After the nuclear disaster, the city of Aizu-wakamatsu in Fukushima became home to thousands of evacuees from Okuma town, the location of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. All 11,515 residents had to be hastily evacuated, eventually placed in temporary housing complexes. These temporary housing complexes are an example of lessons learned from the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake: after this disaster many elderly people were left isolated and alone, and died as a result. To avoid this situation happening again, this time whole communities of temporary housing have been set up around Japan, in an effort to keep both the people and the spirit of their former towns alive.
As Okuma was a farming town, a sense of community is particularly important for its residents. A representative of the town spoke to us about what happened on that day in March 2011. Most of the town were in the process of preparing the rice paddies for spring. When the earthquake hit, it caused the paddies to move 'like a wave'. The residents gathered at the local shrine, and were told by firefighters that a nuclear plant explosion had occurred, and they would need to evacuate immediately. They were taken by buses to evacuation centres such as schools and hotels, where they would stay for the next few months. By July 2011, the temporary housing complex at Aizu-wakamatsu was ready - a block of 80 houses, to hold about 170 people.
The accommodation is far from ideal. Standing in austere rows, each unit is identical. People's whole lives have been reduced to a number in a housing block - A3, C1. Small attempts to personalize each unit are visible; some pot plants outside doors, a hanging flower basket. Particularly poignant is the mural of hearts that has been painted on the wall surrounding the complex, in an attempt to brighten the place up.
It is a new environment for the people. The Aizu climate is harsh, and Okuma residents, who used to live on the coast, have to contend with the heavy snow. Work is difficult to find. The majority of those of a working age commute long distances, spending the weeknights in their town of employment, returning to the temporary housing complex for the weekends. It is a disruptive lifestyle, transient and uncertain. While 'safe zones' in Okuma are being uncovered, it will be at least a decade before the majority of residents can return; maybe longer until the soil is decontaminated and able to be farmed again. For many residents, they will never return home in their lifetime.
On the day we visited the Aizu-wakamatsu temporary housing complex, residents were involved in a meeting with TEPCO, undergoing negotiations about their current situation and compensation. Currently, they receive ¥100,000 a month (NZD1372) from the government for psychological damage. Considering all these residents have lost, it is a small price for the government to pay. The fight for their future will surely continue for years to come.