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[Newsmaker] Japan glimpses its future in Fukushima today

Japan will honor its dead this week from the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the coastline north of Tokyo on March 11 four years ago.

For those who have spent those years helping survivors in the northeast region known as Tohoku, the experience has thrown up the challenge of how to knit back together communities built over centuries, then shattered in the space of minutes on that Friday afternoon in 2011.

Doctors and others say the work in Tohoku has also offered a fast-forward glimpse into Japan’s own future and perhaps what awaits other industrialized societies trying to understand how communities will function as the proportion of youth in the population is slowly eclipsed by the elderly.

The rural northeast coast of Japan was already losing many of its young people to jobs in Tokyo and other cities. That trend accelerated after the disaster killed 15,890 people. A further 2,590 are still listed as missing.
People hold placards to protest against nuclear power in Tokyo on Monday. (Xinhua-Yonhap)
People hold placards to protest against nuclear power in Tokyo on Monday. (Xinhua-Yonhap)

The population drain has been especially acute in Fukushima prefecture, where the tsunami generated by the biggest earthquake in Japan’s written history slammed into Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s nuclear plant, giving the world its first triple reactor meltdown.

On average, this Pacific Ocean coast of Japan has been hit by major tsunami about once every 400 years. Each time, the communities rebuilt the towns and roads. This time, they have to contend with nuclear fallout.

Radioactive plumes thrown into the air from the disaster showered down on the sea and nearby villages. The town of Naraha ― known for salmon runs in its rivers, persimmon orchards and grasslands for grazing cattle ― is one of them.

Written records of the town, whose name means Oak Leaf, stretch back more than 1,000 years. Naraha, 13 kilometers south of the wrecked reactors and host to another nuclear plant, is the home of Kaneko Takahara, a petite 66-year-old who was evacuated four years ago along with the town’s more than 7,400 residents.

After years of clearing radioactive rubble and waste, the government aims to reopen Naraha this spring.

On a recent winter morning, Takahara is in a black cardigan and dark slacks, bustling with the energy of a person half her age and beaming a pretty much permanent smile as she talks of going home.

“I want to send a message that we’re full of life,” she said. “There’s no use crying over the past.”

Yet, surveys of evacuated residents show the majority of those ready to return are retired and elderly. Among those in their 30s and 40s, only 3 percent plan to go back.

“This is Japan in 20 years,” said Tetsuya Ohira, a doctor and professor at the Fukushima Medical University, referring to the town as a microcosm of Japan’s shifting demographic as the birthrate falls and the population ages.

How Naraha functions will be a testing ground for other regions in Japan and aging societies elsewhere, according to Ohira.

“The issue of how to deal with health problems is the same as what we’ll face nationwide,” Ohira said after giving a nutrition seminar in February at a temporary housing complex for Naraha evacuees in the southern Fukushima town of Iwaki. “We are starting to resolve them now.”

As Ohira’s two dozen elderly listeners prepare for calisthenics, the doctor offers an assessment of this possible future. It isn’t pretty.

Besides higher health costs from increased rates of heart disease and diabetes, fewer older people live with their children, and societal isolation brings on depression, he said.

Since the earthquake, the fragmentation of traditional communities led to more people living by themselves. At least 145 people have died alone in temporary housing since the disaster, according to the Yomiuri newspaper, which tallied police data across several prefectures.

About 120,000 people, or 6 percent of the population of Fukushima prefecture, are still classed as evacuees, according to data from the government’s Reconstruction Agency. A further 110,000 evacuees live in the prefectures of Miyagi and Iwate to the north.

Naraha’s neighboring town of Futaba had about 7,000 residents before the earthquake.

When evacuation orders came, about 1,200 of them began a gypsy-like journey on a caravan of buses almost 200 kilometers south to Saitama prefecture.

There they took refuge, first in the Saitama Super Arena sports stadium, before moving into an abandoned high school. At one point, as many as 1,400 people lived there in classrooms, an official at the Futaba town hall said in an interview.

The high school also served as the town office until June 2013 as the mayor of the town who led the exodus, Katsutaka Idogawa, tried to keep the community bonded. The last of the residents left the high school in December 2014.

Now Futaba’s population is broken into pieces and scattered across Japan. Some former residents moved to snow-swept Hokkaido in the far north, others to tropical Okinawa at the southern end of Japan’s archipelago. About 2,000 live in Iwaki city where another temporary town hall for Futaba has been set up.

With so many communities splintered, the question for U.S.-based Japanese architect Emi Kiyota was how to create areas to bring people back together.

She set up a project called iBasho Cafe, a reference to the Japanese word for place, and built a center for retirees that they run themselves in Ofunato city, Iwate prefecture.

The center operates as a cafe as well as an organic farm. Kiyota said it reflects the ideas of the elderly she spoke with, who said they wanted to contribute and not be a burden.

Centers like iBasho show another social model. They motivate the elderly to go out and interact with other sections of society that might need support, Kiyota said.

“Having a social infrastructure is more important than physical infrastructure and buildings,” she said.

Dr. Yutaka Ono, who heads the National Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Research, has been attempting similar community forging exercises in northeast Japan to combat the rise in depression, suicide, alcohol abuse and other ills that affect post-disaster areas.

“You need a hub, a place where people can get together and do activities,” Ono said. “If you can get people together and talk, that lightens the load.”

All the disaster-hit regions of northern Japan need help to regain self-belief and a sense of pride, said Tomohiro Takei, a venture capitalist who put his career on hold to create a network called Makoto for entrepreneurs in the region.

Northern Japan has all the land and human resources it needs to succeed, Takei said on the sidelines of the “Sendai for Start-Ups!” forum he helped organize in February.

“The biggest thing that we have to change is confidence,” Takei said, noting that in the second year of running the forum the number of attendees doubled.

The ever-smiling Kaneko Takahara from Naraha recognized that. After evacuation, she threw herself into making craft items, such as traditional Japanese hanging mobiles used in interior decoration.

She’s organized three craft exhibitions produced by her and other ladies from the town, raising more than $4,000. More important than the money, the activity has given women from Naraha who lost loved ones in the tsunami a physical task to ease the mental suffering, Takahara said.