Fukushima Fallout: Eight Years Later, A Struggle for Normalcy

Fukushima Fallout: Eight Years Later, A Struggle for Normalcy

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A Japanese mother on the challenges her family faces after returning to Fukushima - and on how the area is still struggling to recover

Translator: Jay Allen

Editor’s Note

On March 11th, 2011, as a result of the devastating tsunami that had just hit Japan, the three nuclear reactors at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima suffered a meltdown. By the next day, most residents within its radius were forced to evacuate.

Eight years later, and the story of Fukushima fails to capture headlines any longer. But for the people impacted by the disaster, the story continues. Some have returned, and struggle to rebuild their lives in an area that still hasn’t financially recovered from the disaster. Others have become permanent refugees, attempting to make a home for themselves in strange new surroundings. And no matter where the victims of Fukushima plant their roots, all of them face prejudice and ongoing discrimination from fellow citizens who treat them as “filthy” and “contagious.”

Unseen Japan is very pleased to team up with photojournalist Hiro Ugaya (烏賀陽弘道) to translate his interviews with evacuees and former evacuees, and to document the ongoing struggle of the victims of this tragedy. The article below is translated with the author’s kind permission from his original article published on note.mu.

フクシマからの報告 2019年春    息子と娘の甲状腺にのう胞としこり   医師「経過観察ですね」        母「先生、意味がわかりません」|烏賀陽(うがや)弘道/Hiro Ugaya|note

私は、2011年3月の福島第一原発事故直後から8年間、故郷から他県に脱出し、避難生活を送る人々を訪ね歩く取材を続けている。 山形県や埼玉県、群馬県、兵庫県など、その旅は全国に及んだ。会った人たちとは今も連絡を取り続けている。そして時折会いに行く。その生活や考えがどう変化したか、しなかったのか、歴史の記録に残したいと願っているからだ。 …


Exactly eight years since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, I continue to do walking interviews of people who fled their hometown to various other prefectures and are living as refugees.

My trip covered the whole country, including Yamagata, Saitama, Gunma and Hyogo Prefectures. I’m still in touch with the people I met, and on occasion, I go see them. They want me to inscribe into history a record of how their daily lives and their way of thinking have – and haven’t – changed.


Eight years have passed since the reactor accident. The people I interviewed fall into the following three patterns:

(1) Those who have returned to their hometowns. (2) Those who have settled into lives as refugees. (3) The father returns home, leaving his still-evacuated wife and children.

The people I continue to interview evenly divide between (1) the returnees, and (2) and (3) people whose lives have taken a different form since the disaster. Children who were elementary school students became junior high school students, high school students, and university students. They make friends and participate at clubs in their new schools, moving the locus of their activities to the evacuation area. The mother also grows accustomed to the evacuation area, and settles in.

In other words, it becomes, not a temporary “evacuation,” but a relocation.

I met Kinoshita Reiko (45; pseudonym) for the first time in January of 2012, in the Gunma evacuation area. She evacuated with her 5th grade daughter and 3rd grade son, as well her own mother and her husband’s mother. Her husband, unable to leave his job, remained behind in the city of Minamisoma. Their house was a mere 3 kilometers outside of the 20km blockade line.

She evacuated to Gunma because, by chance, her husband’s family lived there. On March 15, 2011, she packed up the family into a light truck and fled, moving into a rental apartment. She had no other acquaintances or relatives. Mrs. Kinoshita, who had lived in Minamisoma since birth, was suddenly thrown into a strange city with no preparation. (I wrote in detail about her experience in my book Nuclear People: What Happened Under the Nuclear Plume (PHP Press).)

Her daughter was teased at school: “You’ll infect us with radiation.” Having lived and been raised her whole life in Minamisoma, the girl had no acquaintances or close friends in the evacuation area. She didn’t even know the geography. Mrs. Kinoshita told me how she found found herself, physically and mentally, at the limits of exhaustion.

Two years after they went to Gunma Prefecture to live as an evacuee, the family returned to its hometown of Minamisoma in Fukushima Prefecture. “My daughter and I are both at our spiritual limit,” Kinoshita said upon her return to Minamisoma.

