Inside the checkpoints, Namie is a ghost town of empty streets cluttered with garbage and weeds, unheard-of in famously neat Japan. Some traditional wooden farmhouses survived the earthquake, although they have not survived the neglect. They collapsed after rain seeped in, rotting their ancient wooden beams. Their tiled roofs spill into the roads.
Through gritty shop windows, merchandise that fell off shelves in the quake can still be seen scattered on the floor. In the town hall, calendars remain open to March 2011, when the disaster struck.
Officials have reoccupied a corner of the building for their Office for Preparation to Return to the Town, although their only steps so far have been to install portable toilets and post guards to prevent looting. The national government hopes to eventually deploy an army of workers here to scrape up tonnes of contaminated soil. However, officials have run into a roadblock: They have found only two sites in the town where they can store toxic dirt; 49 would be needed.
Just last month, the government admitted that such travails had left the cleanup hopelessly behind schedule in eight of the 11 towns, which they had originally promised would be cleaned by March next year. Even in the places where cleanup has begun, other troubles have surfaced. Scouring the soil had limited success in bringing down radiation levels, partly because rain carries more contaminants down from nearby mountains.
The Japanese Ministry of the Environment now says the completion of the cleanup in the eight towns, including Namie, has been postponed and no new date has been set.
In Namie, a town hall survey showed that 30 percent of residents had given up on reclaiming their lives in their town, 30 percent had not and 40 percent remained unsure.
Watabe’s visits have been emotionally painful, and scary. She says her husband’s car dealership was robbed. Her yard was invaded by a wild boar, which she managed to chase off. She considers weeding her driveway so risky that she waved away a visitor who offered to help, pointing to her dosimeter showing readings two-and-a-half times the level that would normally force an evacuation.
She reminisced about her once close-knit community, where neighbors stopped by for leisurely chats over tea. She raised her four children here, and her 10 grandchildren were regular visitors; their stuffed animals and baby toys lie amid the debris on the dealership floor.
Her youngest son, whose own family had shared the house and who was supposed to take over the family business, has vowed never to return. He moved, instead, to a Tokyo suburb, worried that even the taint of an association with Namie could cause his two young daughters to face the same sort of discrimination as the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
“The young people have already given up on Namie,” Watabe said. “It is only the old people who want to come back.”
“And even we will have to give up soon,” her husband Masazumi added.
While their chances of making it back seem low, their former neighbors in the town’s mountainous western half are even less likely to return anytime soon. The Watabes’ house sits in the orange zone, indicating mid-level radiation. Most of the area is a red zone, the worst hit.