At a temporary housing complex in Fukushima prefecture one resident, Iiko Kanno, said she now spends her days reading, growing vegetables and counting the days until she is reunited with her grandchildren. As with many of her neighbours, Kanno’s family has been torn apart by the nuclear meltdown, which happened in March 2011.
“It wasn’t until about a month after the nuclear disaster that we got the order to evacuate,” Kanno said of her contaminated former home, Iitate, a picturesque, but now abandoned, village 24 miles north-west of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. “Our family’s vegetable farm was worthless, and we were told it was no longer safe to stay in Iitate.”
Most of Iitate’s 6,000 residents stayed in the village after the disaster, convinced they were safe since their homes were outside the 12-mile (20km) evacuation zone imposed by the government.
The local authorities did not order an evacuation until several weeks later, after a radiation expert discovered multiple radioactive hotspots at levels higher than those considered safe for human habitation.
A survey conducted this year by the prefectural government found that almost half of the households forced to evacuate were living apart, while almost 70% had relatives suffering from physical and mental health problems.
Of the total, 48.9% of households said family members were living in two or more locations. Of that number, 58.6% said relatives who had once lived together had been scattered across three or more sites.
In the same survey, 67.5% of households said they had relatives who were showing signs of physical or psychological distress. More than half of those afflicted said they had lost interest in activities they once enjoyed or that they had trouble sleeping.
“In Iitate it was normal for three generations of the same family to live under one roof,” she said. “My son initially found work in Fukushima city, but he and his wife didn’t want to bring up their children in an area with high radiation. They won’t bring him here to see me, so I only get to see them at the new year and on other special occasions.”
Her daughter and three other grandchildren, who lived in a nearby town in Fukushima, are now some distance away, in Niigata prefecture. Her daughter’s husband, a teacher, still works in Fukushima and commutes to his family’s new home every weekend.
For people of Kanno’s generation, the prospect of playing next to no part in her grandchildren’s upbringing is almost unimaginable. “If we had been able to stay in Iitate we would all be living together now,” she says. “I was practically brought up by my grandparents, and my parents helped raise my children. But radiation has made that impossible now.”