Since then, I’ll occasionally receive an e-mail or other contact from Mrs. Kinoshita, and whenever I go to Minamisoma, I try and meet her and hear what she has to say. 。She’s even given me a collection of poems from poets from the city.

I met Mrs. Kinoshita against this March when I visited Minamisoma. We talked for three hours at the family restaurant where we usually meet. As usual, I asked her, “Has anything changed?” I promised to meet with her so that I can record the changes in people who had to live as evacuees.

But I wasn’t anticipating the next words that came out of her mouth.

“They found cysts on my son and daughter’s thyroid glands. My son has a lump in his cyst.”

In my interviews in the area where the nuclear accident occurred, I’ve prayed, “May I get through this without hearing that word.” This is someone I’ve corresponded with for eight years. She’d opened up to me gradually, to the point where she’s told me about her family, her work, and her various worries. And I’ve told her about my family and my work. Our dialogue has become less like that of subject and reporter, and more like that of good friends.

I’ve heard on the news that thyroid cancer is being found now during regular medical check-ups (once every two years) of children in the area affected by the accident.

(Note) In the report of the 34th meeting of the examination committee of the “Prefectural Health Investigation” that Fukushima has conducted after the nuclear accident, the number of patients diagnosed with a maligant or suspected malignant thyroid increased by five to 212. Of those, 169 people underwent surgery. The survey target is about 370,000, and the number of examinees is about 180,000.

If it were within my power, I wouldn’t want that happening to a family I know. These are people who have experienced enough suffering as evacuees. For this to happen after they’d finally regained a peaceful life is too cruel. With a feeling that was like a prayer, I wished, not as a reporter, but more as a fellow human being, “May nothing happen to them.”

But reality did not indulge me. Such stories come out where I conduct my interviews, making me wonder: how many total cases will we see across this entire area?

If I may dare to add an optimistic footnote, a “cyst” is nothing but a bag of fluid. It’s not always a precursor to malignant diseases such as cancer. It may simply disappear.

Examination of the growing thyroid gland finds a certain number of cysts and nodules even without exposure to a nuclear accident. In the event of a nuclear accident, the number of detections will increase, because the number of people in the area who get examined increases. The question is whether there is a clear increase when compared to a population that is not affected by exposure.

I’ll consider this problem using epidemiology, a statistical medical science, as my premise. Speaking from my knowledge as someone who’s interviewed all three epidemiologists who conducted health surveys of residents living near the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the United States in 1979, I can say that, even if there is an increase in cancer and other diseases, epidemiologists, even after 30 years, will say, “We don’t know if there’s a causal relationship.” Additionally, all the US epidemiologists I interviewed at the time said, “The incubation period for thyroid cancer is about 5 years from exposure.”In other words, in the case of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident, our subject of study for suspecting a causal connection is all incidents that occurred since 2016.

Mrs. Kinoshita told me even more disturbing stories. Three of her children’s classmates had committed suicide, one after another. Many people around her have developed colorectal cancer.

Of course, we don’t know whether this is related to the nuclear accident or not. Neither Mrs. Kinoshita nor I can know. The future is likewise probably unknowable.

But I’ve learned one simple truth.

Even though I hear these stories of concern from people at the scene, politicians and scientists, as usual, speak in nothing but optimistic tones. The mass media is silent.

Meanwhile, kids continue to grow. Reality won’t wait for us. It can’t stop. It can only move forward. There’s no way to stop that.

Mrs. Kinoshita lives in the middle of that reality.

(This interview occurred on March 16th, 2019, in Minamisoma City, Fukushima Prefecture. As much as possible, I’ve tried to record these interactions as they happened, except for when conversations veered off track, or I had to clarify hard-to-understand locations. When Mrs. Kinoshita jokes, she does so with no change in her taciturn expression, so there are parts that seem rather abrupt when written; I’ve kept these as is.)

