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Scenes of Heisei: Were residents scattered by nuclear crisis beneficiaries or victims?

Noriyuki Kowata is seen on a temporary visit to his home in the Fukushima Prefecture town of Futaba, one of two towns that the stricken Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant straddles, on Sept, 25, 2018. His yard and vegetable garden were covered in overgrown grass and other vegetation. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

FUTABA, Fukushima -- It was late September, and the heat of summer had finally begun to ease. Norikiyo Kowata, 77, was on a temporary visit to his home here, whose screen doors were tattered, having been exposed to the elements for over seven years. His garden, where he used to grow vegetables like butterbur sprouts and myoga ginger, showed signs of having been trampled on by wild hogs.

Ninety-six percent of Futaba -- one of two towns straddled by the stricken Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Station -- is designated by the central government as "areas to which return will be difficult." Even though Kowata prepares himself mentally, seeing his house in an increasingly dilapidated state every time he visits is hard: "It's disheartening."

After the March 2011 disaster broke out at the nearby nuclear station, the entire town was forced to evacuate. Kowata moved from one place to another, including Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, where the Futaba Municipal Government set up shop temporarily, and where a branch of the municipal government still exists. In the summer of 2012, Kowata bought a used single-family home in the Fukushima Prefecture city of Iwaki, where he has since been living with his 70-year-old wife, Mineko. Prior to the nuclear crisis, the couple enjoyed walking in the mountains close to their home in Futaba to forage for mushrooms and wild vegetables. Now that they can no longer do that, their only emotional crutch is their pet dog.

Kowata's hope to someday return to his hometown faded as he accrued more and more years as an evacuee. Now, a strong sense of resignation has taken over. There are plans to demolish his home in Futaba soon. "I'm old now. It's sad, of course, since it's where I lived for 70 years."

After the onset of the nuclear disaster, along with the growing momentum of the anti-nuclear movement, was criticism for the national government and power companies that had long been building nuclear power plants in regional areas. The common trope was that people living in regional areas who had complied with national policy were now being forced from their homes. Kowata, too, wanted the people of Tokyo -- for whom the Fukushima plant was primarily generating electricity -- to look that fact straight in the eye. But when he thought about the benefits that he reaped from the nuclear power station, being told he was "sacrificed" for the sake of the big city and the central government didn't feel quite true.

The Fukushima prefectural towns of Futaba and Okuma decided to host the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in 1961, in the midst of Japan's rapid economic growth. The central government's desire to meet the increasing electricity demands of the Tokyo metropolitan area came together with the desire of a regional area that did not want to be left behind in the high-speed economic growth that the country was undergoing. As a result, six massive structures spanning the two towns were built.

The region's industrial framework, in which residents farmed in the warmer months and became migrant workers elsewhere in the winters, underwent a radical transformation. Following graduation from high school, Kowata had been working in Tokyo as a conductor in the subway system. But he returned to his hometown once the nuclear plant was built, and became a regular employee at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) in 1971, when the nuclear plant began its operations.

"The pay was good, as were the benefits," Kowata recalled. "It felt like a big company." He worked for TEPCO and its affiliates until the age of 65.

Municipal governments that host nuclear power plants are given large amounts of money in subsidies based on the Three Power Source Development Laws. At its peak, the Futaba Municipal Government received over 1 billion yen per year, and nuclear plant-related income, including fixed property tax, enriched town coffers. This allowed for the construction of public facilities and other infrastructure.

"Nuclear power plants are monsters," Kowata said. "I bet there's no other mechanism out there that brings that much money and employment to a depopulated area."

There were some people who warned of the risks of nuclear power. In 1972, some residents launched a Futaba region anti-nuke alliance. However, confronted by the very palpable benefits of the nuclear plant, the movement faded.

In 1991, the Futaba Town Assembly unanimously voted for the additional construction of the No. 7 and No. 8 reactors at the plant. The town's expenditures were ballooning, due to the cost of maintaining and managing public facilities it had built with subsidies it received from the central government for hosting the nuclear power plant. So in seeking even more of that "nuclear power plant money," Futaba became more proactive in promoting the national government's nuclear policy.

Futaba's mayor at the time was the late Tadao Iwamoto, who served for five terms, four years each, starting in 1985. He was a former prefectural assembly member from the Socialist Party who at one time served as the head of an anti-nuke alliance. But after he became the mayor of Futaba, he promoted community building that assumed coexistence with nuclear power plants.

To his former comrades, this seemed like a sellout, but his son, Hisato Iwamoto, 61, who is the vice-speaker of the Futaba town assembly, argues that nothing had changed, in that his father continued efforts to work for the happiness of the townspeople and for the Futaba region. Hisato said he remembers his father yelling at news reports on the nuclear disaster that were being aired on television in the gymnasium that the family had evacuated to in the Fukushima prefectural city of Minamisoma in March 2011: "What are they doing!" His father subsequently said not a word about the nuclear plant, and died just four months later due to illness at the age of 82.

Akira Kawate, who was formerly a bureaucrat at the Ministry of Home Affairs, the predecessor to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, and subsequently served as Fukushima Prefecture's deputy governor from 1999 to 2006, looked back on the proposed construction of the No. 7 and No. 8 reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. "The prefectural government's view was that we shouldn't keep relying on nuclear reactors," he said. The prefecture, however, was unable to come up with any specific economic revitalization measures to replace nuclear power plants. The additional reactors were never built. Then, in 2011, disaster struck.

Kawate, who now serves as an executive director of a nationwide federation promoting the independence of depopulated regions, understands the obstacles of implementing depopulation countermeasures. "It's very difficult for municipal governments that have neither the money nor the manpower to be independent. With the exception of Tokyo, all communities must be dependent on the central government, though the extent to which they are may vary," he said. But, he continued, "There are various ways to think about the relationship between regional areas and the central government, whether it's the regional areas that are being sacrificed, or they're the ones shrewdly taking advantage of the central government. It's OK to have a shrewd outlook on life. It liberates you from emotional subordination."

Aside from the noise of heavy machinery, the town of Futaba is quiet. Little by little, homes are being torn down and new infrastructure is being built. The plan is to make about 55 hectares of land surrounding JR Futaba Station livable again as a specially designated reconstruction and revitalization zone. If all goes well, evacuation orders for the area will be lifted around the spring of 2022.

If people do not return to the town, however, there will be no town revival. The 7,140 people who lived here at the time the nuclear disaster began are now scattered everywhere, and as of late August this year, 4,074 lived within Fukushima Prefecture, and 2,818 lived outside the prefecture as evacuees. According to a survey of Futaba residents and others conducted in fall of last year, 60 percent of the 1,564 households that responded said that they had "decided not to return."

Ever since the onset of the nuclear crisis, former TEPCO employee Kowata has been questioning himself over and over again. The nuclear power plant had allowed him to work in his hometown and provide for his family. But if it hadn't been for the nuclear power plant, the disaster would not have occurred. "I carry a weight on my shoulders."

Kowata has given up hope on returning to his home in Futaba, but he wants to remain involved in his hometown. His residence registry is still there. "I want to live a long life, and watch what happens to this town," he says, hopefully.

(Japanese original by Yukinao Kin, Osaka Cultural News Department)

This is Part 8 of a 10-part series.

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