Japan observes 10th anniversary of nuclear disaster as Fukushima farmers start all over again

Japan is paying tribute to the victims of the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami in the north-east of the country, which also triggered the world’s worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl crisis, while some farmers return to restart farming despite persistent concerns about radiation contamination.

On Thursday, memorial services are to be held across Japan as the country marks the 10th anniversary of the tragedy. Emperor Naruhito, Empress Masako and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga are scheduled to attend a scaled-down ceremony in Tokyo amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The magnitude-9 quake followed by a tsunami struck north-eastern Japan on March 11, 2011, claiming the lives of about 18,400 people, most of whom were in the prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima, the National Police Agency said.

As consequences of the natural catastrophe, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station suffered meltdowns at three of its reactors after the tsunami swept through the facilities.

The number of people who died due to the prolonged evacuation stood at 3,767, including 2,313 in Fukushima prefecture, according to the Reconstruction Agency.

Ten years after the disaster, about 36,000 evacuees from Fukushima remain scattered across Japan and are still unable to return to their homes in areas surrounding the damaged nuclear power station, 230 kilometers north-east of Tokyo, according to the Reconstruction Agency.

Critics say the actual number of evacuees is much larger, arguing the central and local governments have failed to look into the living conditions of those who were forced to leave their homes near the plant.

The government lifted evacuation orders in many of the towns surrounding the plant, as it completed decontamination work, which critics say was ineffective.

In Namie town, 1,579 residents, only 7 percent of the town population before the disaster, have ventured to live near the plant since the evacuation order was lifted for central parts of the town in 2017.

Meanwhile, in Itiate, Hideo Takahashi was one of the few farmers who returned to this sleepy mountainous village in north-eastern Japan to restart farming despite persistent concerns about radiation contamination following the country’s worst nuclear disaster.

When the government lifted the evacuation order for Iitate village in March 2017, Takahashi, a fifth-generation family farmer, was ready to come back to the land that his ancestors had tilled for about 200 years.

During the evacuation in the city of Fukushima, Takahashi and his wife started to grow Turkish bellflower in greenhouses, picturing their life in Iitate after their return.

He does not expect to grow rice in Iitate once again for a while, so he and other farmers devote their time and energy to growing Turkish bellflower and alstroemeria, a herbaceous flowering plant.

His sales have recovered to the pre-disaster level and he is happy to be back to his home in Iitate.

“I’m very pleased to see a sunrise and this scenery from my home once again,” Takahashi said.

“This year, we aim to make new farmers’ business successful,” he said.

Four decades ago, Takahashi was the first to grow broccoli in Iitate, hoping it would become a major crop in the village, which used to be one of the poorest areas in Fukushima prefecture.

Iitate, which belongs to Japan’s “most beautiful village” union, became one of the most radiation-contaminated areas after the 2011 triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

The village lies beyond the government-imposed 20-kilometer evacuation zone following the disaster. However, villagers were later ordered to flee their homes due to high cumulative levels of radiation.

About 3,720 people, 72 percent of Iitate’s population, have not returned to the village.

One of the concerns villagers have is Iitate has no hospital, Takahashi said.

A doctor comes to Iitate two mornings a week, a village official said.