Iwaki City, Fukushima is a three-hour drive NNE of Tokyo and about 50kms south of the reactor, well outside the 20km and 30km exclusion zones. These days Fukushima is only mentioned on the news when they're talking about the nuclear situation so it’s easy to forget the hundreds of coastal communities there that were also washed away by the tsunami.
Radiation readings around Iwaki have been back to normal since late March so last week was an interesting time for our illustrious leaders, who increasingly look like they’d struggle to organize a piss-up in a brewery, to announce the jump up to Level 7. Dodgy? Yes, but Fukushima does not equal Chernobyl.
In Iwaki on the day of the earthquake, more than 1,500 people crammed into the evacuation centre, a local elementary school. A lot of those have since got out of town but it still houses about 150 people and there are many more in surrounding houses who either have nowhere else to go, or have no way to get there.
Living in an evacuation centre obviously has its own problems, but people in the centres are now mostly able to get basic food, water, and nourishment. If you lived just beyond reach of the tsunami though and your house is still standing, you can’t register at your local evacuation centre and just have to go back and live in your home with basically no food, water or other services.
Yesterday I hired a van to take food and supplies from Second Harvest Japan up to Iwaki. The four people I delivered to were lucky enough to live in a house that was only built 6 months ago and wasn’t damaged much by the earthquake but still has no tap water and very intermittent power. Their house was far enough inland not to be affected by the tsunami and has now become a makeshift warehouse and distribution point for them to deliver to those who weren’t so lucky.
For the first week or two they’d be lining up for six or seven hours to get water from one central point in town a few kilometers away, but as people left it’s now dropped to about two, or one hour if you’re lucky. Some shops are just starting to re-open again as supply chains start to get reconnected, but its very slow going.
I asked them what they thought about leaving. It seemed an obvious question and they said they had thought a lot about getting out, but felt that since they were old folks anyway, they’d be more help if they stayed put to provide food and support for those who couldn’t leave.
A lot of their friends would also leave if they could, they just don’t have the money or the connections to make it happen. They seemed to have a faint hope that this far outside the exclusion zone things might soon start getting better, but once you leave the larger towns with manufacturing jobs there is a heavy reliance on farming and fishing, so the outlook doesn’t seem too good.
The government and Tepco currently have no responsibility for the costs of moving, housing and feeding anyone outside the 20km and 30km evacuation zones but have recently added five more municipalities NW of the rector outside 30km. Tepco announced on Friday a one-off compensation payment of 1M Yen per family (no matter how many kids) which has been roundly criticized as too little, too late and nowhere near wide-ranging enough for the full effect on Fukushima prefecture. A bit of quick hush money.
About 8km toward the coast from where I dropped the supplies off was the coastal town of Toyoma. When I used to come here surfing I remember thinking the huge sea-walls just looked ugly, spoilt the view and were a pain in the arse to drag your gear over. I say “was”, because there’s very little of it left now.
Five weeks on and there are still months or even years of clean-up work ahead. Seeing all the stock TV images from Miyagi and Iwate concentrated in this area of Fukushima was sobering to say the least. A car bent in half, a single house left standing while all around was wiped out, a cuddly toy on top of a pile of rubble, a kid’s school painting that should have been stuck on a fridge somewhere, some Buddha statues retrieved by rescue workers lined up waiting to be claimed.
This house was tucked up against the south-facing side of the headland (the ocean is on the right) which despite the front windows being smashed in and one end of the balcony being ripped off somehow managed to protect the two perfectly manicured trees in front of the porch.
This beachside road heading south just collapsed almost exactly where a really cool little surf shop used to be.
On the other side of the headland at Numanouchi looking north, those “ugly” sea-wall defences held firm and the town is still basically intact.
Fukushima is Japanese for “fortunate island”.