• After a radioactive disaster destroys your hometown, when is the right time to return? (SBS Dateline)
After a radioactive disaster destroys your hometown, when is the right time to return? We meet residents of Fukushima grappling with a choice; return and rebuild their broken community, or stay away.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017 - 21:30

When Hisao Sasaki returned to his home after years away, one of the first things he noticed was the smell. Rats and other small animals that that been living there had caused a stench through the whole house.

But despite the rats, wild boar and radiation threat – Hisao has been preparing to return home, a difficult decision thousands of survivors are facing today.

Six years ago this week, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami killed more than 15,000 people, and triggered nuclear meltdowns and the discharge of radioactive material from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Hisao’s hometown of Namie, which is 11 kilometres away from the nuclear site, was damaged and contaminated by the disaster – forcing its 21,000 residents to move to different towns outside the radioactive zone. They were provided with subsidised housing by the government, while billions of dollars was spent decontaminating the town.

Six years on, the government says Namie is now safe to live in again, and is encouraging families like the Sasakis to return and resume their lives as they were before. In 12 months, the government will cut off subsidies for people who have decided to stay outside the town.

Namie will be officially re-opened at the end of March, and Hisao is in the process of restoring his home. He’s excited to move back there, saying he felt uncomfortable in the cramped apartment where he lived in the years following the disaster.

“I’ve never lived away from Namie before,” he says. “I think it is best to live in your own part of the country and speak your own dialect. I think it’s one of the secrets of good health.”

In Japan, families tend to maintain strong ties to their communities. For Hisao, moving back to Namie is as much an emotional decision, as it is one of logistics or convenience.

“We are the third generation of our family living here,” he says. “It's the house that our ancestors built, my father built. If we let it go, that's it, so I can’t let that happen.”

For many former residents, the government’s call to return presents a confronting question; re-occupy their homes, but potentially risk their health by exposure to radioactivity. Or stay away, and deal with the loss and heartbreak of that decision.

For Shigeko Watanabe, another former Namie resident, the idea of returning brings back traumatic memories.

When the earthquake struck Namie, her first memory is trying to protect her mother-in-law; “it shook three times – the fear I had in those two minutes was extraordinary.”

Now living in Iwaki, a town 60 kilometres away, Shigeko is enjoying her new life – living with her husband Takemasa and his 97-year-old mother. While she says her heart is still in Namie, Shigeko can’t imagine trying to restart her life in the town, after what she went through there.

There’s another issue families like the Watanabe’s must face, now that the town is being re-opened – the financial difficulty of staying outside of Namie once the government subsidies end.

For families struggling with the question of whether to return home, the time to decide is running out.

Currently, less than 20 per cent of Namie’s former residents say they’ll return. Many are unconvinced by the government’s claim that the town is now safe.

“They’re saying it’s safe, but they haven’t shown us specific figures and the effects,” says one young woman. “That still leaves me concerned. Living at what radiation level, for how long, causes what effects?”

If these people don’t return, can the town ever been the same for families like the Sasakis, and others that do?

And for those that do return, can the town ever be truly safe – with contaminated waste dump areas and highly radioactive areas nearby?

One way Hisao Sasaki is trying to prove to former residents of Namie that the town is safe to live in, is by growing and tending a large vegetable garden on his property.

He is on a mission to prove that food from the town, which has been shunned since the nuclear disaster, is safe to eat.

Hisao has been able produce clean rice and certain vegetables, however high levels of radiation has been found in mushrooms and citrus fruits from his garden – a sign that perhaps the Fukushima area is not as decontaminated as the government is saying.

“I felt this area was safe, but it still has a poor reputation,” he says. “I’m going to keep growing crops until we are told they are safe, until everyone, including the people in this area, are convinced of their safety.”

Despite Hisao’s determination to return to Namie, where he feels most at home, he is aware that the town can never feel as safe and comfortable as it once did.

“Even though they finished decontamination and told us we can go back, the place that triggered this catastrophe is still unstable,” he says. “So I still feel anxious.”

