“When you consider the level of radiation that still remains, it’s clear that it will be decades before people seriously consider moving to the village as a place to live.”
- ProfileKenta Sato
- Kenta Sato was born and grew up in the village of Iitate, Fukushima prefecture. He is a longstanding member of several local groups and projects working to revitalise the local economy. After the entire village was evacuated following the Fukushima Daiichi accident, Sato switched his focus to securing a future for his community. Since 2017, he has also been actively involved in local politics, sitting on the Iitate village assembly.
The quiet village of Iitate sits on an open plateau in Fukushima prefecture. Renowned for its natural beauty, Iitate was once judged ‘Japan's most beautiful village’, and was formerly home to a thriving agricultural sector. After the events following March 11th 2011, however, the village became known for very different reasons. Iitate is located around 45 km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, well outside the 20 km mandatory evacuation zone set up by the Japanese government soon after the accident. Although it soon became clear that the area had suffered a particularly high level of radioactive contamination, it would be over a month before a full evacuation order was issued for Iitate, on April 22nd.
Villagers unnecessarily exposed to radiation
The radioactive plume released in the explosion at Unit 4 of the Fukushima Daiichi plant on March 15 was carried northwest by the wind. Rain and snow falling in the vicinity of Iitate dragged some of this radioactive material back down to the ground. Despite being too far inland to be affected by the tsunami and having escaped with minimal damage in the earthquake, the unfortunate timing of this precipitation caused the village to be blanketed in high concentrations of radioactive fallout.
Although some residents of Iitate were aware that radiation had fallen within their community, their individual responses varied greatly. While some people evacuated immediately, fearing the effects of the radiation, others were reluctant to leave their homes. The delay of over a month from the initial contamination until an evacuation order was officially given had serious implications for the population.
“While the central government, the local authorities, and radiation experts were all arguing with one another, the villagers were left to stew. It doesn’t bother me if politicians want to argue, but every day that it continued, the residents of Iitate were being unnecessarily exposed to more and more radiation. Surely the first priority should have been to make sure everyone had been moved to a safe location?”
Kenta Sato, who grew up in Iitate and was already involved in various local initiatives at the time of the nuclear accident, recalls the disorganisation of those first few weeks.
“The village authorities might have thought that if they started to move residents out before the government issued a mandatory evacuation order, then those people could possibly end up at a disadvantage in terms of compensation and welfare entitlements. They therefore felt that they had no option but to wait for the order from above. However, the village was contaminated with radiation levels high enough to exceed the annual permitted limit in a single day, and the failure to act decisively meant that residents continued living in this environment for weeks. The way the evacuation was handled led to a loss of trust in the authorities.”
A wind change in local politics
After the earthquake, Sato took to social media to search for any information he could find that might help his neighbours, and also to spread word of the situation in the village and appeal for assistance. Sato eventually evacuated to Fukushima city, but continued to look for ways to help his home village. He has been instrumental in setting up a number of local groups and putting on events with the aim of ensuring the survival of Iitate as a community. It seemed like a natural progression when, at age 35, Sato became a member of the village assembly in 2017.
“The previous mayor of Iitate was known for his strong leadership, but depending on how you looked at it, his leadership style could be described as overbearing and aloof. I wanted to have a say, but I realised that I wouldn’t be able to achieve anything by commenting from the sidelines. I needed to have access to the same platform. Eventually I took the step of joining the village assembly, but I see all the projects I was involved with previously as being part of the lead-up to that.”
The village assembly had previously been known as a rubber stamp organisation for the mayor’s personal agenda. After the Great East Japan Earthquake, a vast budget was allocated to the village to aid its recovery. A lot of this money was channeled into new buildings and purchases that were of little practical use to the villagers themselves. Yet anyone who questioned this spending was accused of standing in the way of recovery. Sato felt that the village authorities were simply finding things to spend money on in an attempt to justify the extra budget, without making any attempt to build a consensus with the local community. This merely had the effect of increasing the sense of alienation among the residents of Iitate.
One of the building projects was a specialised incinerator plant used to burn some of the waste* generated by decontamination work. The local authority unilaterally announced that the project would ‘be good for recovery’, a goal that made it difficult for residents to object. The facility was used to incinerate not only waste from within the village itself, but also sludge* transported in from surrounding communities. This acceptance of contaminated waste from surrounding authorities where some of Iitate’s residents were living as evacuees was even characterized as ‘an expression of our gratitude for hosting our evacuees’, in an attempt to justify the behaviour in terms that were difficult to object to.
Sato found this intransigent decision making process stifling, and in 2020 he announced his intention to stand in the village mayoral election against the incumbent mayor, who had already served six terms. Sato’s aim was the switching of the village administration from a top-down to a bottom-up leadership style. As the campaigning progressed the situation however changed, the incumbent mayor stepped down, Sato’s friend entered the ballot, and Sato decided to withdraw from the campaign, feeling that his friend would achieve the hoped for generational shift in the village council. Despite putting his own mayoral ambitions to one side, Sato hopes to use his role as a village assembly member to support his friend, the new mayor, feeling solidarity in the community will be needed for facing Iitate’s challenges in the future.
Decontamination and reopening
In 2017, the year Sato joined the village assembly, Iitate’s status changed from an ‘evacuation zone’ to a zone designated as ‘preparing to lift evacuation order’. Residents were invited to return to the area once decontamination work had been carried out, and a fresh recovery budget was allocated and spent on new facilities including sports grounds and roadside tourism facilities.
