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USJI Voice Vol.2

Fukushima refugees not willing to return

2014.09.24
Dr. MIKIYASU NAKAYAMA
The University of Tokyo

The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, followed by a gigantic tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, caused nearly 330,000 refugees. Of this number, around 150,000 are residents of Fukushima Prefecture, which has been the most severely contaminated by radioactive materials.

Residents of 12 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture were ordered to evacuate in order to escape radiation, due to dispersed radioactive material. As a result of decontamination operations to flush out radioactive materials, the residents of some municipalities are now permitted to return home.

However, we find that many refugees are reluctant to return to their homes. Some have decided not to return at all.In the case of Hirono Town, located on the border between “contaminated” and “not contaminated” areas, only 1,628 people have returned out of 5,146 registered town residents. Others are still living places outside town, such as in temporary housing in nearby Iwaki City.

The issue of “refugees not willing to return” is not unique to Fukushima Prefecture. Similar phenomena have been observed among refugees from natural disasters in other parts of the world, such as in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the United States. In 2013, The University of Tokyo Graduate School of Frontier Sciences launched an international research project, “Improving Policy and Practice on Return Migration after Natural Disasters,” with the participation of researchers in countries with “refugees not willing to return.”

Planned case studies in the United States include refugees evacuated from their homes by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Japanese researchers will work on issues related to refugees from Hirono Town and other municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture.

Research agenda for all planned case studies include:
– Why refugees are reluctant (or refuse) to return home?
– How, if it is possible at all, refugees may be motivated to come back home?
– How refugees view the “reconstruction plan” by local/central governments?
– How to address the mental issues towards original residences in host communities, when such cases exist

Preliminary interviews were carried out with refugees from Hirono Town presently living in temporary housing in Iwaki City, and the managers of the temporary housing. Many refugees who are “unwilling to return” cite their fear of radioactive deposits and high radiation dosage in Hirono Town. However, the reason given may only be an excuse perhaps not justified by facts. In many cases, the radiation level of their original residences in Hirono Town is now lower than, or equivalent to, the temporary housing they live in.

The interviewees expressed that they now enjoy much better access to clinics, supermarkets, and other facilities by living in temporary housing, rather than those who returned to Hirono Town. “Emancipation” from their in-laws is highly appreciated by housewives, for they used to live alongside their in-laws in Hirono Town, which is no longer the case in temporary housing. Some housewives were also glad to have abandoned labor-intensive rice cropping, for which they are responsible, due to the inundation of paddy fields and the destruction of agricultural equipment by the tsunami.

Planned case studies in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the United States, and Japan, within the framework of the research project, will be carried out further. Research findings will be given through publication of a special issue of an academic journal (first printing in late 2016), as well as at a symposium to be held in Japan in early 2016.

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