Doctor: “We Should Wait for the Next Exam.” Mother: “Doctor, I Don’t Get What You’re Saying”

Kinoshita Reiko
Kinoshita Reiko (pseudonym), the day of her reunion with reporter Hiro Ugaya. (Picture: Hiro Ugaya)

After you were able to return to Minamisoma, did your family’s life go back to what it was like before the nuclear accident?

We live very normally. We eat dinner normally, go to school normally. In the end, only the people who remain here (in Minamisoma) think the lifestyle here is normal, and only the people who get out think it’s strange. Your perception shifts. There aren’t many high schools here. So if you can’t go to a regular high school, you go to an industrial high school, and then to an agricultural high school. But people who’ve gone elsewhere think, “Why would you go to an industrial school if you can’t go to a regular high school?”Before the nuclear accident, you’d reply, “There’s a private high school you can go to if you pay.”But it shuttered, and hasn’t ever re-opened.

You’re from the Odaka ward in Minamisoma, and your mother lived here, right?

Our house in Odaka fell into disrepair. The government tore it down for us at no expense. My parents have moved from a temporary shelter to the government’s “reconstruction project housing.” That was, what, two years ago? They were told by temporary housing, “We’re shutting this down (end the end of March 2018), so get out.” (Note: The Odaka ward in the south of Minamisoma City was in the 20km forced evacuation radius of the nuclear power plant, forcing all residents to be deported. Mrs. Kinoshita’s family house was in Odaka ward. Her family home was 3km outside this area.()

Your daughter had a lot of trouble in the evacuation area in Gunma Prefecture. How is she?

My daughter says, “I want to be a child care worker, so let me go to a vocational college.”

She was accepted to a junior college after that. I asked her, “Is this what you want?” and she said, “It’s fiiiine, go away already” (laughs).

Time flies. That fifth grade daughter of yours is now a college student?!

But now my son’s the one struggling. They found a lump in his thyroid. We took him to a neurosurgeon because he had complained of headaches, and that’s when they found he had empyema. The pus had accumulated in the forehead and sinuses. The doctor said they had to perform a surgery that would open a hole in the bone, but it’s too early in his growth period for that. He said they’ll treat it with drugs until then. I hope he gets through this, but… “Until he’s past his growth period”…that’s around 20, isn’t it? We have the exam this month.

Hold on a minute. A lump in the thyroid? That’s shocking. Is he okay?

When I asked the doctor, “What do we do?” he said, “Well, let’s wait for the next annual exam.” Doctor, I don’t get what you’re trying to say. All kids in the area now receive an echo exam once every two years. They found a cyst in the first examination. He said it was okay because it was 5.0 (cm) large. But by two years later, last April, it had grown to 7.1cm. And when we went to Fukushima Medical University last year, it has grown to 8.4. I said, “Doctor, it’s getting bigger,” and he replied, “Well, the cyst is just filled with water.”But there was a lump inside. When I asked the doctor, “What do we do?” he said, “Well, let’s wait for the annual exam.” I could only reply, “Ahh…really?”

Were you okay with such a nonchalant attitude at the follow-up exam?

He said, “All kids here get this exam, and this is all we’re finding.” He said there haven’t been any other tests done, so we don’t know if this is unique to adolescence, or unique to kids from this area. All I could say way, “Well, if you say so, then I guess so.”He said that, since it’s a thyroid problem, it could be Paced’s disease, but since there aren’t any such components in his blood, it’s probably fine.

When did you learn about the cyst?

We learned about my son’s last year. Fukushima Medical University has saved all the results of the examinations they conduct every two years.

Does he need a biopsy?

He hasn’t had one yet. My daughter had a cyst in middle school, but it disappeared. They said, “Girls are more apt to get them,” to which I was like, “Ahh…”

They discovered a cyst in me as well during my company-sponsored breast cancer screening. This was before the earthquake.

Is it gone?

If the hospital inspection finds it’s not larger than 5.1cm, they won’t consider it “abnormal.”

A 5cm at your throat is pretty large.

I’ve got a really big bag of water here (delineates the size with her finger). My son’s is now 8.4cm. His exam’s at the end of this month. This week my daughter’s going to get her license. I’ve sent her belongings to the dormitory, as next week she’s moving and entering school. It’s crazy (laughs). She moves into her dorm on the 1st of April, and I have until March 23rd to load up her luggage. They told her to get her license sometime in February.

