“People are giving up because we have been hit by negative news after negative news,” said Watanabe, who set up a temporary town hall in a former girls’ high school on a corner of Aizu-Wakamatsu’s six-century-old castle. “Keeping our road map is the only way to hold onto hope and prevent the town from disappearing.”
Watanabe admits that his plan has a dwindling number of adherents. A questionnaire sent to Okuma’s evacuees by the town hall in September found that only 11 percent of the 3,424 households that responded said they wanted to go back, while 45.6 percent said they had no intention of ever returning, mostly because of radiation fears.
Hopes for a return took another blow early this month when ministry officials told Watanabe that they planned to build as many as nine temporary storage facilities in Okuma for dirt and other debris from the cleanup. Many evacuees said they did not want to go back if their town was to be used as a dumping ground for radioactive refuse.
At the temporary housing site, where prefabricated apartments stood in rows like barracks on a former soccer field, many evacuees said they had been allowed to return to their homes in Okuma wearing hazmat suits and masks on tightly monitored, one-hour visits to retrieve some belongings. Many said that as the months passed, it was becoming more emotionally difficult to think about spending the time and energy to rebuild.
“Every time I go back, it feels less and less like my home,” 85-year-old Hiroko Izumi said.
Many others said the town needed to move fast to keep its relatively small number of working-age residents, who were already beginning to find jobs and start new lives in places like Aizu-Wakamatsu.
“If too much time passes, Okuma could just disappear,” healthcare worker Harue Soga, 63, said.
For those who do not want to move back, Okuma drew up an alternative plan in September that calls for building a new town on vacant land safely outside the evacuation zone around the plant. The new town would be built within five years.
Watanabe admits that he is now among a minority of former residents who are still determined to go back to the original Okuma.
He describes an almost spiritual attachment to the land where his family has grown rice for at least 19 generations and that holds the family graves that Confucian tradition forbids him from abandoning.
“We have been living there for 1,000 years,” he said. “I have promised myself that one day, I will again eat my own rice grown on my ancestral farm.”