The Ghost Town

By Deborah Svoboda

Natsuko Yoshida standing in deserted town

Natsuko Yoshida, deputy general manager in charge of revitalization in Namie, Japan, stands in front of buildings damaged by the earthquake and evacuated due to radiation from the Fukushima power plant explosion. Yoshida is working to open Namie back up to its residents, who have been displaced to various locations throughout Fukushima prefecture. August 15, 2014.
Photo by Gavin McIntyre

The children had practiced their school safety drills over and over again. The large junior high school located in the path of the tsunami, in the town of Namie, was as prepared as it could be for the disasters of March 11, 2011. After the first jolts of the earthquake, the teachers quickly walked the children to the top of Ohira Yama, the hill behind the school, where they waited and watched as the tsunami flooded the land below them. They all survived.

Many were not so lucky; over 200 people in Namie lost their lives that day. The town, located just 6.5 miles north of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, was one of the places that was devastated by all three punches of the triple disaster – the earthquake, the tsunami and finally the nuclear meltdown that spewed radiation into the atmosphere.

As a result, the people are gone, and Namie remains a ghost town.

Yoshida Natsuko, the deputy general manager in charge of the revitalization of the town, says that most of the earthquake’s destructive force was felt in the town itself. In fact, if you stand at the train station in the center of town and look around, you will see that almost every structure is cracked, collapsed or crumbling to the ground.

With residents evacuated, the town is empty and eerily quiet. A large, now-faded light-blue sign at the Namie station reads: “A gentle town where you can live safely.”

People had about 47 minutes after the first earthquake until the water hit. Even as aftershocks continued, waves as high as 33 feet swept over the outskirts of town, said Yoshida-san. According to the Reconstruction, Promotion and Planning office, 586 homes were washed away in those enormous waves.

Next, at the Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, the No. 1 reactor exploded three minutes after the first tsunami waves hit. Many Namie residents, more than 6 miles away, heard the loud explosion.

For the survivors of the first two disasters, evacuation orders began coming out within a few hours. However, town officials learned of the evacuation orders through the TV news that night, according to Namie’s Reconstruction office.

People first fled to Tsushima in the western portion of Namie town, which turned out to be a bad idea. The Reconstruction office explains that “the area was in fact highly contaminated by radiation, but no such information was provided by the central or Fukushima municipal government.” Since many evacuees spent four days in Tsushima, this “greatly increases health concerns among Namie people,” the Reconstruction office says.

Continuing Impact

The 21,000 people who inhabited this “beautiful and lively” town are still feeling the impacts from 3-11, said Yoshida-san.

In the green countryside, on the approach to Namie, one can see collapsed buildings, houses and garages. The earth has taken over two cars that remain flipped over, nowhere in sight of the ocean.

A guard wearing a mask is the first human you encounter. He checks for the necessary permit and opens the gate, which Yoshida said is needed because thieves were sneaking into the area and breaking into houses looking for valuables. Now, only permit holders are allowed during the hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Radiation levels are low, but decontamination procedures have not been completed. For this reason, local government officials have decided not to reopen the town even though the national government has lifted its restrictions.

As in many districts around Fukushima, the local government is still deciding where they can put the radiated soil. Until this decision is made, they cannot complete decontamination, and therefore there is no chance of full-time living in Namie.

Meanwhile, the evacuees are scattered across Japan, which makes it difficult for them to check in on and maintain their houses. As a result, many abandoned homes are suffering from mold, rat infestations and overgrown vegetation.

Closer to the ocean you see the unnatural sight of large fishing boats deposited in the middle of overgrown fields. Small mountains of rubbish, uncharacteristic of Japan, are randomly placed here and there. Pointing to a completely empty overgrown field, Yoshida-san said, “This use to be residential.”

At the shore, a man can be seen walking around in a full breathing mask and helmet carrying a clipboard and camera. A loudspeaker, seemingly from out of nowhere, eerily interrupts the moment announcing the “9-5” regulation. These announcements are made throughout the day, all over the town.

Although Yoshida says that one gas station has reopened and several businesses are starting to come back, the whole area has a desolate feel to it. The grey sea and sky do not help, nor does the knowledge that on a clear day one can see the chimneys of the Daiichi power plant.

Evacuees continue to experience stress, loneliness, trauma, lack of daily exercise and other problems stemming from the catastrophe. In fact, Namie officials report that 331 people have died in the post-disaster period – compared to the more than 200 who perished during the disaster – from suicide, stress and other problems linked to 3-11.

Citizens and local government have lost faith in authorities since they do not believe they were kept informed. The evacuation orders came from the TV news and the high levels of radiation were not announced for days. The fear is great concerning the health for a large part of the Namie population that lived for four days in the high radiation area.

As Namie residents are spread all over Japan “this causes tremendous difficulties for the town hall to communicate with and provide services to its residents,” says the Reconstruction office.

Hope for the Future

The definition of “reconstruction” for Namie town “is about building furusato (our hometown) which means much more than just a location on a map,” says the Reconstruction office. Rebuilding physical structures and public services represents just one aspect of the work needed. “Reconstruction means to rebuild everyone’s ordinary life, regardless of his/her intention to physically return to Namie,” according to the Reconstruction office.

In a poll taken August 2013, the Reconstruction office says that approximately 19% of evacuees want to return, 37.5% are unsure and 37.5% do not want to return to Namie. For those who wish to return the Reconstruction office has pamphlets describing the reconstruction timetable, including redevelopment, decontamination, infrastructure rebuilding, new housing arrangements and a new fishing port.

The town has a goal of reopening by 2017, and there are plans to build a memorial on Ohira Yama, the hill that saved the school children.

Yoshida-san was born and raised in Namie. A six-year employee of the city’s finance department, she was at work in her office when the earthquake and tsunami hit. She lost contact with her family for a day, but luckily, “My family was safe. We didn’t live on the coast.”

She immediately turned her attention to helping fellow residents.

“I was bombarded with work supporting those people who were being evacuated from the coastal areas,” she said. Two years ago, she was appointed deputy manager in charge of revitalizing the town.

With a smile, Yoshida-san described with excitement a recent “symbol of hope.”

In May 2014, she said huge crowds gathered and cheered as they planted the first crop of rice since the disasters.

However, Yoshida-san quickly added that the planting was an experiment—the rice will not be consumed.

Nevertheless, she said, “It was very meaningful for the people of Namie.”