Ten years after a devastating earthquake and tsunami led to a nuclear meltdown in northern Japan, residents are readjusting to places that feel familiar and hostile at once.
FUKUSHIMA, Japan — After an earthquake and tsunami pummeled a nuclear plant about 12 miles from their home, Tomoko Kobayashi and her husband joined the evacuation and left their Dalmatian behind, expecting they would return home in a few days.
It ended up being five years. Even now — a decade after those deadly natural disasters on March 11, 2011, set off a catastrophic nuclear meltdown — the Japanese government has not fully reopened villages and towns within the original 12-mile evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. And even if it did, many former residents have no plans to return.
Some of those who did return figured that coming home was worth the residual radiation risk. Others, like Ms. Kobayashi, 68, had businesses to restart.
“We had reasons to come back and the means to do so,” said Ms. Kobayashi, who manages a guesthouse. “It made sense — to an extent.”
one million tons of contaminated water into the sea has riled local fishermen, and cases against the government and the plant operator are winding through the country’s highest courts. The issue of nuclear power remains highly fraught.
And for miles around the plant, there are physical reminders of an accident that forced the exodus of about 164,000 people.
crashed ashore, flooding his auto body shop in the industrial city of Koriyama.
It can feel that way in the town of Namie, where bags of radioactive waste have piled up.
new schools, roads, public housing and other infrastructure in an effort to lure former residents back.
Some residents in their 60s and beyond see the appeal. It can be hard for them to imagine living anywhere else.
“They want to be in their hometown,” said Tsunao Kato, 71, who reopened his third-generation barbershop even before its running water had been restored. “They want to die here.”
One upside is that the threat of lingering radiation feels less immediate than that of the coronavirus, said Mr. Kato, whose shop is in the city of Minami Soma. In that sense, living amid the reminders of nuclear disaster — in towns where streetlights illuminate empty intersections — is a welcome sort of social distancing.
At a Futaba nursery school, umbrellas have sat untouched for a decade, protecting no one from the rain.
Nearby, a collapsed house is still waiting for a demolition crew.
Mr. Kato said that while he was happy to be back, he struggled to balance a desire to stay with the knowledge that living somewhere else would probably be safer.
“Logic and emotion can’t mesh,” he said, “like oil and water.”
Like Mr. Kato, Ms. Kobayashi had been running a family business, in her case a guesthouse, when the magnitude-9 earthquake struck. The guesthouse in Minami Soma has been in her family for generations, and she took it over in 2001 when her mother retired.
The guesthouse sustained significant water damage from the tsunami. But Ms. Kobayashi’s family restored and reopened it. (Their Dalmatian, who survived the nuclear accident, died just before the renovation was completed.)
They did not expect a surge of tourists, she said, but hoped to serve people who wanted to return to the area and had nowhere to stay.
“There’s no town left,” she said. “If you come back, you have to rebuild.”
Hikari Hida reported from Tokyo, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.
Rina Tsugawa recalls a charmed childhood amid rice paddies in northern Japan, hopping on bicycles with her sister and roaming the streets of their village, where monkeys sometimes descended from the mountains and neighbors offered the girls sweets as they popped into their homes.
The sisters were the only children in their hamlet in Fukushima Prefecture, living with their mother and grandparents in the house where their grandfather was born. On that terrible day a decade ago when Fukushima was struck by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, setting off a triple meltdown at a nuclear power plant, a 12-year-old Ms. Tsugawa was at school 90 miles inland. As the powerful shaking jolted her sixth-grade classroom, she and her classmates hid under their desks, crying in fear.
In the years since, many of her peers have left for jobs in Tokyo and other cities, an outflow common to rural Japan but accelerated by the disaster in Fukushima. Ms. Tsugawa has different plans. After graduating this month from nursing school, she ultimately wants to return to her hometown to care for the aging residents who helped raise her.
“They gave us so much when we were little,” said Ms. Tsugawa, now 22. “I want to help these elderly people stay healthy longer.”
several towns near the nuclear plant remain uninhabitable.
many graying and shrinking communities, where jobs are sparse, the lifestyle is inconvenient and birthrates are low. The town’s population, which peaked at close to 20,000 in 1950, has fallen to 6,000. Aging residents are close to half of the population, and health care workers are in short supply.
Katsuei Hirasawa, the country’s 10th minister for reconstruction since the disaster, said in a news briefing. “We must communicate that there are no safety-related issues in produce from Fukushima.”
