TOKYO—Okinawa has long had a steady stream of migrants from the rest of Japan, seeking beautiful beaches, cheap living costs and a slower pace of life. Now, the sunny clump of islands is welcoming a new brand of migrant: nuclear refugees.
Akane Moriya, who lives in Fukushima City, 40 miles from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant is frantically preparing to move in August to Japan’s southernmost island, with her 6-year-old and 3-year-old children, to flee the fear of radiation leaks. “I have two young children and no one knows how long it will take to fully shut down the plants,” she says. “There’s so much uncertainty and I don’t want to take any risks.”
Okinawa prefecture has launched a campaign encouraging residents of Fukushima prefecture—even those who don’t live in the government-mandated evacuation zone within 20 kilometers (12 miles) of the plant—to move to the resort destination. In a program largely funded by the central government and Fukushima prefecture, any Fukushima resident who signs up and relocates gets two years’ free rent; airfare to the island; appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and TVs; free rides on its monorail; and a discount card to use at certain supermarkets and restaurants.
For a family of three, these costs add up to around ¥2 million yen ($25,000) over two years, according to an estimate by Okinawa prefecture.
Yasushi Oohama, who coordinates moves from Fukushima for the Okinawa prefectural office, says his office has received over 250 inquiries about the package, which was first publicized on the Okinawa prefecture website in June, and that around 61 families have applied for the deal, with many slated to move in August. He said the prefectural office would provide support searching for an apartment and helping to find work. “The aim of the program is not to compete with other prefectures for people,” he says. “We just want to help and support these people.”
For Fukushima residents who don’t have the option of leaving the country, Okinawa is as far as they can get from the damaged facility, and is the only major region in the country that houses no nuclear-power plants.
Every year for the past decade, around 25,000 people from Japan have made the move to Okinawa in search of a different and possibly better way of life. Okinawa is a rarity in that most prefectures in Japan have seen their populations drop over the past few decades, in step with the country’s economic malaise, as young people leave their families behind to seek better jobs in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka.
Digital Globe/Associated PressThe Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant, shown here in a photo soon after the March earthquake and tsunami.
Other prefectures closer to Fukushima—such as Akita and Yamagata—are offering relocation assistance. But their programs are primarily for those displaced by the earthquake and tsunami, offering shorter-term housing in hotels and Japanese inns, or ryokan.
Of the over 80,000 Fukushima residents who have evacuated since the disaster, nearly half have left for evacuation centers outside the prefecture, according to official figures.
Ms. Moriya, 35 years old, called the distance from Fukushima “a blessing and a curse” because her husband would have to stay behind for his job.
“I’m not sure yet how long we’ll be away for or when we’ll be able to see him,” says Ms. Moriya. “He supports this decision and he wants the kids to be as far away as possible from the nuclear plants.”
Mr. Oohama said many of the families are mothers and children who are moving without their husbands, a reverse version of tanshin funin, or “bachelor businessman,” the common practice of a Japanese husband moving apart from his family for the sake of his job. Now, it is mothers and children who are living apart from their husbands, out of health concerns from possible radiation exposure.
Masashi Koshiishi, 65, a film director, is making a documentary about a family who moved from Fukushima to Okinawa—which has had its own problems because of tensions over the presence of American troops. He says that history links the two prefectures.
“They are both suffering due to national policies,” says Mr. Koshiishi. “Fukushima has suffered from the nuclear plants, and Okinawa has suffered from the U.S. military-base issue. They both know what it’s like to bear this kind of burden.”
Yoshiko Murashige, 36, moved to Nago, in northern Okinawa, on March 18, after the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11 She lived in Iwaki City, 45 kilometers from the nuclear power plant, and for days she was without newspapers and she couldn’t connect to the Internet.
“I wanted to be as far away as possible from the nuclear accident, which is why we chose Okinawa,” she says.
Her son, Sora, is 7 years old. “When I arrived I was relieved—there was no water in Iwaki, and I could finally live normally again.” She says her husband, as well as her extended family, are all in Iwaki, where she was born and raised.
But for many, the temporary relief provided by the distance is soon clouded by feelings of guilt. “I felt so bad leaving my family but they can’t leave,” said Ms. Murashige, who had never visited Okinawa before she moved. For Ms. Moriya, the challenge lies in rebuilding her life: “I have to start all over again, from scratch. It won’t be easy.”