after they evacuated. For example, there have been cases of divorce that resulted after mothers evacuated with their children, leaving the father behind. Meanwhile, other evacuees developed mental illness or suffered strokes. Such evacuees needed assistance that was finely tuned to their individual needs in the areas of employment, medical care and education. However, there were many instances in which I felt they were not receiving sufficient care.
A 57-year-old man who "voluntarily" evacuated from the city of Fukushima to an Osaka municipal residence, remained isolated in a corner of the massive city for 4 1/2 years after the outbreak of the disaster. The man has a visual impairment that has qualified him for level-1 physical disability certification. He is not completely blind, but to read documents, he must step out onto the veranda for natural light and use a magnifying glass. With his disability, it is nerve-racking for him to go out alone in an unfamiliar city. His South Korean-born wife, 62, who helps him with his everyday life, does not read or write Japanese well. Because of this, he rarely obtained information from documents that were delivered to him from administrative offices or support organizations.
He thus remained unable to receive assistance, and was bogged down by debt that he incurred from moving and purchasing household furnishings. He didn't even learn about the termination of free housing until six months after the Fukushima Prefectural Government made the announcement. Subsequently, based on the advice of a supporter who visited him at his home, he transferred his residency registration to the city of Osaka, and began receiving the city's support services. However, he still has mixed feelings toward administrative agencies. "They had to have known about my visual disability. Whether it be the Fukushima Municipal Government or the Osaka Municipal Government, if someone had made the effort to inform me, I wouldn't have had to suffer as much as I did," he said.
In fiscal 2016, the Fukushima Prefectural Government and the municipalities to which Fukushima prefectural residents evacuated made individual visits to "voluntary evacuees." They should have made the visits an opportunity not only to listen to residents' concerns about housing after they were cut off, but also to help map out plans for households under straitened circumstances to become independent. But that was not necessarily the case.
A woman in her 50s who, with her child, evacuated from the Fukushima Prefecture city of Koriyama to a Tokyo public housing complex, was emotionally beaten down after constantly being reminded by housing management that she and her child were to leave by the end of the 2016 fiscal year. The woman said that she was even told that she could be hit with a lawsuit if she did not move out of the building.
The dedication with which local governments took the effort to visit evacuees differed from municipality to municipality, and at least one municipal government did not send staff to visit evacuees until three months before the free housing service was brought to an end. To make matters worse, many municipal governments were sending staff not from their welfare departments, but from their public housing departments to make the visits. Under such circumstances, criticism against municipal governments for lacking a commitment to provide comprehensive support to evacuees is hard to refute.
Another thing that caught my attention as I covered this issue is that a large number of evacuees are apprehensive about going on public assistance. A mother and child who evacuated to the city of Osaka declined advice to apply for welfare. They said they did not want to become a burden to the state, and eked out a living on an 80,000-yen monthly income. However, public assistance exists precisely for people like this family. Municipalities that have dispatched staff to make individual visits to evacuee households, and are abreast of which households are in dire straits, should actively try to dispel misperceptions and prejudice about welfare, and help those people receive the assistance they need.
I believe that the evacuees' original municipalities of residence and the municipalities to which they evacuated are both responsible for the fact that they were unable to receive sufficient support before free housing was shut down. The Fukushima Prefectural Government assumed that the provision of housing assistance would suffice, while municipalities to which the residents evacuated had a latent notion that the evacuees weren't "real" residents of the municipality.
It's not too late, though. Both parties should collaborate and commit to closely assisting those facing grave hardships achieve self-reliance. (By Akira Okubo, Osaka Science & Environment News Department)