5 Years After Japan Disasters, 'Temporary' Housing Is Feeling Permanent | KUOW News and Information

5 Years After Japan Disasters, 'Temporary' Housing Is Feeling Permanent

Mar 11, 2016
Originally published on March 11, 2016 2:18 pm

Temporary is lasting a long time for evacuees in neat blocks of prefabricated housing in Fukushima city. The wood siding on their tiny homes looks new. But these trailers are stretching into their fifth year of use.

Saki Sato, 77, shows me around her home, where she lives alone in a kind of limbo. Each room is about the size of a king-size mattress.

She is among the nearly 60,000 Japanese who still find themselves in temporary trailer homes after having to flee five years ago following a magnitude-9 earthquake on March 11, 2011. The tremor unleashed a tsunami that reached a height of 128 feet and caused a nuclear disaster that contaminated soil with radiation in a large patch of surrounding territory.

Sato's former village of Iitate is in the radiation evacuation zone. It's still not safe to return. On her wall along the narrow entrance in her temporary home are photos of loved ones. Her son. His kids. That's where her extended evacuation hits her the hardest.

"I used to see my son regularly," she says. "But now he doesn't come to visit. It's too exhausting for him to come this far to visit. It's really hard."

Of the estimated 19,000 people who died in the disaster, most drowned within minutes. The tsunami also shut down the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant's cooling system. It triggered meltdowns in three of its nuclear reactors that spread radiation plumes as far as 25 miles away.

"Many, so many lessons learned," says Yuichi Okamura, a spokesman at TEPCO — the Tokyo Electric Power Co. — which owns the plant.

Government and outside investigations show TEPCO missed several opportunities to prevent the meltdown. Now prosecutors may hold TEPCO leaders criminally responsible. TEPCO's former chairman and other leaders were indicted just weeks ago on charges they failed to prevent the Fukushima meltdowns.

Inside TEPCO's Tokyo offices today, the company says it's trying to look forward.

"Our organization ... we have to improve the mindset itself. We have to change, we have to improve. We can improve," says Okamura.

Next month, the plant will begin a decommissioning process that will take 40 years. At the government level, the cost of decontaminating houses and farmland in Fukushima prefecture alone carries a $50 billion price tag.

Recovery involves rebuilding roads, bridges and power lines. It also means helping rehouse many of those still displaced by the storm. Officials have already missed various deadlines for re-housing evacuees. Part of the problem is competition for construction workers and materials. Japan's government isn't just rebuilding the coast — it's also readying itself for the 2020 Olympics.

Fukushima prefecture, just one of several Japanese prefectures affected by the disasters, estimates it's only about halfway to its decontamination and recovery goals.

"In terms of infrastructure, our recovery has been quite fast, I would say," says Hatsuo Fujishima, director of general affairs of the Fukushima prefecture government. He's in charge of recovery efforts for the prefecture.

"The difference in Fukushima is the radiation problem. Radiation takes a long time to disappear," Fujishima says.

When it is safe to go home again, there's also the issue of what people would return to. Communities, schools, businesses that once existed are no longer there.

One business forced by radiation to relocate is Ebisu-An, a family-owned restaurant specializing in freshly made udon noodles. These days, Hiroshi Takahashi and his mom and dad are working in a cramped kitchen in a location far from the coast, in Fukushima city.

After the village was evacuated, the family opened in Fukushima city and became a gathering place for Iitate village evacuees who wanted a sense of home hundreds of miles away from home. But the bonds of the village have since frayed.

Takahashi says while many villagers showed up here in the immediate aftermath of the triple tragedy, he doesn't see that many of them anymore. But he should be able to move the business back to Iitate next year. Leaders in charge of the cleanup are reopening parts of Iitate in March 2017 following years of decontamination.

"It's a little complicated emotion I'm feeling," he says of the prospect of returning to the village. "Because even if I go back to Iitate, I'm not sure how many Iitate refugees will also come back."

That's the big question — after all the effort and money spent on reconstruction: When can evacuees return, and will they want to?

Rebuilding has taken so long, and public safety fears are so entrenched that the Fukushima government estimates half of the evacuees may never return. In other villages that have been deemed safe, the return rate has been far less than that 50 percent estimate.

In the neighborhoods of temporary housing, Sato, the 77-year-old, and other elderly residents have a routine. Afternoon teas, flower arrangement classes, walks with neighbors.

"Also, my friends are living here now," she says.

She doesn't know if she'll ever go home to the village. Five years after a forced evacuation, Sato and thousands of others just like her are still in limbo.