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


A community rebuilds after the Fukushima disaster
Six years on from one of the worst disasters in Japan’s history, residents of towns affected by nuclear radiation are beginning to move back, and resume their lives as they once were, writes Amos Roberts.
Six years after Fukushima, much of Japan has lost faith in nuclear power
In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, will Japan stick with nuclear power production? Or will a lack of public trust in nuclear safety see the end of the industry?
Recovering from disasters: Social networks matter more than bottled water and batteries
In the wake of a disaster, social interaction and communication is as important as access to clean food and disaster kits.
Social aftershocks of Fukushima disaster are still being felt
What is the long term social fallout of the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear disaster?


Reporter / Camera: Amos Roberts

Producer: Kylie Grey

Editor: Simon Phegan

Researcher / Fixer: Kiwa Wakabayashi

Researcher: Anna Watanabe


LOUDSPEAKER (Translation): This is a Namie public announcement. The time allowed for entry to Namie is 6am to 7pm. Please be careful not to run into wild boars while working in this area. 

Silence and decay. A radioactive ghost town, 10km from one of the world's worst nuclear accidents six years ago. So what happens when the government tells you it is safe to go back?

HISAO SASAKI, FORMER RESIDENT (Translation): Because small animals and rats had over-run it the whole house stank. All the stuff in the house was scattered everywhere. It wasn’t habitable.

Hisao Sasaki's family has lived in Namie for generations. The invisible threat of radiation is something that he's willing to live with. He's been busy restoring his home for the reopening of Namie on March 31st. Like thousands of other evacuees, Hisao and his wife have been living in virtual exile in cramped apartment blocks.

HISAO SASAKI (Translation): I’ve never lived away from Namie before. Some may say I am naive, but I found it hard to live in a small crowded, place like that.  I think it is best to live in your own part of the country and speak your own dialect. I think it is one of the secrets of good health.

Hisao's heart has never left Namie and he is working hard to entice his wife, Yuso, back here.

HISAO SASAKI (Translation): This is the kitchen

YUSO SASAKI (Translation):  It’s beautiful now…..unrecognisable.

HISAO SASAKI (Translation): This is the what I told you about.

YUSO SASAKI (Translation):  Dishwasher?

HISAO SASAKI (Translation): That’s great, isn’t it?

YUSO SASAKI (Translation):  I have to make something yummy.

HISAO SASAKI (Translation): We are the third generation of our family living here. It's the house that our ancestors built, my father built. If we let it go, that's it, so I cannot let that happen. As long as I live here, we have to keep it going.

REPORTER: How do you feel about the risk of another major earthquake and tsunami, especially when you are living so close to Fukushima Daiichi?

HISAO SASAKI (Translation): Even though they finished decontamination and told us we can go back the place that triggered this catastrophe is still unstable, so I still feel anxious.

Hisao's extended family used to live together under one roof, but it is fragmented, like that of so many other evacuees.

HISAO SASAKI (Translation): The place made me feel lonely…there wasn’t even a bird. But today when we were eating I heard a bird singing. I thought ‘That’s good someone is living here’.

Namie's 21,000 residents are scattered all over Japan, forced away after the tsunami and nuclear accident. But the spiritual connection to their home remains. On New Year's Eve, some have travelled back to Namie's Buddhist temple, joining Hisao to mark the start of another year. Because the town is about to reopen, there is a lot of media interest.

HISAO SASAKI (Translation): Many people came to the event answering our call. I really appreciate it. This proves that people have the will to come back to Namie to live.

Hisao hopes his friends and neighbours will come back, but less than 20% of Namie's former residents say they'll return and they tend to be old. If its young people don't come back, what kind of hope will Namie have?

NATSUMI SASAKI (Translation): In the future I would love to come back.

TRANSLATOR (Translation): When in the future?

NATSUMI SASAKI (Translation): When?

TRANSLATOR (Translation): When?

NATSUMI SASAKI (Translation): When I’m older and get married. If possible, I would love to re-create the home we lost by building the house like the old one and make the first step in rebuilding a life here.

REPORTER: What do you think are the main barriers in getting young people to move back?

JUNNA SASAKI (Translation): They’re saying it’s safe. But it they haven’t shown us specific figures and the effects. That still leaves me concerned. Living at what radiation level, for how long, causes what effects?