I apologize for intruding at such a busy time (laughs).

My daughter passed her exams last November. But the high school’s rules say she can’t get her license until after the end of the NCT Exam in February. [Translator’s Note: This isn’t commonplace in Japan; it appears to be a regulation specific to the daughter’s school.] And she also goes to a training center. She has to study piano in preparation for her nursery school teacher’s license. [Translator’s Note: This is, in fact, common for nursery school workers.] She’s never done it, but you have to to become a nursery school teacher, right? I tell her, focus on the fundamentals.

The cysts are concerning, huh?

The cysts will disappear so they don’t trouble me, but the lump does. But the doctor said “follow-up exam,” so it’s out of my hands, right? They said once he’s 20, additional testing is up to him.

Two Years as an Evacuee in Gunma

Abandoned GEO book store in Fukushima
An abandoned store of the GEO bookstore chain in Namie Machi, Fukushima, 10 km south of Reiko’s residence in Minamisoma city. This photo was taken on March 16, 2019, a good eight years after the tsunami. Citizens were evacuated from the area on the second day after the tsunami, and the entire area remained sealed until March 2017. (Picture: Hiro Ugaya )

Your daughter played basketball, right?

She can’t stand still. She sleeps like a sea lion at home. It’s annoying. My son does too and it’s annoying (laughs).

When did you come back from Gunma Prefecture?

When my daughter entered middle school.

So that makes it two years that you were in Gunma.

That’s a while, huh? But at the end they were like, “Let’s go home, let’s go home.”

They’ve gone to middle and high school in Minamisoma.

Does your daughter plan to come back to Minamisoma after vocational college?

I’m telling her, you don’t have to come home, go somewhere else. I tell her, you’re free to go wherever you want, but she’s like, “Huh? So I can’t come home?”

I think she wants to come back. My son, however, wants to go somewhere else. This area currently has a shortage of day care workers. When I said this to a friend who works in the local government she said, “Oh! Come to my place! I’ll stamp her application!” I told her, “No, no, she’s entering school after this.” (laughs)

Minamisoma City Office will give you a scholarship if you work here for five years as a day care worker. But that means you’ll be stuck here for five years.

Is there a shortage of day care workers and nurses?

I’ve heard that there’s waiting lists for child care here. My son and daughter go to the same school, but the number of kids is dropping. If there are no stores, no people, no hospitals, people will probably say, “No way I’m going back.”

And your son broke his leg?

He’s a catcher on a baseball team. There are still senior kids on the team so it’s fine, but. The doctor found fractures in three places. It seems flat feet are no good (shows me a picture on her smartphone of a boy with a crop-cut and a smiling face)

Kinoshita Reiko's son (left)
Kinoshita Reiko’s son (left). (Picture: Kinoshita Reiko/Hiro Ugaya)

He’s got a healthy constitution, huh?

He’ll eat two plates of fried rice in a sitting. His feet are wide, and don’t seem to quite support his weight (laughs).

Your daughter seems to be gradually turning into an adult.

I don’t have many pictures of my daughter. This is a friend of hers from when we lived in Gunma. When she competed at nationals in Fukushima, she contacted us and told us she was leaving. She seems to be studying in Oita and playing basketball.

Your daughter was 10 when the earthquake hit, right?

I remember her saying she had her first period in Gunma when we evacuated, and she got almost hysterical because she didn’t have any friends to talk to. It was intense. She still says, “Mom, it’s your fault!”

She insists she got freaked out in Gunma because I got freaked out. I just say, “Is that so?” (laughs)

When she came back to Minamisoma, you said she become docile, as if a demon had fled her.

It’s sad leaving the nest. Really sad.

It’s been two years. Now it’s my son’s time to go wild. How many times has his school called me? Even among kids, there are “the kids who fled and the kids who didn’t.”

With that body of his, he can send other kids flying with a single hit. I had to apologize.

What did the other kid say to him?

