POINT OF VIEW/ Yuko Endo: 4 years from nuclear disaster, Fukushima needs to reverse depopulation

Interview mit dem Bürgermeister von Kawauchimura, Herrn Yuko Endo

March 19, 2015

Mayor Yuko Endo listens to proposals for post-quake reconstruction from elementary school pupils in Kawauchi, Fukushima Prefecture, in November. (Susumu Okamoto)

Kawauchi Mayor Yuko Endo during a recent interview (Susumu Okamoto)

Mayor Yuko Endo listens to proposals for post-quake reconstruction from elementary school pupils in Kawauchi, Fukushima Prefecture, in November. (Susumu Okamoto)

Mayor Yuko Endo listens to proposals for post-quake reconstruction from elementary school pupils in Kawauchi, Fukushima Prefecture, in November. (Susumu Okamoto)

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

The village of Kawauchi, where I serve as mayor, is located 20 to 30 kilometers southwest of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Radiation levels remained relatively low, so it was quite obvious what we had to do to allow residents to return. We attracted firms to secure workplaces, and we expanded the lineup of departments at our clinic so residents could live with peace of mind once they returned.

We also plan to open an intensive care home for the elderly and a shopping complex by year-end.

Of the 3,000 or so people who lived in Kawauchi before the nuclear disaster, some 1,600 have so far returned. Only 20 percent of those aged 40 or under are back in Kawauchi.

Families are no longer the same as before. As they have had to live in evacuation, such as in temporary housing, the number of households has increased from the pre-disaster figures of 1,100 to 1,500.

Young villagers have landed jobs in urban areas, where they took shelter. Children have also gotten used to schools to which they were transferred. Those people are building new lives for themselves, although we call them “evacuees.”

They have come to think of returning to their own homes as something like a “resettlement” because a return to Kawauchi would require them to once again drastically alter their living environment.

I think it is no longer possible to restore the village to what it was. There is nothing wrong with people’s decisions to settle elsewhere in a forward-looking mindset, instead of returning to Kawauchi. In fact, continuing on with an “all-temporary” life–a temporary job and a temporary school–would be akin to wasting precious time in your life.

The central government has set aside 25 trillion yen ($208 billion) to spend on rebuilding efforts from the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster during a five-year “intensive reconstruction period.” That period will expire at the end of fiscal 2015.

The central government intends to show the world how Fukushima has been rebuilt, hopefully when the Summer Olympics are held in Tokyo in 2020.

I think it is, of course, essential to designate a deadline in setting a goal, but I don’t want it to be forgotten that it takes a long time to rebuild a disaster-hit area.

Forests, which account for 87 percent of Kawauchi’s landmass, have yet to be decontaminated. All we can do is wait for the natural decay of radioactive substances while taking care of the forests, but that will probably take us something like 40 years, the same time frame for having the nuclear reactors decommissioned.

I am concerned that when the “deadline” has passed, the central government could reduce its assistance in the name of efficiency across the entire area of Futaba county (a broader administrative district that includes Kawauchi), which hosts the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Rebuilding measures are, of course, essential, but rather, how to cope with an ongoing depopulation is, in fact, presenting an extremely crucial issue. Kawauchi’s current population of 1,600 had initially been projected for some time around 2030. But the nuclear disaster has abruptly turned that projection into a reality.

Other constituent towns and villages of Futaba county, where a return of residents will get under way from now on, will also have to face the same challenge. Without young people, it remains difficult to manage a local government and envisage a future for a local community, no matter how magnificent the infrastructure to be built under reconstruction measures.

I realize that exactly represents the serious nature of the nuclear disaster.

While it is never easy to try to stop depopulation, an anxiety about not knowing how we could cope with the drastic change we are now facing is giving the villagers a sense of loss and helplessness, which is working against their return.

I want the central government to offer tax incentives and other measures so people will feel they would be better off working in the countryside than doing so in an urban area.

If the central government says it cares about provincial communities and wants to revitalize their economies, why not decentralize the organizations and human resources of the national government, which are centered in Tokyo, to rural areas? Young people will never join depopulated communities from the outside unless there are policy incentives such as those.

Unlike in natural disasters, it is obvious to see who are responsible for and who were victimized by the nuclear disaster. That situation, in my view, is preventing disaster-hit communities from standing on their own feet and is making them unhappy in the end.

Damage should be repaired properly, but thinking of yourself forever as a victim will probably not allow you to proceed to the next stage of the rebuilding process, whereby you should build a new community on your own.

The rice-planting area in Kawauchi rebounded to about 160 hectares last year, half as large as pre-disaster levels. That is because so many farmers find joy and take pride in farming in the village. In the part of Kawauchi where evacuation orders were lifted in October, young farmers are trying to grow gentians, which they hope to turn into a new special product.

I feel so reassured to learn that some of our residents are showing their mettle at a time when the overall population is increasingly relying on administrative services.

It is not cash but human resources that have the potential to change a local community.

Rebuilding Kawauchi could also help assist those who have left our village. They do need a home community to which they could return whenever they wish to. That would require persevering efforts, but we cannot afford to give up on them.

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Born in 1955, Yuko Endo, mayor of Kawauchi since 2004, previously served on the village assembly there. While almost all residents of Kawauchi evacuated following the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011, Endo issued a message to them in January 2012, in which he called on those who could to return to the village.

(This article is based on an interview by Susumu Okamoto.)

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