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Editorial: Renewed commitment needed to help victims of Japan's triple disasters recover

Ten years ago today, Japan experienced multiple disasters unprecedented in the history of humankind.

    Due to a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the people of Fukushima Prefecture had no choice but to leave their hometowns. To this day, more than 35,000 people are in evacuation housing.

    Radiation decontamination work has been carried out and evacuation orders have been lifted as municipalities have been determined to be safe enough, but the return of residents has not progressed sufficiently. The disparities in returnee numbers among municipalities are striking. The fact that the foundations of people's everyday lives have been transferred from their hometowns to other locations as life in evacuation has dragged on has affected this phenomenon.

    There is also the issue of the Japanese government's handling of the situation, which is exacerbating residents' anxiety. The government has said that it will ultimately lift evacuation orders for all "difficult-to-return" zones, but it has not yet even established plans for decontamination of many of those areas. When and how the evacuation orders will be lifted have not been made clear.

    There are no prospects that the decommissioning of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant -- a process projected to take up to 40 years from start to finish -- will be completed in the next 30 years. Removal of melted nuclear fuel was slated to begin this year, but it has been postponed by about a year. Around 1,000 tanks for storing radioactive water will be filled up by the end of fiscal 2022, but no decisions have been made about what will be done with the water.

    The Japanese government must present a road map of what it plans to do before people can feel secure about returning to their hometowns.

    Faced with low numbers of returnees to some municipalities, the Japanese government decided to direct its efforts into encouraging new residents to move there. Starting in fiscal 2021, the government will launch a program to provide a maximum of 2 million yen (approx. $18,000) to those who relocate to one of the 12 municipalities near the Fukushima Daiichi plant. It's a plan to bump up the population and bring back some energy to those cities, towns and villages.

    But will this plan alone make Fukushima's renewal possible?

    The Fukushima Prefecture village of Katsurao had a population of just around 1,500 before the triple disasters of March 11, 2011. Measures have been taken in the village after the disasters, such as cash gifts to people who built their own homes in the village -- including those moving in from other places. The number of residents is now 431, of which 104 relocated there after the evacuation order was lifted.

    Ryohei Maiya, 34, of Katsurao Murazukuri Kosha, a public corporation that promotes relocation to the village, moved there himself two years ago because he wanted to be involved in the rebuilding process of a place he was covering as a reporter for a local newspaper. Maiya says that technology for agriculture -- the key local industry -- is "the village's biggest asset." He believes in the importance of creating opportunities to pass on that technology to younger generations and continue traditions.

    "I don't think the purpose is simply to increase the number of people who relocate here," Maiya says. "If possible, I'd like people who will think about the future of the village with us to come live here."

    How local residents' and companies' intentions will be reflected in the Japanese government's Fukushima Innovation Coast Framework, "designed to revitalize industry in communities devastated" by the triple disasters, is also being called into question. The framework is a pillar of the central government's measures to revitalize Fukushima, through the establishment of a hub for cutting-edge industries and technology such as robotics and renewable energy. But the locals have little interest in it, because they can't see a connection between the framework and their own jobs and lives.

    Even if new people and industries are brought in, if no mechanism exists for residents new and old to work together toward a village's renewal, it could become completely disassociated from what it was before the disasters.

    Some people are thinking about Fukushima's future even if they do not live there.

    Masayuki Imazato, 74, from the Fukushima Prefecture town of Tomioka, evacuated with his wife to Yokohama, the capital of Kanagawa Prefecture just south of Tokyo, where their daughter lived. For a while he did not have any contact with neighbors, and was tormented by loneliness. But after consulting with a support organization six years ago, he founded a group for evacuees primarily in Kanagawa Prefecture. Now able to interact with some 100 people in similar situations, Imazato says, "I've been able to vent about things that had been building up inside of me, and I feel much better."

    Along with other members of the group, he practiced the school songs of local elementary and junior high schools, and they performed them when they visited community festivals in Fukushima. He had his home in Fukushima, which had been overrun by animals, torn down, but he still wants to continue his involvement in passing down the traditions and culture of the local community.

    Such people are spread across the country. Even though they may be apart, they can still play a significant role in maintaining community ties.

    The road to recovery still lies ahead of us.

    The nuclear disaster also brought into question the way major metropolises force large burdens upon regional areas. This is not just a matter of Fukushima. We must renew our commitment to continue walking alongside local residents who were the hardest hit by the disasters.

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