October 14, 2014
SAITAMA -- A new facility here is helping maintain community ties between displaced residents from the Fukushima Prefecture town of Okuma, who evacuated from the town after the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdowns in 2011.
Most areas of Okuma have been designated as "difficult-to-return" zones due to high levels of radioactive contamination from the crippled nuclear power plant nearby. Roughly 1,800 of some 11,000 Okuma residents now reside in the Kanto region, including in Tokyo and Saitama prefectures.
The new community facility, named "Nashi no mi space," opened in July this year. The place was named after pear ("nashi" in Japanese) -- the town's local specialty. It serves as a meeting space for staff members, as well as a venue for picture-story shows, but workers hope to turn the place into a base for keeping Okuma community ties alive.
With the help of central government subsidies, three staff members -- Michiko Hoshikawa, Isamitsu Tsuchida and Makiko Muta -- were hired by the Okuma Municipal Government this year as disaster recovery supporters in charge of checking up on evacuees from the town and keeping the local community alive.
Hoshikawa herself is an evacuee from Okuma. She moved to her husband's company-owned house in southern Saitama after the 2011 disaster and now lives there with him and their daughter. Her elderly parents, who lived near the family's home in Okuma, have moved to the Fukushima prefecture city of Iwaki, and Hoshikawa now rarely sees them. Her heart breaks whenever she hears those who have fled from their hometown being referred to as "voluntary evacuees."
"We are all under the same circumstances in a sense that we were all forced to evacuate," Hoshikawa said.
When she talks to her fellow townspeople, Hoshikawa switches to her local dialect. "I am the one who is being encouraged," she says.
Muta says, "I am learning about community ties through Ms. Hoshikawa. She communicates with Okuma residents from a local's perspective."
The staff members visit Okuma evacuees who are scattered across the Kanto region to provide psychological care by listening to their stories. Sometimes they see evacuees who have started a new chapter in their lives, and at other times come across those who are irritated by how they have been treated after the disaster.
Although it has been 3 1/2 years since the disaster, the trio believes there's something they can do to help build a community precisely because of the time that has passed.