The government have gone to great lengths to convince people it is safe to return, pouring billions of dollars into decontaminating Namie by scooping up the radioactive top soil. Levels of radioactivity are now considered safe for humans. But can living here ever really be safe with contaminated waste dumps and highly radioactive areas nearby?

Namie's popular mayor, Tamotsu Baba, is one of the key figures driving the reopening of Fukushima's ghost towns. In Namie, shops and restaurants have already opened and plans to build a school and medical facilities are under way.

TAMOTSU BABA, MAYOR (Translation):  Our ultimate goal is to restore Namie to be more like it was in the past. It is our responsibility. This accident happened in our generation.  We have the responsibility to hand the town to the next generation.

As the opening of Namie approaches, the idea of returning brings up conflicting emotions for Shikego Watanabe.

SHIKEGO WATANABE, FORMER RESIDENT (Translation): This is the Nisshinsha printing shop where we spent our lives. My husband, son and I ran this small printing shop.

When the earthquake struck, Shikego's first thoughts were to protect her 92-year-old mother-in-law.

SHIKEGO WATANABE (Translation): All I could do was just hold on to Grandma, it shook three times - the fear I had in those two minutes was extraordinary. I was screaming, ‘Help! Stop!’ Know what Grandma said?  ‘’Shut up!”

Everything has been left pretty much as it was that day. Shikego says it is hard to clean up because she feels paralysed by the same dilemma that confronts many evacuees. Should she try rebuilding her life here again or cut her ties to Namie?

SHIKEGO WATANABE (Translation): The reason we don’t take things here away is that this Buddhist alter contains our souls. It may be just an excuse, but…our feelings still really belong here.

Shikego's heart is still in Namie, but she can't imagine starting again in a place like this.

SHIKEGO WATANABE (Translation): To put it simply… if I see the reality, I don't want to return here.

Shikego's getting used to her new life in Iwaki, a city 60km away. The apartment she shares with her husband, Takemasa, and his 97-year-old mother is small, but comfortable. Because they're evacuees, it is subsidised by the government, but the housing subsidy is due to stop a year after Namie reopens. And, like thousands of other evacuees, the couple will need to make a decision about whether to stay.

TAKEMASA WATANABE (Translation): As the time for returning approaches, we are psychologically driven into a corner. We must make a decision as soon as possible.

But this husband and wife have never talked about it with each other. Even though Shikego wants to stay here, she knows that Takemasa dreams of going back, but harmony is prized in Japan and this means not talking about things that could lead to disagreement.

SHIKEGO WATANABE (Translation): We haven’t talked about it haven’t we?

TAKEMASA WATANABE (Translation): We have never talked about it within the family. Our opinions about returning aren’t the same, our children’s opinions also differ.

Takemasa would normally make decisions on behalf of the extended family, but the evacuation has split families and disrupted that tradition. To keep the family close, he says he's willing to let his son, Hiromichi, decide. Takemasa's son lives across town with his wife, Yoshiko, and their two young children. Like many Namie residents, he worked at the nuclear power plant before the disaster.

REPORTER: How do you guys feel about the reopening of Namie?  Have you thought of going back with your family?

YOSHIKO WATANABE (Translation):  It’s a contaminated town. We think about our children like every family with children.  When I think about their future you wouldn’t want to go back.

Long-term exposure to radiation increases a person's risk of cancer, so parents with young children, like Hiromichi and Yoshiko, are understandably nervous.

HIROMICHI WATANABE (Translation): We used to play in places like the mountains. Those places where we played are contaminated. If I ever go back to Namie I wouldn’t be able to visit my childhood playgrounds. The government doesn’t decontaminate those areas. It’s been almost 6 years, My daughter was only a few months old when it happened, Now she is six years old, starting school. I have a family to support. Our generation has to build a new life in a new place. In 20 years or so, nature will take its course, Namie will disappear, I can say that it will, definitely.

While Hiromichi feels Namie will eventually vanish, Hisao Sasaki and some local men are trying to coax new life from its poisoned soil. Using his own land, Hisao is on a mission to prove that food grown in Namie is safe to eat. This bumper crop of winter vegetables is the realisation of his dream.

HISAO SASAKI (Translation): I wondered if we could grow any crops, the land was so devastated. Look… this is big!

