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Bringing Evacuees Together

Oct. 17, 2016

More than 5 years after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, one tight-knit community remains broken apart -- but it has found a lifeline to stay connected.

The 2011 disaster forced thousands of people to leave for other parts of Japan, and the residents of Futaba, where the plant is located, were no exception.

A small typesetting shop prints something that has become essential reading for the former members of that community -- an 8-page magazine published by the town hall of Futaba.

The town is home to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Its proximity means that 96 percent of the town is still designated as "highly contaminated" and access is strictly regulated.

At the time of the accident, there were around 7,000 residents. Almost all of them were forced to abandon their homes.

Every month they receive the magazine. It is called "Futaba no Wa," which can be translated as "Futaba Links." The content is created by social workers who aid the former residents.

Its editor is Mihoko Yamane and after the nuclear accident, she felt she wanted to do something to help all the people whose lives were turned upside-down.

"Those Futaba residents are now scattered all over the place. I want to let the evacuees know where their former neighbors are living and what they are doing. I hope that will give them a positive outlook and encourage them to do something," Yamane says.

Mihoko was traveling across the country in August to gather stories for the next issue. One of the people she met was Nobuko Kato.

Nobuko and her husband now live over 200 kilometers from Futaba, in Saitama Prefecture. They moved 7 times, and lived in an evacuation shelter and an apartment before buying a house.

Moving around so much took its toll on Nobuko and she was prescribed antidepressants. When she was living in Futaba, she was close to her 3 children and 10 grandchildren. Now they aren't so near.

"All I can say is that it's very frustrating," Kato says.

Once a month, she can find some comfort in the magazine. When she opens it, the memories come flooding back.

"I read this magazine and try to keep positive. Forgive me. It makes me cry," Kato says.

Former residents of Futaba are starting new lives elsewhere, including faraway Toyama Prefecture.

Their profiles are featured in the magazine. One of them is Masato Sanpei, who used to run a restaurant in Futaba.

He was hoping to reopen his establishment one day. But when he learned that a storage facility for contaminated soil would be built where his home once stood, he gave up on the idea.

Instead, he decided to open a restaurant in Toyama.

"I have my memories from Futaba. And I will cherish those, but I have a new life, in a new place," says Masato Sanpei, a local restaurant owner.

Futaba remains behind barricades and decontamination work has yet to begin. Residents like Masato cannot move back, even if they want to. And a recent survey indicates that more than half of them have already decided never to return.

Mihoko wants the magazine to help them feel positive about their new lives, and to promote a forward-looking attitude.

"If people who are just living their normal lives are told that their hometown will suddenly disappear, they would think they are also losing their roots and memories," Mihoko says.

Through her work, Mihoko has met many people with great hopes for the future, like student Shigekiyo Kowata.

At the time of the disaster, he was one of over 200 students at Futaba Junior High School. Shigekiyo was forced to move to a nearby town and the whole school was relocated. Today, he is one of only 12 remaining students there.

He loves running track, and he wants to send the message to his former classmates around the country that Futaba Junior High School is still there.

"It's not like I'm trying to get attention for myself. I just want the people of Futaba to understand my message," Shigekiyo says.

In August, Shigekiyo joined a regional track competition, where he was the only member of his team. He beat out runners from other schools to come in first.

On his way back home, he passed his former town. Shigekiyo would like to see Futaba again but people under the age of 15 are forbidden from entering the restricted areas.

"I want to go back. My hometown is Futaba and nowhere else. That's all I can say," Shigekiyo says.

In mid-September, Nobuko Kato in Saitama received the latest edition of magazine. The articles remind her of the life in Futaba.

"Ah, this is my son. Look! What a surprise," she says.

Mihoko also visited a baseball team made up of former residents. Like the magazine, the team allows to stay connected. Mihoko Yamane continues her work because she doesn't want the people to ever forget where they came from.

"If the former residents of Futaba can get together and share their memories, those memories will be etched in their minds," Mihoko says. "I hope this will give them some peace of mind as they continue to live their daily lives."