Report from Fukushima: 5 years after the great earthquake

Report from Fukushima: 5 years after the great earthquake

Red express train in Fukushima, Japan
ShutterstockPiti Sirisriro
Express train in Fukushima, Japan, in 2014.

On March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake caused massive devastation in the Tohoku District, followed by a massive tsunami and aftershocks. The death toll exceeded 15,000, and nearly 2,500 people remain missing. At the same time, the disaster led to the unprecedented nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant owned by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO).

Five years later, the entire Tohoku region continues moving toward reconstruction, but over 80,000 people still live away from home as evacuees, particularly in areas within a 12.4-mile radius of the plant on the coast of Fukushima Prefecture.

In February, Japan for Sustainability (JFS) joined a study tour arranged for students of chief executive Junko Edahiro's laboratory at Tokyo City University. We visited areas within a radius of 12.4 miles from the plant, and the Minamisoma Solar Agripark, launched to nurture and train human resources for Fukushima's reconstruction. The tour was hosted by Eiju Hangai, director of the nonprofit group Asubito Fukushima (Asubito means "people who open the way to tomorrow"), devoted to educating the next generation to help lead future reconstruction.

Eiju Hangai
<p>Eiju Hangai</p>

It takes over two hours by northbound express train from central Tokyo to reach Iwaki Station, in the southern part of Fukushima Prefecture. After receiving a warm welcome from the staff of Asubito Fukushima, we boarded their micro-bus and headed north along the coastal highway to the areas within a 12.4-mile radius from the nuclear power plant.

Still waiting to go home: Residents of Naraha Town

The bus drove north, entered the 12.4-mile exclusion zone and came to the first town, Naraha, where the evacuation directive was lifted Sept. 5, after decontamination of the land was deemed complete. A large number of black plastic bags ("flexible bulk containers") filled with soil and dry grass scooped from the surface are still crammed into a temporary stock yard.

Although the evacuation directive was lifted over six months ago, only 400 residents have returned out of the total pre-disaster population of about 8,000. It has been five years since the earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear accident, and many evacuees have started new chapters of their lives in other places. According to our guide Hangai, the choice for those people was a matter of whether they really wanted to choose their home town as a place to resettle yet again.

Frozen in time: The town of Tomioka

From Naraha, our bus took us further north to the town of Tomioka, where the evacuation directive is scheduled to be lifted in March. Located along the seafront, the building of the Tomioka Station of the Joban Line, operated by the East Japan Railway Company, was destroyed by the tsunami in 2011 and only a platform remains. The tsunami also destroyed the downstairs parts of neighboring houses. As this area was designated as being in the evacuation zone, it became off-limits right after the nuclear accident, and it remains as if frozen in time, looking the same today as it did just after the disaster.

Hangai said, "Toward the evacuation directive being lifted, this area is planned to be bulldozed, including the half-collapsed houses around Tomioka Station. In my personal view, I would like to have even a small part of the area left as it is, so we [as a people] never forget about this disaster, but ..."

Towns close to the nuclear power plant: Okuma and Futaba

The town of Okuma, where the evacuation directive is also scheduled to be lifted in March, is home to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

As both Okuma and Futaba are close by, they are designated as "areas where it is expected that residents will face difficulties in returning for a long time," and they are restricted from free entry all day, except for taking major roadways, with the exception of workers engaged in decontamination and reconstruction. To protect houses from burglars, the entrances of every house in these areas, even the ones not affected by the tsunami, are barricaded shut.


Along the public roadway are former rice fields where decontamination has not yet been carried out. They looked rough, with shrubs one to two meters in height growing randomly. We wouldn't recognize the rice fields if we were not told what they were. Students who joined the tour said they felt a sense of fear, as if time had stopped, and sadness.

Hangai stopped at one place where we could see a tower of the power plant under the decommissioning process and said, almost choking, "We believed that nuclear power plants were 100 percent safe. We never imagined facing such an accident and losing all the power as a result of the earthquake and following tsunami. In this respect, we cannot deny that it was a manmade disaster. As a former executive officer of Tokyo Electric Power Co., I want to apologize for what happened."