I heard he said things like “You’re gross,” and my son turned around and hit him. He broke the other kid’s nose and gave him whiplash, and the boy bled from his eyes. It was terrible. I told him, “You can’t hit people, no matter what they say.”

Her Son Was Also Told, “Don’t Come – You’ll Infect Us With Your Radiation

He packs a wallop (laughs).

He fought in Gunma too. Seems someone said on his first day at his new school, “Don’t come ’cause you’ll infect us with your radiation,” so he hit him. He confessed this to me after we came back, and I was like, “Why tell me this now?” I can’t do anything.

Huh? That’s the first time I’ve heard this. Didn’t the school contact you? When did you find out?

Just recently. I didn’t get any communication or anything. The elementary school teacher handled it by scolding the kid, and saying, “You can’t say things like that, it’s no wonder you got hit.”

I only knew of about five incidents, and when I asked him, “How the hell many times has this happened?” he said, “Uh? At least 10.” The others were in Gunma. We stopped talking about it after that.

You said your daughter also experienced that sort of prejudice.

She’ll tell me, but my son won’t.

He probably doesn’t want to worry you.

Nah, he seems he thinks he’ll get a talking to, so he doesn’t tell me. The school regularly conducts a “Bullying Investigation.” He gets a survey asking, “Are there any kids being bullied?” He wrote down, “I beat so-and-so.” The kid who got hit apparently didn’t say anything.

I tell him, you’re so strong, you’ve gotta stop that.

Was this in Gunma?

Nope, the high school here.

He probably doesn’t yet know his own strength.

Even if he pulls his punches, the other kid goes flying. He’s also sent me flying. He’s truly hit puberty, huh.

What! He hit you?

He finally hit that rebellious age. I took one in the stomach. But he’s over it now. It was last year, I think?

That’s quite a short rebellious period. What did he get angry about?

He was angry because no matter how hard he studied, it wasn’t producing results. He got angry at something I said and hit me. His dad grabbed him by the collar and yelled at him, and he cried, “I’m sor-ry.”

I wonder if he’ll get a girlfriend here in a bit.

The year before last, in the winter of his third year of middle school, I think he went with a girl to the Sendai light pageant.

Ohh! He’s got game.

But I guess the girls he went with told him, “Don’t wear camouflage or jerseys like usual, wear normal boy clothes.”

Even in his room he doesn’t study, he just shoots his air gun.

Camouflage!? Is he a military geek?

He likes the Self-Defense Force [SDF]. He talks constantly about tanks. I’d by fine if he entered the SDF, but he keeps getting injured, you know. I say, “If you get injured in the SDF, you can’t do anything,” and he says, “Yeah.”

How about the Defense Academy?

No, no, that kid’s bottom of the class. And he says he doesn’t want to climb the ranks. He wants to stick close to the ground. He did an announcement about the SDF at the last school festival they had in junior high. He climbed the stage looking like this (shows me a picture of him with close-cropped hair in camoflague).

Wow, he already looks like a youth soldier for the SDF (laughs).

He’s liked the SDF since…elementary school?

He keeps saying, “I want a gun,” “I want an air gun.”

When I first went to Gunma, it was to determine, “Are evacuees really being bullied?”That’s when I heard the story about your daughter being told, “You’ll infect us with radiation.” But this is the first I’ve heard about your son. Did something happen after that?

Since my daughter played basketball, her teammates protected her. My son joined the baseball team about half a year after that. Even now friends from that time show up. But I tell them, “You can’t face them when you can’t study or play baseball.”

And he also made friends in Gunma.

Kids weren’t constantly spewing abuse that rose to bullying. I felt relieved. My son really enjoyed it. When we came back to Minamisoma, he said, “I’ll stay in Gunma” (he was 5th year elementary at the time). Having friends he played sports with was key. A younger brother of one of my daughter’s friends is in his class again. They talk on Line: “What’s happenin’?” “The usual.””Let’s meet at Koushien.”

80 Year Old Mother, Unable to Return Home, Still in Relief Housing

How old is your mother?

