A Visit to Japan’s Nuclear Ghost Towns



By Cordula Meyer in Der Spiegel

Thousands of people had to flee their homes after the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Since then, the area around the reactor has become an exclusion zone. Some former residents are now returning to salvage possessions and to say goodbye to their homes forever.


The house has been in Tsuneyasu Satoh’s family for generations. It is dusk, and he has come to see it, secretly, one last time. He loves the interior walls made of rice paper and the wooden floor on which his ancestors once walked. But today he will be the last member of his family to set foot in the house.

Satoh is wearing a baseball cap and glasses with black frames, as if he were trying to hide the stony expression on his face. He and his wife Sayoko don’t have much time, and they know that they will have to leave many belongings behind in their old house. Things like the framed calligraphy by Satoh’s father and the awards earned by his daughter, who plays table tennis on the Japanese national team. Satoh stacks blankets and wraps up the TV set. Sayoko gathers the most important items she can find in the cabinets: documents, bed linens, the good rice cooker.

When the Satohs had to flee from their home in the city of Odaka in mid-March, they were not allowed to take anything with them. Government buses and soldiers came to pick them up. Their house had survived for centuries, weathering past earthquakes and the recent tsunami. But after the explosion of the building surrounding Reactor No. 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the Satohs had to leave the house.

Now, four weeks after the evacuation, they have secretly returned to Odaka, which is located inside the 20-kilometer (12.5-mile) restricted zone around the plant, to fill up their Nissan van.

Traffic Lights Still Work

There were 13,400 people living in Odaka before the accident. Today it’s a ghost town, so quiet that one can hear the beating wings of crows flying overhead. As a last sign of life in this dead city, the traffic lights along the main road are still working. Like disco lights at a party that’s been over for hours, they are still switching from green to yellow to red and back to green again.

Tens of thousands of Japanese who once lived in the danger zone around the stricken reactor are in the same position. Many suddenly had to give up all of their important and meaningful possessions. Others were allowed to stay but are now being told not to leave their houses.

The 20-kilometer restricted zone around Fukushima is, in a sense, the legacy of an uncontrollable technology. While the energy-hungry economic powerhouse that is Japan relied heavily on the dream of an inexhaustible source of energy, the people affected by the Fukushima disaster are now being left to more or less fend for themselves as they face the dirty consequences.

Odaka’s dark brown wooden houses are built closely together, and some are now even leaning against each other. Some collapsed during the earthquake, but in others the walls simply crumbled. Cabbage plants and potted flowers are still lined up outside the supermarket. Some residents closed their shutters before they left, but most simply locked the front door. A black women’s shoe is lying on the street at an intersection. An abandoned taxi is parked in front of the train station at the end of the main street, and a pink curtain flaps in the breeze through a broken window in the station door.

A building that housed construction workers on a bluff behind the empty coastal city looks as though the workers had just left for their shifts. A bottle of soy sauce, chopsticks, and salt and pepper shakers are neatly arranged on each table in the cafeteria. A mop is leaning against the wall. The clock above the microwave stopped at precisely the moment when the tsunami ripped apart the power lines. Some of its rushing waters also reached Odaka. The neighborhoods along the ocean, once considered among the most beautiful in Fukushima Prefecture, are now a muddy wasteland, filled with wooden debris and wrecked cars that the water pushed together into tangled piles.

Returning to Feed the Horses

Suddenly the sound of an engine breaks the silence. The soldiers sitting in the olive-green army SUV look like astronauts from a cold, faraway planet, wearing breathing masks and white protective overalls. They use probes to poke around in the mud fields, hoping to find the bodies of people who died when the tsunami ripped away the coastal sections of Odaka. The soldiers did not venture into the towns with high radiation levels at first. But now the radioactivity has declined and the risks associated with entering the restricted zone temporarily are considered acceptable.

Stray dogs are everywhere. They are timid, as if they still have to get used to the presence of people again — and they are hungry.

The Satohs are not the only ones to venture back into the restricted zone. Horse breeder Shinjiro Tanaka periodically leaves the emergency shelter where he is living with his wife and daughters to sneak into the restricted zone and feed his animals.

“It breaks my heart to see them starving,” says Tanaka, pointing to his stable. There are four dead thoroughbred horses lying next to the ones still alive. Tanaka’s horses were among the attractions at a well-known equestrian event where riders wore samurai outfits. Now the animals are so thin that their ribs are showing. Suppliers refuse to bring feed to the restricted zone. Tanaka is not allowed to remove the horses, dead or alive.

‘It’s Safe Here’

A total of nine cities within a 20-kilometer radius of the reactor, including Odaka, Namie, Futaba and Tomioka, had to be abandoned. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated and are now living in emergency shelters outside the danger zone. Some have already rented apartments far away from the area. No one knows when it will be possible for people to live in the evacuation zone again.