The ghost town of Odaka Ward, City of Minamisoma

In Odaka, the evacuation directive is scheduled to be lifted this summer. At the time we visited, the whole area looked like a ghost town, with no people on the street. Yet it was the same streetscape as before, because it was not severely affected by the tsunami.

After seeing the area, one participant said, "Even though the houses remained safe, without people the place has lost its function as a town."

Hangai says that most of the people planning to return to town when the evacuation directive is lifted are older than 65. Japan is facing serious problems as an aging society with a low birthrate. Particularly in the areas where the evacuation order has been lifted, the demographics today are already at the projected national average for 20 years from now. In this regard, the 12.4-mile evacuation zone is a so-called "advanced area of aging." How the area copes with the aging problem and whether it can take a leadership role in solving it will be an important case study for the future of all of Japanese society.

Minamisoma Solar Agripark

The 12.4-mile evacuation zone's boundary north of the power plant is somewhere around Haramachi Ward in Minamisoma. To foster the next generation of leaders who can take on the responsibility of Fukushima's reconstruction, the Minamisoma Agripark was established and opened in March 2013 in Haramachi on former farmland and the empty lots of five houses washed away by the tsunami.

The Agripark includes power generation equipment that allows visitors to see and try out electricity generation using green energy. The facility includes small-scale hydroelectric equipment that runs either by using a human-powered water turbine or pumped storage, and a solar panel manually adjustable to the most suitable direction and angle for effective generation. The students eagerly tried the generation equipment.


At the facility's room for training the next generation of leaders and companies, we exchanged opinions in small groups about what we discovered at the evacuation zone.

"Even in the same (12.4-mile) evacuation zone, the extent of damage varies. Some areas were severely damaged by the tsunami, leaving many houses and buildings half-destroyed. Others have the same streetscape as before but have become an uninhabited zone," said one witness.

One of the students said, "I saw an electric power cable near the power plant that runs towards Tokyo. I simply don't understand why the electricity generated at this power plant was transmitted to Tokyo all the way from Fukushima," which deepened discussions and the active exchange of opinions.

Small steps, big dreams

Asubito Fukushima's Hangai, who has been engaged in the reconstruction of Fukushima, worries that the younger generation's outflow to urban areas would lead not only to greater economic disparities between cities and rural areas but also to gaps in human resource capacity. Thus, he came to think about how to foster human resources in the countryside.

Having a sense of crisis, he launched the Fukushima Solar and Agriculture Experience Association in April 2012 to foster children and the next generation who will be responsible for Fukushima's reconstruction in the future. He thought that hands-on experiences would be the best way to educate children.

That's why the association has been hosting experience-based educational activities and an open school at the Minamisoma Solar Agripark in collaboration with local elementary and junior high schools, aiming to help children develop their thinking abilities, make presentations and take action.

In May 2014 in the city of Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, the association also launched an open school for senior high school students, colloquially called "Hangai & Edahiro Juku" (juku means "school"), with JFS chief executive Junko Edahiro, to foster the young generation of reconstruction leaders in Fukushima through planning and running a social enterprise.

As the nuclear power plant accident damaged the reputation of agricultural products from their beloved home of Fukushima, the students' editorial club started publishing a magazine every three months, "Messages from High School Students: Fukushima Taberu Tsushin (Eating Fukushima Magazine)," where they compile stories and anecdotes from farmers in Fukushima, along with a supplement on the agricultural produce they painstakingly grow.

Hangai is working on nurturing the human resources of the next generation, hoping that children who see adults making efforts in reconstruction come to admire them and want to be like them.

Under the slogan "The end is social and the means is business," he is also trying to ensure economic sustainability to continue activities of human resource development by launching a photovoltaic facility and sell surplus electricity to donate the profits to the association.

In addition, Hangai is dealing with a corporate training program that encourages working adults to think together about Fukushima's reconstruction. The name of the association was changed to Asubito Fukushima in January.

A new project to develop university students into social entrepreneurs is underway in Tokyo. A joint team, consisting of students who have graduated from the open school for senior high school and working adults who participated in the corporate training program, will take on the challenge of establishing social enterprises.

The situations vary within the radius of 12.4 miles from the nuclear power plant. It has been five years, but many problems remain. Even once the evacuation directive is lifted, will residents come back? Even if they return, will each town function again? That's not to mention the critical issue of what this all means within a super-aging society.


This story first appeared on: