Family and community tensions make a return to Fukushima more difficult for some

Published: 25 May 2012 15:44 CET

Francis Markus in Japan

As family disagreements go, the issue over Kenichi Sakuma’s beautifully cultivated traditional Japanese garden, seems gentle and good humoured by any standards. But it just may be emblematic of the tensions and splits which are being engendered as this community tries to get back to some semblance of normal life.

Surveying the perfectly positioned rocks and flowering trees and bushes, Mr. Sakuma, 66, says with his guffawing laugh: “It’s taken me years to get it this way! I couldn’t bear to see it torn up and flattened.”

That’s exactly what needs to happen for the work of decontamination to proceed, and his wife and daughter-in-law are outnumbering him in saying they should follow the example of most of the households who have returned to the village and get it done.

Gangs of workmen with water hoses and wheelbarrows to cart away the top soil are all over Kawauchi. But Mr. Sakuma hasn’t yet been able to take the next step and let them mess up his garden, even if it’s in the interests of the family’s health.

This is just one example of how the issues of return and recovery are dividing families and communities.

The information which village authorities have shared with us on an opinion survey conducted among Kawauchi residents, breaks their views down by age group – not surprisingly the elderly feel the most positive about returning - but not by gender.

Yet local people say that the divisions do follow gender lines.

“There are quite a few disagreements between couples over whether or not to return,” says one local resident, who wanted to remain anonymous.

He says that men are more likely to want to come back, while their wives are put off by the inconvenience of not being able to shop for more than the basic necessities in the local area.

“Men are much more likely to want to return because of their jobs, while more women are afraid to return” says another local man.

Kenichi Sakuma and his wife Kimiko, also talk about tensions of a different kind that they say have been surfacing in the temporary housing settlement in Koriyama, about 75 minutes’ drive away, where residents from Kawauichi have been housed and many are still living.

Since the government announced that a few weeks ago that villagers from Kawauchi could return to their homes, they say things have turned somewhat fraught between people from Kawauchi and those from nearby Tomioka.

Radiation levels in Tomioka are much higher and exclusion measures for residents are far tighter.

“Windows have been broken and car windscreen wipers bent out of shape,” says Mr. Sakuma, in what he and his wife say are disputes triggered by trivial incidents.

Interestingly, residents from Tomioka were initially evacuated to Kawauchi – placing, according to locals, considerable strain on the limited resources of the host community.

Then they were evacuated, together with Kawauchi residents, a second time, to Koriyama – which is why members of the two communities have ended up being housed together, instead of separately, as is usually the case.

There’s no confirmation of these reported incidents – nor is it immediately clear what those from Tomioka have to say about it.

But the anger people in Fukushima feel at the upending of their lives by this disaster is evident for all to see.

So it would not be surprising if the differing pace at which communities are able to move towards recovery and return, emerged as another factor in the already troubled emotional landscape of Fukushima more than a year after the nuclear accident.

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