The radioactivity varies from place to place. Last week radiation levels of about one microsievert per hour were measured in the vicinity of Odaka, 16 kilometers northwest of the stricken reactor. A person remaining in the area for one year would be exposed to as much radiation as a woman receiving a mammogram. Higher levels have been measured in other towns closer to the reactor.

Tsuneyasu Satoh took a close look at the reported radiation levels before venturing back into his house. “It’s safe here,” he says. His wife is wearing a breathing mask. Satoh, who worked in the nuclear power plant, has a personal radiation-monitoring device.

He owned a small company with 10 employees that worked for the giant utility TEPCO, which operates the Fukushima plant. As a crane operator, Satoh’s job included replacing the fuel elements in the Fukushima reactor. His livelihood depended on the nuclear power plant, but now he is one of the first who have decided to abandon their houses for good.

“They have nothing under control,” he says, referring to TEPCO. “So much more radioactive material will be emitted that it really won’t be possible to live here any more in two years.”

People will only be able to feel safe here again once the reactors have been sealed with concrete, says Satoh. He has spoken with neighbors and acquaintances who also had to flee the restricted zone. “They think that they will be able to return in a few months,” he says, shaking his head. Satoh and his wife now plan to move to a small rental apartment in Tokyo, where their daughter is studying physical education.

His wife Sayoko, 53, looks tired and exhausted. She has kept a diary of their odyssey in her mobile phone. Four weeks ago, when officials told them to leave their house, they only made it to the next village in their van before running out of gasoline, and there was no gasoline to be had. After staying with friends for a while, they took a bus to Tokyo. Only gradually did they reach the decision to abandon their house in Odaka.


Part 2: ‘It Didn’t Occur to Me that We Would Never Return’

Emiko Morikawa, 45, hasn’t come to that point yet, but she too is demoralized by the weeks in emergency shelters. She is sitting with her 18-year-old daughter and 82-year-old mother on the floor of a gymnasium in Minamisoma, the largest city near the evacuation zone. They sleep on floor mats and blankets.

Before the reactor accident, Morikawa was a librarian in Namie, a town only about 10 kilometers from the power plant. Soldiers in radiation suits and breathing masks came to pick her up on the afternoon of March 12. “We went into a panic when we saw them,” she says. Many Namie residents drove away in their cars. The soldiers told the Morikawas that they had four or five hours to pack before a bus would come to pick them up. “It didn’t occur to me that we would never return,” says Morikawa. “All I did was clean up the house.”

Since that day, they have been waiting for the government to reopen the restricted zone. Morikawa’s elderly mother, who is sitting on a pile of blankets, has nothing but praise for the food and the friendly people at the shelter, and she says that she is grateful for all the help. Nevertheless, she adds, she has only one thing in mind: “I want to go home.”

A gong sounds in the gymnasium, announcing that food is about to be distributed. Today’s meal is pork curry. Almost 100 people wait in line, including frail women in their 80s and fragile men with canes. There is no pushing or shoving.

Morikawa has a feeling that she may have to say goodbye to her hometown for good. Perhaps she will move to Iwaki south of the restricted zone, where her daughter will soon begin studying. She doesn’t believe in complaining. “It would only upset other people who are not in a better position,” she says. Nevertheless, she adds, she feels “very, very angry” in her gut.

She is particularly furious with TEPCO, because, even a month after the accident, the company is still unable to get the crisis under control. Morikawa needs money to start a new life, but she is not eligible for compensation because her house is still intact. “If the tsunami had destroyed the house, I would find it easier to start again.” A doctor has prescribed a light sedative for the librarian to help her cope.

No Children on the Streets

Minamisoma was famous for its traditional horse-riding festival, and the entire region was known for its natural beauty, mountain villages and rugged coast. But those days are now gone. The Minamisoma authorities have set up a disaster center on the fourth floor of the city hall. Employee Abe Sadayasu is wearing overalls, like everyone else on the crisis management team. He reads out the local disaster statistics: 378 dead in the tsunami, 1,096 missing, 1,800 wrecked houses. Of the 71,000 people who normally live in Minamisoma, 50,000 have fled.

For a few days, there was no gasoline, little water and hardly enough to eat in Minamisoma. A few supermarkets, gas stations and a hotel have now reopened, but banks and post offices remain closed. The city lies just outside the evacuation zone, but within the 30-kilometer zone. The government also recommends that residents stay in their houses within this wider zone. Not even truck drivers have been willing to drive to Minamisoma.

Many people have fled to areas farther away, although in some cases radioactivity levels are even higher there than in Minamisoma. This has to do with the direction of the wind that has spread the radioactive material. Both of the city’s hospitals are closed, but a few doctors have reopened their offices. The military is providing residents with food and medicine.

