Okuma, on Japan’s east coast, used to host a busy community of 10,500 people. But today the houses stand empty.
The town is empty because it is one of the closest to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station and – seven years after the earthquake and tsunami that triggered a triple meltdown – it remains under evacuation orders with decontamination still not finished.
However, Okuma is not totally deserted. It is patrolled by Jijii Butai, or The Old Man squad. A group of hardy retirees who keep watch over their beloved former home.
Tsunemitsu Yokoyama, 65, stands a few metres from a pick-up truck and recalls how he and his friends responded when they spotted a strange person on their streets.
“There was a suspicious person who was walking around the town one day and we noticed this suspicious person and we picked this person up and we put him on the truck,” says the mild-mannered former town hall worker.
“If we notice any suspicious actions or people of course we alert [the authorities].”
Yokoyama is one of six retirees who formed the squad five years ago, partly to allay the concerns of homeowners about potential break-ins and fires. He says the squad members are less worried about radiation exposure than the younger generation because “we don’t have many years ahead of us anyway”.
Almost every day, they travel from their new homes one to two hours away and conduct volunteer patrols. Despite the early focus on suspicious activity, they are now more likely to be occupied by keeping the town clean and tidy, looking out for damage caused by wild boars, picking up any rubbish that may have accumulated in the waterways, and clearing away fallen trees.
“We belong to the same generation, we are around the same age, so we can understand each other pretty well in terms of sharing the same goal and also the objective and hope for this town,” Yokoyama says of the bond they’ve formed.
The long road home
The streets are not as quiet as they used to be. In some parts of the town, residents are now allowed to enter to periodically check up on their homes – but they are not allowed to stay overnight.
It’s clear, however, that it will be a long and difficult process to entice them back given they have set up new lives elsewhere.
Even Shuyo Shiga, the leader of the Okuma town recovery project, expects that the rest of his family will stay away once the situation has been put back to relative normality.
For starters, it won’t be a case of simply moving back into their old home: Shiga’s property is part of a parcel of land earmarked to become an interim storage facility for nuclear waste. In addition, he says one of his three children suffered great trauma from seeing their neighbours “swallowed up by the tsunami” as they tried to flee the powerful waters. They are now in their 20s.
“I think a person that has that kind of difficult experience, it’s very hard for them to come back to Okuma,” Shiga says.
“The children said they will not return … and my wife is talking about not returning, so I suppose it will be for me to return to Okuma as a single person – not with my family, not with my wife.”
The town is starting its recovery with modest ambitions. Residential homes are being built for 50 households – the number that indicated on a questionnaire that they wanted to come back. Eventually, says Shiga, the town plans to build 100 detached houses. But this is just a fraction of the pre-disaster population. It tends to be older residents who wish to return, he adds.
Elsewhere in Fukushima prefecture, the town of Namie is a stark example of the challenges of getting a former evacuation zone back on track. Authorities lifted the evacuation orders there on 31 March 2017, except for some districts. Compared with Namie’s previous population of 21,000, so far just 490 people have returned.
Yohei Aota, an official with the Namie town government, reveals the figures as he looks out over the portside district of Ukedo – a low-lying area that was swamped by a 15.5-metre wave. His home was one of those destroyed.
“Of course looking at the scenery reminds me of what happened,” he says from an elevated vantage point where the local elementary students successfully escaped the reach of the tsunami. Now the school building stands empty and most of the homes in the area have been demolished.
“There used to about 1,900 people living here [in Namie’s Ukedo district] but 182 people died unfortunately from the tsunami,” Aota says. “And actually there are still 30 missing persons – no remains, no belongings have been found of these 30 missing persons.”
Fukushima authorities area anxious to say that a lot of progress has been made since May 2012 when the number of evacuees from across the entire prefecture peaked at 164,865. That figure has fallen below 50,000. But people are not exactly rushing back.
Rieko Watanabe, 65, who evacuated from Namie to Minamisoma, says everyone has their own reasons for why they have not returned. She commutes from Minamisoma to run her business called Grandma Kitchen which serves meals and bento boxes to residents and workers.
Watanabe notes that the people in Namie are shy about their plans for the future. “But they often look around and if they notice a friend or an acquaintance or a neighbour returning they might say, ‘oh maybe it’s time for me to return as well and maybe I can do something’. We are praying every day and we are working hard every day so that this trend of people coming back to Namie would be strengthened and can be maintained.”
She adds with a determined smile: “Never give up.”