Living with radiation
- Fukushima grapples with re-building -


By Francis Markus

As the construction company representative hands an over-sized replica of a key to the local mayor, a dozen or so journalists click and jostle with their camera flashes and video recorders.

(Photo: This permanent house is specifically designed for the elderly.)

This Red Cross-supported permanent housing complex may be small, but the media excitement shows that even projects of this size are few and far between at the moment.

The task of rebuilding permanent homes for the hundreds of thousands of survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident rests predominantly on the shoulders of the Japanese government.

“Progress is being made in terms of securing land to accommodate the displaced people and the central government is ensuring that all the financial costs for doing that will be covered. But the decisions on how to rebuild the community or where to live have to be taken by the residents themselves,” said Yoshiaki Morohashi, head of the National Reconstruction Agency’s Fukushima reconstruction bureau.

Japanese Red Cross Society President Tadateru Konoe said in May that a whole year had been wasted in the reconstruction process, because various levels of government and other stakeholders could not agree on a blue print.

As the central government says it can support the cost of rebuilding permanent homes, the Japanese Red Cross, with its strong mandate on medical care, has focused mainly on the reconstruction of hospitals and clinics, rather than shelter.

But these homes for single elderly people, funded with donations through the Red Cross organization in Taiwan, look well finished. The first residents should be moving in within days. Some of their next door neighbours, in an identical building, funded by the private sector, have also just settled in.

After the opening ceremony, we drive on further south, towards the boundary of the 20 kilometer restricted area around the Fukushima nuclear plant. In the nearby town of Minami (south) Soma, there is a semblance of normality. But the overwhelming impact of the disaster on local life is clearly evident.

(Photo: Shoe repairer Mr. Oura has been able to get his business restarted after the disaster, by moving into premises vacated by another business owner.)

“We used to be able to climb on that mountain when I was a child, “says shoe repairer Yoshimi Oura, pointing towards the end of the high street. “But now the radiation is so high, you can’t even set foot up there.”

He has made the most of the opportunities created by the disaster, with many shop owners receiving compensation after closing their businesses. “You can make more money closing a shop than opening one,” quips one local passer-by, who stops to chat with Mr. Oura.

The shoe repair business is doing well, for the simple reason that Mr. Oura relies not on local customers, but on people from other parts of Japan sending their shoes – and most importantly specialized mountain walking boots – for him to repair, after seeing his advertisement on the internet.

“It would be impossible for most other businesses to adopt this model,” he says.

When we reach the checkpoint to the restricted area, amid overgrown fields that have been abandoned by local farmers, we meet a truck belonging to a cattle farm, that is just on its way out of the now-restricted town of Namie.

“We have 400 dairy cows there,” says the driver, Mr. Yoshida. He says the farm is one of 17 currently operating in Namie. Even though no-one is permitted to live within the area, he is living there illegally.

(Photo: Mr.Yoshida, who has establised a farm sanctuary within no-entry zone in Namie Town to save remaining cattles.)

He explains that the central government wants to reclassify parts of Namie as safe for residents to return, but that local authorities are resisting, because they are holding out for higher levels of compensation.

It sounds like a complicated situation, illustrating once again that while progress is being made towards restoring normal life in Fukushima, the task is far from straightforward.