“I went through a very dark period psychologically. I wasn’t the only one. Many of us found life in the temporary accommodation difficult to cope with, and we suffered from irritability and mood swings.”
- ProfileToru Anzai
- Toru Anzai was born and grew up in the village of Iitate, Fukushima prefecture. He lived in the same village for over 60 years, working in agriculture and forestry, until the accident at Fukushima Daiichi forced him to leave. From June 2011 he lived as an evacuee, moving between temporary housing in different areas before finally settling in the neighbouring city of Date.
A little way up a gravel track off the main road through the mountainous village of Iitate there is an empty plot of land. It is an unassuming spot, with nothing to catch the eye except a small shed and a rusting wreck of a car. But until three years ago, this was the site of Toru Anzai’s house, a house that held memories going back over six decades.
A vanished livelihood
Anzai was forced to abandon his house following the accident at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, ultimately relocating to the neighbouring city of Date. Without anyone there to take care of it, the condition of the house that had been part of his life for over six decades deteriorated rapidly, and in November 2018 he made the painful decision to demolish it.
“That house was full of memories for me, so I wanted to leave it standing if possible. But without being there, it was becoming too difficult to keep the weeds under control, and monkeys and wild boars were tearing the place apart. I hated to see the house I’d grown up in end up in that state. Of course I felt sadness for the house itself, but also I couldn’t stand how it made me feel so powerless.”
Anzai is the eldest of six siblings, all born in Iitate. As a boy, every morning he would walk the four kilometers to school. After leaving school at the end of junior high (around age fifteen), he found a job with the regional branch of the Japanese forestry agency. He also supported the household by taking on outdoor work such as grass cutting, and occasionally also stayed in Tokyo for brief stints to supplement his income.
“This is where the front door was, and over here was the kitchen. This here was my bedroom… There used to be an old cherry tree here in front of the house, which looked beautiful in spring.”
Anzai speaks nostalgically as he points out different spots on the empty lot. Although never an extravagant household, he recalls the modest, laid-back lifestyle of the family home as if it were yesterday. The only thing still remaining from those days is a single nandina bush, which once stood outside the kitchen window but now looks out of place amongst the rubble and weeds.
The lively community of Iitate has vanished along with Anzai’s house. Although a handful of villagers have moved back in recent years, the village is a pale shadow of its former self.
“When I think about how things used to be, it makes me very sad to see the village like this. We used to have an annual festival, when the streets would be crowded with visitors and dancing children.”
Gritting his teeth against the injustice
Anzai was enjoying the comfortable routine of his life when March 11th, 2011 turned everything upside-down. He was operating a mechanical digger on the mountainside at the moment the earthquake struck. Hurriedly jumping down from the digger, he found the ground to be shaking so hard he was unable to stand. Despite the intensity of the shaking, however, his house was left virtually unscathed by the earthquake itself.
Three days later, he was watching the news at home when reactor No. 3 at Fukushima Daiichi exploded. Although Iitate was badly affected by fallout from the cloud of radioactive dust released in the explosion, this fact was not established until several days later. After the extent of the contamination became clear, the entire population of Iitate was ordered to evacuate, and the village lay completely uninhabited for six years until the evacuation order was lifted in 2017.
“I wasn’t able to move out of the village until the end of June, three months after the nuclear accident. I was head of the local residents’ association at the time, and I wasn’t in a position to pack up and leave straight away.”
After spending a couple of months in a communal evacuation centre in Fukushima city, Anzai moved into temporary accommodation in the neighbouring city of Date in August 2011. Facilities were basic: a bare floor with no tatami, a single air conditioning unit, a simple bathtub, and a structure that let the winter wind get in under the floor, chilling the interior.
“Winter in particular was a real struggle. Not just the cold, but also the stress of my situation, was enough to make me want to cry out in the night or run around in circles. I went through a very dark period psychologically. I wasn’t the only one. Many of us found life in the temporary accommodation difficult to cope with, and we suffered from irritability and mood swings.”
At the beginning of his new life as an evacuee, Anzai assumed that he would eventually be able to return to Iitate. He had no idea at the time that he would never live in his family home again. Although the village had suffered limited damage in the earthquake, due to the high level of radioactive contamination from Fukushima Daiichi, Iitate became subject to a ‘planned evacuation.’ With the exception of the most severely affected southern corner of the village, the evacuation orders have now been lifted. However, like Anzai very few of the former residents have been able to return to their former homes.
Deciding it was time for the victims of the disaster to take a more proactive stand, Anzai joined a class action lawsuit against Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operators of Fukushima Daiichi. Becoming involved in the anti-nuclear movement, he also attended demonstrations against nuclear power as a representative of the Fukushima Daiichi victims. However, he was shocked at the hostility from the general public he encountered at these events. During an anti-nuclear protest in Tokyo, he remembers passers by shouting “Give it a break, will you?”, and a woman making a show of covering her ears as she passed the demonstrators.
“Even though we were entitled to compensation, it was barely enough to cover our daily expenses. No one had any compensation money left over. Fukushima Daiichi was generating electricity for people in Tokyo to use, but when the accident happened, it was us, not them, that were forced to leave our homes.”
Even as an evacuee, Anzai had experienced discrimination at the hands of local residents, even to the point of being told to his face that he was not welcome there. There was nothing he could do but grit his teeth and put up with the injustice of it. After all, it wasn’t as if the evacuees were there by choice. It puzzled him why people felt the need to be so judgmental.
Ultimately, Anzai was never able to fulfil his wish of returning to his family home in Iitate. He purchased a second hand house in Date, and has started to build a new life for himself. Overnight, the nuclear accident had robbed him of the quiet lifestyle that he had been living for over six decades, to be replaced with ten years of upset and uncertainty.
An ongoing accident
In the last few years, an optimistic mood of ‘recovery’ has come to the fore in the run up to the tenth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. At the same time as evacuation orders are being lifted and the country forges ahead with preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, dubbed the ‘Recovery Olympics’, the Japanese government is cutting off financial support for the medical costs of evacuees. Anzai feels very uncomfortable with the unending stream of feel-good ‘recovery’ stories.
“I can’t believe I’ve been living the life of an evacuee for ten whole years already. It doesn’t feel that long at all. There are still many areas that remain highly contaminated with radioactivity, and it’s much too early for the government to be thinking of allowing residents to return to the worst affected areas. It’s highly irresponsible to be encouraging people to return when there are still so many unresolved problems.”
For Anzai, the reality of Fukushima is still the mandatory evacuation zones with little prospect of reopening, the radioactive screening stops set up at the side of the road, the sacks of contaminated soil and rubble that dot the scenery, the endless stream of dump trucks carting earth from the cleanup effort, and the communities lost forever. Ten years on from the nuclear accident, at first glance it may appear that many people have settled back into everyday life, but for many, like Anzai, the accident remains a burden to be shouldered every day.