She’s 80. She’s gone Gunma -> Fukushima -> (Minamisoma) Kashima Ward temporary housing -> Minamisoma reconstruction project. In the end, she couldn’t return even once to the home in Odaka. It’s not livable. She thought to go clean it up, but the floor had holes in it and her leg fell through. I never thought a house could become so brittle people couldn’t live in it after just a six years’ absence.

She was cleaning up your family home herself? I’ve heard from other evacuees that volunteers from Tokyo Electric were helping clean up, did she not ask?

She’s afraid of volunteers coming. They’ll take everything down to the foundation.

Ugh! That’s awful. Was your house okay?

(Shows me a picture) The pillar came loose, yeah? And the wall is slanting.

House damage suffered at the Kinoshita home
A picture of structural damage to Kinoshita Reiko’s home. (Picture: Kinoshita Reiko/Hiro Ugaya)

It was toppled by the earthquake, huh.

It’s gotten stained because we couldn’t repair it (while evacuated), and stray cats came through the gap. I could only bring what we absolutely needed. I threw out our household goods and took up the tatami floors. I really needed to remove the trees…I hired a contractor who came and cut them up for me. A friend of mine.

Your elementary school daughter’s entering college – time has really flown, huh?

That’s about how much time has passed. And yet nuclear power remains nonfunctional.

Is your mother living on her own in relief housing?

Yeah. She watches TV alone all day. If she doesn’t talk to people she’ll go senile. So my daughter, when she’s waiting for training at the driver’s license school, pops in to check on her.

You have good memories of Gunma now, don’t you?

I’m glad I experienced the outside world, and learned what it was like.

Was your apartment in Gunma subsidized by the government as disaster relief housing?

Yes. Gunma Prefecture helped us out. Each local government has responded differently. In Gunma, the subsidies ended the next year.

It seems people here don’t talk about radiation, and live without being aware of it.

So everyone will forget. It’s a reputational risk. My son said, “You hear people say, Fukushima’s agricultural output is bad. It sounds like they’re saying that we’re bad too.”

Stores Close Quickly Without Workers

Has Minamisoma returned to the state it was in before the disaster?

If you don’t go to fill up your tank by 8, you’re too late. The stand’s only open until 8. It used to be open later. If it’s nighttime, you have to go to Kashima Ward, 10kn to the north.

Why does it close so early?

Because there’s no one to work here. There are stores that closed during the disaster and are still closed. It’s a hassle. Why’s there a day care waiting list in a town with so few children? They say it’s because there are no teachers.

How about shopping?

Ion [Translator: A grocery store chain] came back, and it’s open until 9pm. Finally, starting last summer. It’s remained open, but the hours are shorter. The town supermarket also runs until 8pm. We can finally buy groceries. The kids seem put out that MacDonald’s is gone. There’s absolutely no sign it’s coming back. You can’t get McD’s unless you go to Soma, 15km up north.

A closed McDonald's in Fukushima
The McDonald’s in Minamisoma, closed since March 2011. (Picture: Hiro Ugaya)

Are there changes that have made life less convenient?

There aren’t many hospitals. I can only get one appointment a month at the dentist I visit. The hospitals are all on reservation systems. Even the orthopedics and otolaryngologists. If I feel off and need to go to OB-GYN, the OB-GYN also requires reservations. Both reservation and non-reservation locations only operate three times a week. And you don’t know when they’re open. Go to a place when you’re sick, and they’re closed! If you go elsewhere, they say, you need a reservation. There aren’t many dermatologists. My co-workers go all the way to Soma. The dermatologists went to Sendai. They only do examinations once a week. If doctors have family, do they evacuate together?


The doctors evacuated, so few remain. The mother of a friend recently had an operation for colorectal cancer. Many people around her have developed colorectal cancer. Recently, there are many cases of colorectal cancer in this area. Another acquaintance’s mother had it. There seem to be a lot of cases around here, huh?

No Awareness of a Nuclear Plant Meltdown Nearby

Are people generally aware there’s a uncleaned nuclear plant nearby?