Akane Saiki contributed to this story.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Memorials are happening across Japan today, and they're marking a grim anniversary. A historic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown rocked that country on this day five years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

GREENE: That is Zojoji Temple in Tokyo, where hundreds of Buddhist monks gather to pray for victims. The emperor and prime minister led the nation in a moment of silence at 2:46 in the afternoon, marking the moment the earthquake hit. The tsunami that followed was responsible for most of the 19,000 deaths. It also triggered a nuclear meltdown. Radiation forced entire communities on the northeast coast to empty out. And now five years later, for many evacuees, it's still not safe to go home. Here's NPR's Elise Hu.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: For nearly 60,000 evacuees, temporary is lasting a long time. Neat blocks of prefabricated housing are set up in Date city, two hours away from the site of one of the world's worst nuclear accidents. The wood siding on tiny homes here looks new. But these trailers are searching into their fifth year of use. Seventy-seven-year-old Saki Sato shows me around her home.

SAKI SATO: (Through interpreter) There is a kitchen and living room and also sleeping room and also just one bath.

HU: Each room she describes is about the size of a king-sized mattress. On the wall along the narrow entranceway are photos of loved ones.

SATO: (Through interpreter) This is my family. This is my granddaughter, and this is my nephew.

HU: That's where her extended evacuation hits her the hardest.

SATO: (Speaking Japanese).

HU: "I used to see my son regularly," she says. "But now that I've moved farther away, he doesn't come around as often. It's too exhausting for him to come this far to visit."

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: It's really hard, she just said.

HU: Five years ago, when Japan's largest-ever earthquake hit, it triggered a 300-mile-long tsunami. Most people who died drowned in minutes. The tsunami also shut down the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant's cooling system. It triggered a meltdown, spreading radiation plumes as far as 25 miles away. Sato and her neighbors fled their homes. Her entire village of Iitate along with several other communities emptied out quickly.

YUICHI OKAMURA: Many - so many lessons learned.

HU: Yuichi Okamura is a spokesman at TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the plant. Outside investigations show TEPCO missed several opportunities to prevent the meltdown. And prosecutors indicted its former leaders just weeks ago, charging they didn't act soon enough to inform the public a meltdown had happened.

HU: Inside TEPCO's Tokyo headquarters, the company says it's trying to look forward

OKAMURA: Our organization itself, we have to change. We have to improve. We can improve it.

HU: The plant is only beginning a decommissioning process that will take 40 years. At the government level, the people in charge of the ongoing recovery effort are also playing a long game.

HATSUO FUJISHIMA: My name is Hatsuo Fujishima. I'm director general of general affairs at the regional Fukushima prefecture government.

HU: So you're in charge of the recovery.

FUJISHIMA: Broadly, yes.

HU: Recovery involves rebuilding roads, bridges and power lines. It also means helping re-house many of the 160,000 Japanese still displaced by the storm. Officials have already missed various deadlines for re-housing evacuees. Part of the problem is competition for construction workers and materials. Japan's government isn't just rebuilding the coast; it's also readying itself for the 2020 Olympics. Fujishima estimates his prefecture is only about halfway to its decontamination and rebuilding goals.

FUJISHIMA: (Through interpreter) In terms of infrastructure, our recovery has been quite fast, I would say. The difference in Fukushima is the radiation problem. Radiation takes a long time to disappear.

HU: When it is safe to go home again, there's also the issue of what people would return to. Communities, schools and businesses that once existed are no longer there. One business forced by radiation to relocate is Ebisu-An, a family-owned restaurant specializing in freshly-made udon noodles. These days, Hiroshi Takahashi and his mom and dad are working in a cramped kitchen in Fukushima city. It's a long drive from their old location near the coast.

HIROSHI TAKAHASHI: (Through interpreter) After March 11, we started our udon restaurant here with my father's friends' support.

HU: It became a gathering place for Iitate village evacuees who wanted a sense of home far from their actual home. But the bonds have since frayed.

TAKAHASHI: (Speaking Japanese).

HU: Takahashi says while many villagers showed up here in the media aftermath of the disaster, he doesn't see many of them anymore. He does plan to move the business back to Iitate eventually. The government plans to lift the evacuation order by next March.

How do you feel about getting to return?

TAKAHASHI: (Through interpreter) It's a little complicated, the emotions I'm feeling, because even when I to go back to Iitate, I am not sure how many other Iitate refugees will come back.

HU: That's the question - when evacuees can return, will they want to? Public safety fears about radiation remain, and communities have been split up for years. The Fukushima government estimates half the evacuees may never return. Back in the temporary housing blocks, the elderly, like 77-year-old Sato, have found a routine - afternoon teas, flower-arrangement classes, walks with neighbors.

SATO: (Through interpreter) Also my friends are living here now.

HU: She says she doesn't know if she'll ever return to the village. Five years after a forced evacuation, Sato and thousands of others just like her are still in limbo. Elise Hu, NPR News, Fukushima, Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.