JAPAN | FOUR MONTHS AFTER: Radiation scare causes Fukushima Prefecture to shrink

Posted on July 12, 2011

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JAPAN | ASAHI SHIMBUN | 12 July 2011

FUKUSHIMA–Taeko Henmi once took care of five children at a day-care center she ran out of her home, but a 5-year-old boy nicknamed Mo-kun is now the only one.

The families of the five children all evacuated to other parts of the country after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11.

The 50-year-old reopened her day-care center in early May after Mo-kun’s family returned to Fukushima from Hokkaido.

Henmi used to take the children to parks and forests, even in the rain. But she now takes Mo-kun outdoors only twice a week due to lingering fears about radiation from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

“Some people, worried about the health of their children, evacuated outside the prefecture,” Henmi said. “But I want to keep my day-care center open for those who cannot evacuate.”

Henmi’s day-care center is only one example of a shrinking Fukushima Prefecture after the Fukushima plant was damaged by the March 11 tsunami.

Four months after the disaster, about 36,000 people have evacuated outside the prefecture. Along with the exodus of people, agriculture, manufacturing and tourism, which propped up the local economy, were dealt heavy blows.

The number of evacuees, which includes about 10,000 children, from kindergartners to high school students, is expected to grow.

In Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, mothers wearing masks arrive in cars to wait for their children leaving Kaoru Elementary School.

“We wondered if our family should move, but we haven’t made up our mind,” said a 40-year-old mother of two daughters, first- and fourth-graders.

The school, which stands on a hill, showed higher levels of radiation than in surrounding areas, and the topsoil in the schoolyard was removed.

The families of about 50 children have already moved, taking them from the school.

At Fukushima Red Cross Hospital in Fukushima, the number of births fell 40 percent in March through May from the pre-disaster monthly average.

Many women choose to give birth outside the prefecture, according to the hospital.

“An obstetrician explains it is safe with current radiation levels, but it cannot be helped because those giving birth make the final decision,” a hospital official said.

In a worrisome trend, more and more people are leaving, apparently for good.

People are not expected to return if they transfer their official residence on their municipalities’ registry, rather than just evacuating to other areas.

Between March and May, 1,168 residents moved their registry entries out from Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, a town that falls within a 20-kilometer radius of the Fukushima plant or a different evacuation zone.

The figure was four times as many as in last year. Only 62 people registered on the town’s registry, one-fourth of last year’s level, during the same period.

The net outflow, 1,106 people, accounted for 5 percent of Namie’s population.

Envelopes in different sizes and colors, containing documents for moving registries, arrive in a temporary town hall set up in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, from around the country.

In Fukushima Prefecture, the people who left outnumbered those who came in by 17,524 between March and May.

Evacuees are not the only ones leaving Fukushima Prefecture.

Masao Hantani, 59, relocated his sewing factory from Namie to Gunma Prefecture, renting a warehouse his business partner found, because he did not have the time to search for a closer alternative.

His factory was located within a 20-kilometer radius of the Fukushima plant, designated as the no-entry zone. He said his family and employees could not make a living unless he kept his business open.

In late May, Hantani and 16 employees, wearing protective gear and carrying dosimeters, loaded sewing machines weighing at least 60 kilograms onto trucks for the move.

Twenty-two of his 48 employees have left the prefecture. Four of them took their entire families.

In May, the prefectural government asked companies based in the no-entry zone whether they planned to move. It was able to contact 50 of the 150 companies, and 22 said they were considering moving outside the prefecture.

An automotive brake parts manufacturing company in Namie is spending 3.5 billion yen ($43 million) to move production equipment to a new factory in Ibaraki Prefecture.

The company was a major employer in the town, with 369 employees. It plans not to take on new employees next spring, however.

Ai Endo, a senior at Namie Senior High School, has decided to work in Sendai after graduation, giving up finding a local job. Her school has been temporarily relocated to Adachi Senior High School in Nihonmatsu.

“I had a faint hope of (finding a local job),” Endo said, after looking at information about job openings at the school on July 5. “But the number of openings was fewer than I expected.”

About 20 slips were for jobs in Fukushima Prefecture, but there were only three local jobs. They were all manufacturing related, not in sales as she was hoping to find.

Of the school’s graduates this spring, 45 found employment, with 36 in the Namie area. When the school conducted a survey in June, 38 seniors said they planned to find employment, but only 13 said they were looking for local jobs.

A list of the areas where the students want to work shows such places as “Sendai,” “Sendai and the Kanto region,” and “the Kanto and Kansai regions.”

“Many students have given up hopes of finding local jobs after learning about the jobs situation,” said Hisatoshi Shiga, a teacher in charge of career guidance.

Shiga is advising students looking for local jobs to consider openings outside the prefecture as well.

The nuclear accident has also dealt a serious blow to tourism, a key industry in Fukushima Prefecture.

On one day in late June, cherries were ripe for picking at Azuma Kajuen orchard, one of about 50 fruit farms targeting tourists in Fukushima.

In an average year, 300 to 400 tourists visit the farm in 10 to 15 buses daily. But there were only two families on that day, and they were from Fukushima Prefecture.

Fruit farms are a pillar of the tourism industry of the prefecture, which ranked eighth in terms of the value of fruit production in 2009.

Azuma Kajuen, which grows five types of fruit over 8 hectares of fields, attracts about 40,000 tourists annually.

But tourists have canceled visits although radioactive materials exceeding safety standards have not been detected in cherries in the prefecture.

Even large fruit farms were generating less than 200,000 yen in daily income in June, compared with up to 4 million to 5 million yen in an average year, according to an association of tourist fruit farms in Fukushima.

Shinichi Katahira, chairman of the association, met with a senior official of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo on July 4.

“The trust we built over the years evaporated in a moment,” Katahira told the official. “We want to make our living by selling fruit, not with compensation from TEPCO. Selling fruit is our business.”

Some people are returning to their hometowns, determined to rebuild.

About 3,000 people lived in the village of Kawauchi, Fukushima Prefecture, which lies within a 30-kilometer radius of the Fukushima plant, before the Great East Japan Earthquake.

The population once plunged to 45 but has rebounded to almost 200.

In mid-April, Shigeru Ide, 56, reopened his inn, which accommodated hikers and anglers fishing the mountain rivers before the disaster.

The number of guests has fallen to less than half, and they are mostly workers at the nuclear power plant and workers who repair damaged homes.

“We have to join hands for reconstruction,” Ide said. “Our village will be lost unless someone stays here and sends out information that the village is alive.”

Takeshi Akimoto, 70, reopened a grocery store in May.

“What is important is to keep our village,” Akimoto said. “I want to continue to wait for people who will be returning here.”

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