They’re not. People say that there are fewer workers here, so the decontamination will be finished soon. When decontamination workers were here, I heard from convenience store employee I knew that sales at convenience stores were three times the national average. Some workers have “regular convenience stores” where they can “the usual,” and they’ll get their preferred tobacco.

You’ve said that there were a lot of people you didn’t know, and that public safety had gotten worse.

The number of words flying around that aren’t from this area has fallen. Like words belonging to the Kansai dialect. There used to be a man with a helmet and a wig like a pink Barbie doll, but I haven’t seen him recently. There are people with diverse tastes, huh (laughs).

How far is your house from the 20km line [from the radiation site]?

Three kilometers. If that line didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be discriminated against like this, would we? There are people in the same city who are outside of the 30km zone. Differences in compensation come from that. People across the country who see the news do so with the same eyes as the people who live in Okuma-cho or Futaba-cho within 5km of the line. They say, “there’s no money,” and folks are like, “why?”

Our family is different. In my area, there’s no compensation from the government for real estate. Within the same company, there are people in the 20km and 30km zones [as measured in distance from the site of the nuclear meltdown], and people outside the 30km zone. There are people who say, “Ah, it’s nice, I get medical care for free, so nice,” and I think, “But we were forced to flee. I wish people didn’t differentiate it like that.”

For every person who bluntly says, “We wanted money,” there are those who say, “We don’t need no money, get things back to normal.”

Everyone’s different.

Three Child Classmates Have Committed Suicide

When my son was in junior high 3rd year, a classmate hung himself here, and a classmate of my daughter’s jumped, and after that, a friend of my son’s killed himself in Niigata. It makes me sick, I don’t wanna hear these stories.

What! What was the cause?

The TV said it was bullying, but they’re gone now, so who knows. My son says, “We shouldn’t have evacuated.”

There was a kid who died in Gunma last year. He was part of a gang of little brats with my son since they were little. I took my son to offer incense at his funeral. They said their farewells when we evacuated the disaster…afterwards, my son said, “We had the same hobbies. We liked the same characters.” They were always together, so they always acted crazy together.

So many people around us have died. The younger brother of the Niigata kid played with my son on the baseball team. We went to the memorial service, but he couldn’t look the younger brother in the face. I never thought I’d see the two of them like that. It seems he was on good terms with the kid from Niigata.

Hmmm, that’s a shock. What do you say at such times?

Kids think of the place they were born as home, and want to go back. Even if you put roots down somewhere else, you’ve still spent more time here.

What does your daughter think of your time in Gunma?

It was hard. Extracurricular activities were tough. It’s laid back here (Minamisoma), but there (Gunma), club activities are vigorous (and strict). Plus it’s hard to get your point across.

You told me that someone told you to “fix your accent.”

Even if someone says, “You’re talking with an accent, fix it,” you can’t. I was like, I’ve spoken these words for over half my life, I can’t fix it (laughs). But human memory was made to be convenient. Now I can think, “I’m glad I got to see the outside world.”

But there’s people like the husband who moved to an evacuation point in Yamagata where his wife and kids are. They had a kid the same year as the earthquake. So since they’ve settled in, I’m going there. They’ve gotten used to the environment. The kid has entered elementary school. He’s over 30 and looking for a job over there from scratch. I was surprised. “Huh?! You want to go now?”

Son Aspired to the SDF After Experience with the Nuclear Accident

This clock, which Kinoshita described as being full of sentimental value, was one of the few things she was able to take from her home during the evacuation. (Picture: Kinoshita Reiko/Hiro Ugaya)

When you came back from the evacuation site, you said, “I will keep being told that I was in Fukushima at the time of the nuclear accident for the rest of my life, am I okay with that? Am I okay that I’ll spend my whole life with people saying I was born in Fukushima?”

My daughter doesn’t hide that she was born and raised Fukushima. She’s the type of kid who’s like, “I’m from Fukushima, so what?” But she’s embarking on her own path now, she doesn’t have time to be distracted. She says, “I want a spouse,” and if I rejoin, “How about a boyfriend first?” she says, “I want a family.”

Does your son not talk much about the time of the nuclear accident and the evacuation?

