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Editorial: Hearing the voices of victims, 6 years from the Great East Japan Earthquake

March 11 marks the sixth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami, and outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in which nearly 20,000 people were killed or went missing.

The hardest-hit areas are still rebuilding. In particular, for Fukushima Prefecture, home to the stricken Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, the disaster and hardships are ongoing.

The population of Fukushima Prefecture, which stood at 2.02 million before the triple disasters of 2011, has dipped below 1.9 million. There remain almost 80,000 evacuees spread across Japan's 47 prefectures. Six years after it began, we are still experiencing the tragedy of a nuclear disaster.

In the past year, the gravity of the disaster victims' predicament became painfully clear in the incidence of evacuee children from Fukushima being bullied in other prefectures.

One of the first cases that drew public attention was that of a first year junior high school boy, who had evacuated voluntarily from Fukushima Prefecture to Yokohama. He was called and treated as a "germ" in elementary school, and was forced to fork over a total of 1.5 million yen to his classmates.

"I thought many times that I wanted to die. But a lot of people died in the earthquake disaster, so I decided to live," the student wrote.

So what was behind the bullying?

Kei Hida, an attorney who keeps in contact with the student, says, "School is a microcosm of society. Children watch what adults do, and prey on those weaker than themselves."

The student and his family had been victims of harassment shortly after evacuating to Yokohama. They would find trash thrown onto their car, which had a Fukushima Prefecture license plate. They received notes in their mailbox that read, "Get out, Fukushima prefectural residents."

Once the Yokohama incident became public, a series of similar evacuee bullying cases came to light across Japan.

In Chiba Prefecture, at least one evacuee child was taunted by classmates who said, "Here comes radiation!" In Niigata Prefecture, a teacher attached the word "germ" to the name of an evacuee boy.

As of May 2016, approximately 7,800 students from Fukushima Prefecture were still evacuated across the country. It is possible that more cases of bullying have yet to be exposed.

According to attorneys who offer support to evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture, many hide where they are from to avoid discrimination or harassment. These people have not only lost their hometowns to the nuclear disaster, but suffer a second victimization in the places they have evacuated to, through discrimination and bullying. It is irrational to subject these people to such treatment.

Meanwhile, a major change in public assistance for Fukushima nuclear disaster victims is coming up. This month, a program that provides homes free of charge to people who have evacuated -- carried out by the Fukushima Prefectural Government through host municipal governments -- is set to end. The purpose of the measure is said to be to urge evacuees to return to their hometowns in Fukushima Prefecture.

However, Daisaku Seto, the secretary-general of the Cooperation Center for 3.11, an organization that provides assistance to voluntary evacuees, says his cell phone has been ringing off the hook since last month with calls from evacuees who do not have a place to live come the end of March.

The free housing program applies to voluntary evacuees, as opposed to Fukushima Prefecture residents under government evacuation orders. According to the Fukushima Prefectural Government, that comes out to approximately 26,600 people, or one-third of Fukushima evacuees.

Unlike evacuees whose homes are in no-go zones, voluntary evacuees are not eligible for regular compensation payments from Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), and free housing was the main pillar of the public assistance they could get. But in June 2015, the Fukushima Prefectural Government decided it would stop the free housing program, citing improving living conditions in Fukushima Prefecture as a result of decontamination efforts. Many evacuees have decided to stay where they are, however, as they have grown accustomed to their new jobs or schools.

Kaori Kawai, 35, who along with her two children evacuated voluntarily from Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, to the Saitama Prefecture town of Moroyama, decided to stay in Moroyama because her children had established their school lives there. Since free housing was a significant help to her family in a time of great need, Kawai was shocked by the announcement that the free housing program would be terminated.

Single-parent households like Kawai's are not uncommon among Fukushima evacuees, nor are families forced to maintain two homes. It is crucial that measures addressing evacuees' needs be implemented.

After Fukushima Prefecture concludes the free housing program, some municipal governments will maintain it with their own budgets, or otherwise support evacuees by giving them priority when housing -- albeit not for free -- is available. This means, however, that the type and extent of assistance evacuees can receive will differ greatly based on the municipality to which they have evacuated. Under such circumstances, the central government should be taking the initiative to coordinate assistance efforts.

Meanwhile, there have been new developments in areas designated as no-go zones by the central government.

Evacuation orders issued for the Fukushima Prefecture village of Iitate and town of Namie, as well as some other municipalities, are to be lifted soon, with the exception of areas designated "difficult-to-return" zones. The lifting of the order will apply to at least 30,000 people. However, only about 10 percent of people from areas where evacuation orders have already been lifted have returned to their hometowns.

The evacuation order issued for Odaka Ward in the Fukushima prefectural city of Minamisoma was lifted in July 2016, ahead of the rest of the city. But the area remains sparsely populated, and there are many dilapidated homes left untouched since their occupants evacuated. The people there say that only the elderly return, and there's an urgent need to rebuild and protect the lives and health of those who make that choice.

Yet, the community is slowly rebuilding. In Odaka Ward, elementary, junior high and senior high schools will reopen in April.

With our sights set on future community building, we must tackle the issue of maintaining ties between those who choose to live in Fukushima Prefecture and those who stay where they've evacuated. Yuko Hirohata, a longtime resident of Odaka, issues a newsletter every month about the people who work in the ward, and sends it to evacuees living outside the prefecture. She says she does it out of a desire to keep people updated on how Odaka is doing.

Among the people of Fukushima Prefecture are those who have already returned, those who will return in the future, and those who will never return. If it hadn't been for the nuclear disaster, these people would all be living in their hometowns. What's being called into question now is how we, as well as the central and local governments, will listen and respond to the voices of these people.

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