Food from the Fukushima region has been shunned since the nuclear accident. Hisao and these farmers are hoping to change that.

HISAO SASAKI (Translation): This is a danger zone.  So we’re growing these vegetables as a test crop. We check them and verify if they’re safe to eat.

Testing has given rice and some vegetables a clean bill of health, but high levels of radiation have been found in mushrooms and citrus.

REPORTER: Do you eat the vegetables that you are growing yourself?

HISAO SASAKI (Translation): Yes, I do.  I test them myself. Since I grow them myself, I find them tasty. I felt this area was safe, but it still has a poor reputation. I’m going to keep growing the crops until we are told they are safe, until everyone, including the people in this area are convinced of their safety.

In Iwaki, Shikego is using her spare time to visit other evacuee families where she gets to test the mood about returning to Namie. As a volunteer social worker, her job is to offer them emotional support. The work has earned her the nickname the "mother of Namie". This morning she is dropping in on Yoshihiko and Kyoko Mukai.

YOSHIHIKO MUKAI (Translation): They’re persimmons from Namie. Eat them, they’re delicious.

The Mukais recently visited their home in Namie and brought back these persimmons from their garden.

YOSHIHIKO MUKAI (Translation): Until last year we had plenty of them but I was too scared to eat them. So last year, for the first time, I got them tested at the hospital and they said they were safe.

This radioactive fruit is now considered safe for humans.

SHIKEGO WATANABE (Translation): Are they the results?  I don’t know how to read them.

YOSHIHIKO MUKAI (Translation): If it is below this figure, I think it is ok. I think it’s ok. I am not a specialist, so I don’t know how to explain it.

SHIKEGO WATANABE (Translation): Do you let your grandchildren eat them?

YOSHIHIKO MUKAI (Translation):  No.

SHIKEGO WATANABE (Translation): I bet you don’t! Only you two eat them.

YOSHIHIKO MUKAI (Translation): What I am concerned about is the mountain area, which is still contaminated. Things like fallen leaves blown this way might make the contamination go back to what it was.

The Mukai’s, like most of the evacuee families that Shikego visits will not be moving back to Namie. Out of the 50 families she sees, only one has decided to return. Just last month, unimaginably high levels of radiation were recorded at the damaged nuclear plant at Namie's doorstep - a man-made disaster that will impact families for generations. But Hisao Sasaki doesn't share the concerns of other evacuees. He knows that his heart and soul belongs here in Namie. For him, one of the heartbreaking moments of the tragedy of Fukushima is the fact that his father died an evacuee, far from Namie.

HISAO SASAKI (Translation): Here is some water for you Grandpa. Have some water, Grandpa. I brought water for you. Water for you! I feel sad that it's only me who can be here. These feelings make my will to come home stronger and stronger.

Few things mean as much to families here as continuity, the unbroken chain that connects you to your ancestors and descendent. With his elderly mother in a nursing home in Iwaki and her son working in a different city, Hisao is pinning his hopes on his son retiring here in 30 years' time.

HISAO SASAKI (Translation): Our family would have been together. But we’re forced to live apart. It’s the worst possible situation. We are a family but no longer a family unit.

On New Year's morning, Shikego and Takemasa walk to the sea near their home to watch the sunrise, an important custom in Japan. For the first time it seems they are both on the same page, ready to move on with their new life and their new home.

TAKEMASA WATANABE (Translation): After the disaster, our mood was so dark. As time has passed, the clouds have gradually cleared to create a space in our minds where we’re beginning to accept things.

SHIKEGO WATANABE (Translation): Last year was the first time I saw the sun clear of clouds. Until then my heart was so heavy, that I couldn’t say, “Happy New Year”. Your oracle says, “Great luck!” Oh, great luck! That’s wonderful. Lucky you.

With thousands of evacuee families in Japan torn apart after the disaster, the Watanabes feel so fortunate to be so close.

TAKEMASA WATANABE (Translation): I feel very lucky to be able to visit the shrine with my whole family for the new year’s prayers. Not many people can do so with three generations of family members.

amos roberts

story producer
kylie grey

anna watanabe

kiwa wakabayashi

story editor
simon phegan

hiroko  moore
shingo usama
miyuki watanabe

14th March 2017