Timothy Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina who has studied how radioactive contamination has affected animals and plants in Chernobyl and Fukushima.
As the disaster unfolded, Ms. Tsugawa did not learn just how devastating it was until her grandparents turned on the television later that afternoon. Like a horror movie on an endless loop, they watched scenes from the tsunami as it devoured the coastline. The next day, they learned of an explosion at the nuclear plant. A wall of water had knocked out the reactors’ cooling systems.
Although the residents of Nishiaizu never evacuated, Ms. Tsugawa began to read news items and social media posts insinuating that Fukushima was tainted. “There were these rumors that everyone in Fukushima was dangerous,” she recalled. “And that if you got close to them, you might get radiation sickness from them.”
When her mother, Yuki Tsugawa, took a business trip outside the prefecture about a year after the nuclear accident, someone scrawled the word “baka” — “stupid” — on the side of the car she had been driving. Ms. Tsugawa, 47, said she wondered if her Fukushima license plate was the reason.
Her elder daughter said she had no qualms about the safety of her hometown, where she hopes someday to raise her own family. “Just because there are some areas that are not safe,” she said, “doesn’t mean that all of Fukushima is unsafe.”
With her decision to become a geriatric nurse, Ms. Tsugawa is giving the prefecture exactly what it needs.
The demand for nursing care across Japan is so great that before the pandemic, the country began to relax its longtime insularity and allow more workers to be hired from other countries. In Fukushima, there is already a shortage of doctors and nurses. Kiyoshi Hanazumi, chief of the prefecture’s social welfare division, said that based on current trends, it will meet only about three-quarters of its needs for health care workers for older residents by 2025.
Ms. Tsugawa said she had wanted to become a nurse ever since she was 3 years old. Her grandfather had been hospitalized with lung cancer, and she observed the kindness of the medical staff who treated him.
Her interest in geriatric nursing developed over time. While their mother worked as a welfare coordinator in Nishiaizu, Ms. Tsugawa and her younger sister, Mana, 19, would accompany their grandmother, Haruko Tsugawa, 74, to visit neighbors.
“Everyone treated them as honorary grandchildren,” Mrs. Tsugawa said.
A year after the 2011 disaster, Yoshihiro Yabe, 42, also wanted to reclaim this kind of community. Mr. Yabe, a landscape architect, decided to return to Nishiaizu, where he was born, and start a family.
At one time, Mr. Yabe had planned to escape. But now he wants to reverse the migration that is all too common from his hometown.
When the earthquake and tsunami struck, Mr. Yabe was training in Canada and hoping to find a job in the United States.
“I was watching media in Japan and all over the world, and I felt that Fukushima was labeled as a contaminated prefecture,” he said. “So who would come here to create new businesses or want to start agriculture or raise their babies?”
Mr. Yabe said he felt he had to return, and he moved into his ancestral home — it has been in the family for 19 generations — and renovated some old storage warehouses for miso and soy sauce, converting them into a small inn.
He took over a local arts center and established an artists’ residency. Over the last eight years, he said, he has recruited 60 people to live in Nishiaizu, some from Tokyo and others from different parts of Fukushima Prefecture.
The town is far from resuscitated. Near Mr. Yabe’s home, half of the houses are abandoned. Aside from his 8- and 3-year-old daughters, he said, “I am the youngest guy” in the neighborhood.
Ms. Tsugawa, who starts a residency at the hospital connected to Fukushima Medical University in April, is also likely to be the youngest person in Sugiyama — population 21 — which is the enclave of Nishiaizu in which she grew up.
Even her mother had not originally intended to raise Ms. Tsugawa and her sister in Nishiaizu. Yuki Tsugawa attended technical college in Koriyama, more than 50 miles away, married and gave birth to Rina and Mana. Only after divorcing did Yuki move back in with her parents in the 100-year-old wood and slate-roofed home where she had been raised.
“If I stayed married, I probably would have stayed out” of Nishiaizu like most of her childhood classmates, Yuki Tsugawa said. “I often think ‘wow, nobody ever came back,’” she said.
Rina Tsugawa, who said she wanted to specialize in caring for patients with dementia, knows her town may struggle to survive.
“Of course, I don’t want my little village to disappear,” she said. “But even if we do things to try to get new people to come, that isn’t really happening. It’s difficult to make progress.”