The decontamination work carried out under the guidance of the Japanese Ministry of Environment included three different classes of decontamination: for ‘residential land’, ‘agricultural land’, and ‘wilderness’. The decontamination of residential land covered houses and their immediate vicinity, while for agricultural land, fields themselves were cleaned but the surrounding verges were not. Wilderness was given an even more cursory treatment, being declared ‘decontaminated’ after fallen leaves and branches had been removed up to 20 meters from the edge of the zone. Although these decontamination efforts have demonstrated a measure of success in reducing radiation levels, a few meters into the forested mountainsides the level remains unchanged. Surveys carried out in Iitate have revealed several locations where radiation levels are still far higher than the government’s stated long-term decontamination goal of 0.23 microsieverts per hour.
“Especially on the mountainsides, I really wonder if the decontamination work has any effect. Radioactive substances are absorbed through the roots of plants and trees, where they gradually cycle through to be released back into the environment. Three quarters of Iitate is covered in forest. Most of that hasn’t been touched by the decontamination work, so it feels like the village has essentially lost most of its forest resources. Gathering seasonal shoots and mushrooms from the forest used to be something the villagers looked forward to, but that part of our way of life has been taken away from us. There’s no prospect of being able to eat wild plants safely in the foreseeable future.”
The population of Iitate was 6,400 before the Fukushima Daiichi accident. The official population as published by the village authorities has dropped to 5,259 as of February 2021. However, this figure does not reflect the true story, as the number simply reflects the number of people on the village register, the majority of whom now live elsewhere. Only around one in five residents has returned since the evacuation order was lifted, and the latest estimates suggest around 1,400 people are currently based in the village itself. Sato explains that this is due to a variety of complex factors that go far beyond the matter of contamination alone.
“Returning is actually much more difficult than evacuating. It’s not simply a case of whether or not someone is able or willing to move back. When we left, the radioactive contamination was the only issue behind the decision, but when it comes to returning, there are far more factors to consider. It’s a personal decision for the individual. Over the last ten years, people have started building new lives for themselves in their adoptive communities, and many households have fundamentally changed over that time.”
Some residents have been left with little choice but to return after the government ended housing subsidies for evacuees. Others may wish to return at some point but have various obstacles to overcome before this becomes feasible. Sato himself has married and had children since moving to Fukushima city, so returning to Iitate would mean uprooting his new family. Although he currently commutes to work in Iitate, since his wife is not from the village and his children have grown up in the city, the family sees little reason to relocate. The dilemma is not limited to members of Sato’s generation either. The elderly population is similarly split between those happy to while away the time pottering in their fields, and those who see the lack of shops and healthcare facilities in and around the village as too much of an obstacle. There is often an impression that the elderly are eager to return to their former homes, but this is far from being the whole story.
However, Sato refuses to stand back while his village gradually fades away to nothing. Although the contamination from Fukushima Daiichi is an ever-present and unavoidable issue, he does not consider this a reason to give up on Iitate. These days, Sato concerns himself with how best to lead the village into the future.
“When you consider the level of radiation that still remains, it’s clear that it will be decades before people seriously consider moving to the village as a place to live. But even if people are not ready to live there permanently, I still want to see the village develop as a place people can visit or commute to for work, and I think the time is right to start making the most of these opportunities. Iitate as a place to live, though… that’s still very much a long term goal.”
A village that offers a glimpse into Japan’s future
Sato likes to characterize Iitate as a ‘village that has slipped thirty years into the future’. Even before the Fukushima Daiichi accident decimated the community, Iitate suffered from the same issues of shrinking population and fading infrastructure as much of provincial Japan. In a sense, the contamination and subsequent evacuation simply accelerated the process. However, the upshot of this is that the village now faces a much more severe challenge to its survival.
The remaining community in Iitate is in a thoroughly diminished state, there are no children or young people, and almost the entire population is elderly. The question is how to sustain the village under these circumstances, and what to do with the farmland that lies unused. Iitate is tentatively experimenting with various potential solutions.
The entire country of Japan is dotted with declining rural communities with aging populations, with many villages in danger of disappearing altogether. If Iitate can find a solution to its current predicament, this may offer hints for the future as other rural communities edge towards the brink. Sato is hopeful that ideas that prove successful in Iitate may be able to help other communities in the future.
The village is installing more and more solar power generating capacity, with the aim of avoiding the need to depend on power generated by nuclear or fossil fuels in the future. In 2020, Japan’s first dual-source renewable energy facility, combining solar and wind generation, was brought online. Fields that have been determined unsuitable for agriculture in the immediate future have been diverted for use in power generation, which has allowed the development of a large scale solar facility that now sells power to the grid. Sato hopes that Iitate will ultimately be able to meet all its energy needs with power generated within the village, while also making a profit from selling excess electricity. This would require the village to install its own power distribution network, rather than relying on the existing infrastructure installed by the major power companies. Sato envisions a future where no one in Iitate will have to pay for the electricity they use.
Iitate’s once flourishing agricultural sector is also showing gradual signs of recovery, and a number of aspiring farmers have relocated to Iitate from the Tokyo metropolitan area. If agriculture can be successfully rehabilitated, Iitate may one day become self-sufficient in food as well as locally generated power. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Iitate may become Japan’s most self-sufficient community.
“The people contributing to Iitate’s recovery come from both inside and outside the village. That will be key to our future. Of course, radioactive contamination will inevitably remain a difficult hurdle for many years, and we have to accept that this will affect the extent to which local agriculture can recover. However, that is not the only issue we need to address. We’ve made it to the ten year mark, but this is simply a waypoint, not the destination. So far, nothing has been resolved, so it’s what we do from now on that will really count. One thing is for sure - there is plenty to be getting on with!”
- *Decontamination waste and sludge: Due to the high levels of radioactive material contained in waste produced by decontamination work, it cannot be disposed of at standard refuse processing centers and requires incineration in specialist volume-reducing incineration facilities.