Although Minamisoma is not like the ghost towns in the restricted zone, many neighborhoods seem completely abandoned. There are no children to be seen on the streets, and the shutters are closed in most shops. The authorities have recommended staying in the car when venturing out of the house, wearing jackets and facemasks and not going outside in the rain.

Sadayasu and his coworkers on the crisis management team wear light-gray dosimeters on clips attached to their shirt pockets, but they don’t know what will happen next. “There is no information, neither from the government nor TEPCO,” says Sadayasu.

Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai, a bald man in his mid-50s with large glasses and a friendly smile, lived in the restricted zone and has since moved into the city hall. He believes that the evacuation zone presents a bigger problem for Minamisoma than the radiation itself. “It stands in the way of reconstruction. People have little sympathy for it, because there is no good reason to have it.”

Many complain about the order to remain indoors. The official radioactivity levels in Minamisoma are relatively low, about 0.7 microsievert per hour. TEPCO, the economics ministry, the police, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other agencies issue new radiation readings every day. But it is not being properly explained to people what the readings mean and how dangerous the radioactivity really is.

‘I Don’t Understand’

Most residents are in the same position as 19-year-old seamstress Sayaka Kurihara, who is filling out a form in an office on the ground floor to report the destruction of her house in the tsunami. “Somehow I’m afraid, but the information is all so technical that I don’t understand what it’s supposed to mean.”

The daily microsievert readings, which are announced like weather reports, are as much a part of life in the wake of the nuclear accident as the lists, updated daily, of which shops are open on a given day. Midori Takano’s beauty salon was one of the first shops to reopen. Like many others, Takano had also fled the city, but she returned after a week. Her son had to go back to work, and she wanted to get her house in order. “Somehow life has to go on,” she says.

Takano’s customer, a chemist, nods in agreement. Today is the first day in three weeks she has ventured out of her house. She plans to invite friends over on the weekend and wants to have her hair done first — a cautious attempt to lead a normal life despite the radiation. “This attitude is already a big step for me,” says Keiko Iwanami. She has accepted that the nuclear accident is now part of her life. Before that, she sat in her house and thought to herself: “There is no future. But this is no way to live. Life has to go on.”

Hairdresser Takano says that conversations always revolve around the risk from radiation. “Again and again, we talk about whether we will have to leave our houses, perhaps forever.” Takano’s parents died of cancer, and now she too is worried about getting sick. “Even the vegetables are contaminated,” she says. Last week, Greenpeace teams tested spinach and cabbage from Minamisoma vegetable gardens and found them to have radiation levels substantially higher than official limits.

Family Decided to Stay

Meanwhile, farmer Shuichi Suzuki is planting potatoes in his garden 25 kilometers from the power plant. Four generations live under one roof in his house, and the Suzukis are the last residents to remain in the village. The house is on a hill, and yet the tsunami managed to wash a vending machine all the way up into the family’s vegetable garden.

“All the neighbors have fled to the gymnasium,” says Suzuki. He is wearing black rubber boots and rubs his calloused hands together as he speaks. His wife marks the planting row with a string and then takes potatoes out of a wooden box and places them in the earth. “The radioactivity is bad, but the stress is worse,” says Suzuki, adding that he doesn’t want to see his parents vegetate in a gymnasium.

“Of course we were all afraid, especially when all the neighbors were gone and we were truly the last ones here,” he says. The family met by candlelight and decided to stay. As fearful as they were, they didn’t want to leave their home — and they couldn’t bring themselves to abandon the farm dog, either. Now they are planting their potatoes, as defiantly as ever. A government official told them he would come and test the soil for radiation. But he hasn’t come yet, and the Suzukis cannot and will not wait any longer.

On Monday, the Japanese authorities announced they were expanding the evacuation zone around Fukushima beyond the original 20-kilometer radius because of high radiation levels. The zone will now include five communities outside the 20-kilometer zone, which have high levels of accumulated radiation, including Iitate, which is 40 kilometers from the plant.

‘I Was Very Happy Here’

At least the government is now allowing residents of the restricted zone to return, escorted by the police and the military, to pick up their personal effects.

Tsuneyasu Satoh has already completed this task and is now leaving the house in which he grew up and where he raised his four children. “Today is my last day here,” he says.

His piano is still standing in the living room. He will have to leave it behind. “There is no use in being sentimental,” he says. “But I was very happy here, for my entire life. This is where I was so proud when my daughter became a player on the national team.”

Satoh packs up the last stack of towels and carefully ties a few more boxes to the luggage rack on top. Then he gets in and drives the Nissan van onto the main street, where the street lights look like white-and-green paper lanterns. The traffic lights are still flashing forlornly.



Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan




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