Study tour gives students glimpse of stark reality facing town near crippled Fukushima plant

Students who joined a study tour from the Kansai region stroll through the neighborhood near JR Namie Station on Nov. 8, 2015. (Natsuki Edogawa)

Students who joined a study tour from the Kansai region stroll through the neighborhood near JR Namie Station on Nov. 8, 2015. (Natsuki Edogawa)


NAMIE, Fukushima Prefecture–A convenience store might seem an odd venue to start a study trip, especially when it is closed.

But the outlet in question is unusual in that it is located just 9 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, just down the road from the Namie town hall building, and the only one where workers involved in decontamination work around the shattered nuclear facility can purchase food, drinks and other items.

The fact it reopened at all, in August 2014, marked a key step in Namie’s efforts to regain a degree of normalcy after the March 2011 nuclear disaster.

Most of the store’s customers work at the nuclear plant or are involved in decontamination operations in neighboring communities. As Sunday is their day off, the store also closes. That’s because no one lives in Namie anymore.

The tour took the students from the Kansai region through Namie, now a veritable ghost town: houses falling into ruin near JR Namie Station, others with just their foundations remaining and a big clock at an elementary school frozen at the moment towering tsunami spawned by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, inundated the area and other parts of northeastern Japan.

“Even after four and a half years, during which I moved on to a technical college after finishing three years at junior high school, this town is still gripped by the disaster. The scars are everywhere,” said 17-year-old Keitaro Watanabe, who attends the National Institute of Technology, Akashi College, in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture.

Watanabe was among 19 students taking the trip in November 2015, the first trial tour organized by the Fukushima prefectural government for young people to see the tragedy that befell this part of Japan.

Although no one is allowed to stay overnight, day trips to the town are permitted.

The entire town of 20,000 or so people was evacuated as the nuclear accident, triggered by the quake and tsunami, unfolded. About 180 Namie residents lost their lives in the tsunami.

Prefectural authorities sponsored the trip to ascertain the reactions of the participants so that study tours with more meaningful programs to schools and travel agencies can be undertaken in the future. Local officials are particularly interested in visitors to the prefecture who do not need to be accompanied by their parents.

In fiscal 2009, 550,000 children out of the prefecture–ranging from elementary school pupils to college students–visited Fukushima Prefecture on school trips or training camps, according to local officials.

The number, however, plunged to less than 80,000 in fiscal 2011. In fiscal 2014, it bounced back to 250,000, half of the pre-disaster level.

For the tour to Namie, the students aged 17 to 23 traveled through the town by bus to near JR Namie station, where they alighted and strolled through the neighborhood accompanied by a town employee.

A stack of newspapers dated March 12, 2011, was piled up at a shop nearby. It was the day that the town was evacuated.

“Time has stopped,” a student murmured at the sight as tears welled in her eyes.

Watanabe recalled he did not see lasting scars when he was growing up in Akashi, a city that was severely damaged by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.

But residents of Akashi were able to swiftly move on with rebuilding efforts because, unlike in Namie, they did not have to contend with radioactive fallout.

Ena Onishi, a student who majors in social studies of disaster management at Kobe Gakuin University in Kobe, said she initially thought a tour allowing students to experience a day in the life of an evacuee will be a good approach to bolster visitor numbers.

But her view was somewhat altered, she said, after listening to Fukushima high school students at a gathering prior to the trip to Namie.

They stressed the importance of watching and remembering today’s Fukushima because the prefecture will undergo a significant change in coming years.

“Only after coming to Fukushima, I have realized the enormity of the challenge facing people struggling to rebuild,” she said.

Onishi said the big stumbling block to a Fukushima tour is a widespread concern about the possible impact of radiation, something that prefectural officials are also trying to counter.

Her mother was very concerned about the trip, while some of her friends said they will delay visiting Fukushima.

Their concerns are understandable, but the trip was rewarding nevertheless, Onishi added.

“There are many things we can learn from today’s Fukushima,” she said.

Prefectural officials said the recent trip to Namie was an opportunity to get input from the participants so they could create a more worthwhile tour in the future.

One program they are weighing is bringing together tour participants and local high school students to interact with each other.