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Sunday, Aug 31, 2014

Asia

Fukushima fallout: Resentment grows in nearby Japanese city

Reuters | Sunday, Aug 31, 2014

Reactors are seen at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Fukushima Prefecture, northern Japan in this September 18, 2010 file photo.

IWAKI - Like many of her neighbours, Satomi Inokoshi worries that her gritty hometown is being spoiled by the newcomers and the money that have rolled into Iwaki since the Fukushima nuclear disaster almost three and a half years ago.

"Iwaki is changing - and not for the good," said Inokoshi, 55, who echoes a sentiment widely heard in this town of almost 300,000 where the economic boom that followed the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl has brought its own disruption.

Property prices in Iwaki, about 60 km (36 miles) south of the wrecked nuclear plant, have jumped as evacuees forced from homes in more heavily contaminated areas snatch up apartments and land. Hundreds of workers, who have arrived to work in the nuclear clean-up, crowd downtown hotels.

But long-time residents have also come to resent evacuees and the government compensation that has made the newcomers relatively rich in a blue-collar town built on coal mining and access to a nearby port. Locals have stopped coming to the entertainment district where Inokoshi runs a bar, she says, scared off by the nuclear workers and their rowdy reputation.

"The situation around Iwaki is unsettled and unruly," said Ryosuke Takaki, a professor of sociology at Iwaki Meisei University, who has studied the town's developing divide. "There are many people who have evacuated to Iwaki, and there are all kinds of incidents caused by friction."

HOSTS WEARY, GUESTS FRIGHTENED

Residents across Fukushima prefecture hailed the first wave of workers who arrived to contain the nuclear disaster in 2011 as heroes. Cities like Iwaki also welcomed evacuees from towns closer to the meltdowns and explosions. At the time, Japan's stoicism and sense of community were praised around the world for helping those who survived an earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 and triggered explosions at the nuclear plant.

But that solidarity and sense of shared purpose has frayed, according to dozens of interviews. Many Iwaki residents say they have grown weary of hosting evacuees in temporary housing.

And the newcomers themselves are frightened, says Hideo Hasegawa, who heads a non-profit group looking after evacuees at the largest temporary housing complex in Iwaki.

"When they move in to an apartment, they don't talk to neighbours and hide," said Hasegawa, who works from a small office located between rows of grey, prefabricated shacks housing the evacuees. "You hear this hate talk everywhere you go: restaurants, shops, bars. It's relentless."

The 2011 nuclear crisis forced more than 160,000 people in Fukushima prefecture to evacuate and leave their homes. Half of them are still not allowed to return to the most badly contaminated townships within 20 kms (12.4 miles) of the destroyed plant known as the exclusion zone.

Since April, the government has allowed some residents to return to parts of the evacuation zone. But the area remains sparsely populated and riddled with hot spots where radiation is as much as four times the government's target for public safety. Work crews in white decontamination suits have poured radiation-tainted topsoil and debris into black-plastic bags piled at improvised storage sites on roadsides and public parks awaiting a shift to a more permanent nuclear waste dump.

By contrast, Iwaki has prospered. On a recent Saturday, parking lots near downtown were packed - along with restaurants near Taira, the city's downtown.

Chuo-dai Kashima, a newly developed area in Iwaki where many of the temporary housing units have been built, saw an almost 12 per cent rise in land prices in the past year, according to government data. That was among the highest increases across Japan and behind only Ishinomaki, Miyagi, a coastal city that was destroyed by the 2011 tsunami and has only just begun to rebuild.

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