Stricken tsunami city of Minamisoma searches for its lost youth

Three years on from the tsunami and nuclear catastrophe that devastated Minamisoma, many young people have fled, making it harder to rebuild

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 6:05am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 3:58pm

For Toyonobu Matsuno, a lifetime as a fisherman in Minamisoma was turned upside down when a monstrous tsunami swamped his home and boat on March 11, 2011. Like many who have committed their whole lives to this devastated town, 72-year-old Matsuno refuses to leave, although he risks harm from nuclear radiation.

Tomorrow, Japan marks the third anniversary of the triple disaster that began with one of the world's most powerful earthquakes. The below-sea rumble unleashed a 14-metre tsunami that swept away tens of thousands of buildings and triggered a massive release of radioactive materials from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Watch: Ghost towns in Japan still contaminated three years after the March 11 earthquake and resulting nuclear disaster

Now Matsuno and his community face a quandary: the youth have fled the stricken city for safer environs and better opportunities, leaving Minamisoma - about 30 kilometres north of the power station - struggling to recruit workers to rebuild for the older residents left behind.

Those are just the start of the mounting labour problems faced by Japan. Layers of complex bureaucracy, ineffective co-ordination between Tokyo and local governments, and the added fear that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will divert further resources heighten the frustration voiced by residents and local officials.

Matsuno had no patience for the convoluted government scheme that offered permanent homes for displaced residents. While living in a temporary shelter with his wife, he bought a piece of land - at double the price of his previous home - last year. But the plan to live there has been stalled by the severe labour shortage. It took him months to find a construction company that would build a house for them. The firm has held off from signing a contract until this month to avoid being held responsible for any delays.

"The construction companies here just don't have enough manpower, and most of the construction materials are being sent to big cities like Sendai," Matsuno says, referring to the biggest city in the northeastern Tohoku region that was hardest hit by the disaster.

Previously known as a quiet agricultural area dotted with sleepy fishing villages, the Tohoku region has long struggled with the challenges of ageing populations. And the disaster has exacerbated the problem.

Minamisoma city was transformed into a ghost town soon after water from the tsunami engulfed its coastal edge. Nuclear alerts sounded and some 50,000 residents, out of a total 75,000, fled in two weeks. The disaster claimed 1,026 lives and destroyed 1,165 houses in Minamisoma. Around 30 per cent of the former population has not returned.

Today, the southern tip of the city, closest to the power plant and once home to 4,000 families, is fenced off. It's an exclusion zone, bristling with severe nuclear contamination, and residents are allowed only limited access.

In another city section, radiation levels have dropped and residents can visit, but not stay overnight. The government says that some of the evacuated residents may wait five years before they can live in their former homes; some will wait 10 years, and some may never be allowed to return. Most of these evacuees now live in temporary homes elsewhere in the country.

Outside the exclusion zone, some residents have trickled back. Shattered buildings have mostly been cleared. But scars of the town's struggle in a nuclear limbo are still visible.

Minamisoma's mayor, Katsunobu Sakurai, says he worries about the shrinking number of young people following the exodus sparked by fears of nuclear contamination.

We need to do everything to make [young people] feel like coming back
Katsunobu Sakurai, mayor

According to figures provided by the Minamisoma government, its workforce - people aged 15 to 64 - dropped by 33 per cent, from about 43,000 before the earthquake to nearly 29,000 today. But the number of people aged 65 and older has remained fairly level: 18,500 before the disaster and 16,500 today.

"If we could have the previous population, our reconstruction would proceed at double the current speed," Sakurai says.

The 58-year old mayor won international acclaim two weeks after the calamity when he made a desperate plea for help in an 11-minute video posted on YouTube. "We are left isolated," he says in the video. "I beg you, as the mayor of Minamisoma, to help us." Donations and offers to help poured in.

Today, he is making another appeal. "There is no single silver bullet [to resolve the reconstruction problems], but we especially lack young people. We need to do everything to make them feel like coming back," he says.

But Sakurai is stuck in a paradox: to clean the nuclear contamination, he needs young workers to replace those driven out by the contamination. But attempts to woo more workers have been sapped by problems.

Last year, members of yakuza criminal groups were arrested, accused of infiltrating construction giant Obayashi Corp's subcontractor network and illegally sending workers to the government-sponsored project to clean up the Fukushima plant.

Up to 4,000 workers each day work in Fukushima cleaning contamination, says Yoshimi Hitosugi, a spokesman for plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. Just 1,000 are Tepco employees, with the rest recruited through subcontactors. Hitosugi acknowledged that criminal groups had infiltrated labour suppliers. "But without their [workers recruited by the yakuza] co-operation, nothing gets done," he says.

Inside the exclusion zone, getting rid of radioactive waste progresses slowly, although volunteers have pitched in.

In 2012, elderly residents started donning protective gear donated by several companies and individuals, toiling in the exclusion zone for about three hours every day. They dig up contaminated soil and cart it away in plastic bags.

Morio Saito, who founded the volunteer group, says only 15 to 20 per cent of Minamisoma's exclusion zone had been decontaminated. "We wanted to clean up our homes on our own," Saito says. "We don't want to wait for the government and Tepco to handle this. We don't trust them anymore."

The group now has 28 members, aged 50 to 92. Its size has shrunk in the past two years as members move away.

The residents worry that they have little time to get more help, because soon they'll face competition from a sexier, and well-funded project - the 2020 Olympic Games.

In the next eight years, Tokyo plans to build 22 of the 37 venues from scratch and will spend US$1 billion refurbishing the Olympic stadium erected for the 1964 Games. The work will require 25,000 labourers, according to government estimates.

"I am worried," says Osamu Onoda, head of Minamisoma's Odaka district that rests within the exclusion zone. "Since the Olympic dates are already set and cannot be changed, it's inevitable the project will be prioritised."

Onoda, 64, now lives in a temporary shelter in Minamisoma. On clear days, he spends the morning in his former office in the zone where residents can return during the day. He says he is usually the only person in the office building. Outside he mows the grass, tidies, and chats with residents who visit their homes.

"As long as I am the district head, I walk around and talk to the residents, since I believe that's part of my job," he says.

The district is expected to be permanently reopened to residents in 2018, but Onoda is not confident this deadline will be met. Still, Onoda says he's ready to rebuild his home in Odaka.

"Some people are really worried about radiation," he says. "But for old people like us, we may die before it starts to affect our health," he says.


In an earlier version of the story, the name "Toyonobu Matsuno" was misspelled as "Tokyoki Matsuno", and the name "Osamu Onoda" was misspelled "Osamu Onado". These have been corrected.