When he was a high school freshman, he drew a self-portrait. “I’ll never forget that time” was written on it. And, “I want to join the SDF.”

So he thinks about it some.

Ahh, I see.

He saw the SDF in action during the evacuation.

So that’s what led him to think about joining the SDF? Your son is dealing with it in his own way.

But he sleeps during classes (laughs).

I’m somewhat relieved by our chat today. If this were my hometown, I don’t think I could bear the mental strain of living here if I knew there was a nuclear plant on the verge of collapse nearby.

It’s not like I can just stop. Everyone’s growing up, I can’t stay stuck in that time. They grow up and graduate, life goes from one thing to the next. You have to move forward. It’s not like I can forget, so I can’t stay stuck in that place. Thinking like, “If there’s another accident, maybe it’s better if we stay.” They’re not elementary kids any longer.

Is there anything above the ordinary that you’re careful about?

I won’t buy local vegetables or mushrooms. If it says, “made in Fukushima,” I inevitably think, “Mmmm, to feed this to the kids…” It’d be good if we ourselves ate it, but…

And it’s strange to be playing baseball immediately after coming back. They’re breathing in that sand and dust. But you know, whether there’d been an earthquake or not, you go to work, and it’s the same people you’ve known for 20 years. You forget about what happens outside of that.

Do you still have acquaintances among the evacuated?

I think most of the people in my circle have come back. After all, there were many people who came back at critical junctures for their kids. “It’s the fifth year since the earthquake, huh? Where’s the bedrock of the wife and kids’ life?” Those are big questions. Like, my husband came with us too, but it wasn’t a fit for him, so he returned by himself.

Because everyone evacuated at first, right?

There were some who didn’t, or couldn’t, evacuate. City workers, firemen. Government workers couldn’t leave.

I’m worried about your son’s thyroid.

Even if I worry, there’s nothing I can do to help. I’m taking out a school loan now, which I’ll be hounded to repay. After my daughter’s done, my son goes to college.


Finally, while I know it’s superfluous, I’ll offer my take.

I’ve no idea whether the abnormality in the thyroids of Mrs. Kinoshita’s children will get better or worse. I don’t know if this abnormality is causally related to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident. I reserve any judgments here.

In the first place, it’s not a journalist’s job to “judge” or “speculate” on such stories. Only science can rationalize the relationship between such collective health problems and their causes. Specifically, we have a method called “epidemiology” that relies solely on statistical science. And I know, from going ahead and examining the results and conclusions of the 30-year epidemiological survey of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident (1979), that, even after 30 years, the epidemiologist said, “we don’t know if there’s a causal relationship.” (For more details, please read my book, Fukushima 2046 (Business Press).) In “long-term, low-dose type exposure” cases such as a nuclear accident, there are few that were judged to be causal, as was done with the relationship between juvenile thyroid cancer and milk in the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

As the last step in an epidemiological survey, the epidemiologist compiles the data and formulates a judgment. It’s not a world where “rationality” can decide everything, like in cases such as “The earth rotates,” or “a water molecule is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.” Furthermore, I, as a journalist, feel no responsibility in discussing the “presence or absence of causality” in this article.

At this point, what I think is important is this. As a matter completely separate from the judgments of the world of science, Mrs. Kinoshita and the citizens near the nuclear plant are forced to live while keeping one eye peeled on this fear that their growing children and grandchildren may develop such fatal diseases. They can’t change that they were close to the Fukushima Number One Nuclear Reactor when it spewed forth radiation. Even if you forget the past, you can’t erase it. The fact that they have to live with these fears is cruel enough.

What kind of life might Mrs. Kinoshita and the others be living were it not for the Fukushima Number 1 Reactor accident? They’d at least not have to grapple with the fear that their children might get cancer.

I can’t help but imagine.

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Hiro Ugaya

Hiro Ugaya (烏賀陽 弘道) was born in Kyoto, Japan in 1963. He has a degree in Economics from Kyoto University, a Master's in International Affairs (Military Science) from Columbia University. He worked as a reporter for Japan's Asahi Shinbun until 2003, and currently works as a freelance photo-journalist.

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