By Alexis Dudden
“No, nothing. I have nothing planned for New Year’s. Nothing at all. No one is coming.” A shy, round-faced woman spat these words like darts into the protective mask she wore. Moments earlier she had been laughing happily together with several other former residents of the small town of Tomioka as they reminisced about a friend they all knew. She quickly became raw, however, when asked about the coming holidays.
Confusion and despair among the others is common, a state of existence that government officials bewilderingly made even worse on March 25, 2013 when they divided the roughly 25-square-mile seaside spot into three zones: never to return, return for short periods, and in preparation to return. Government-sponsored scientists determined such divisions here and in other areas near the nuclear plant based on so-called acceptable annual dosage rates. Such designations may make surreal sense in scientific terms. In daily life, however, it means streets separated down the middle, one side “safe” while houses around the corner are condemned for tens of thousands of years to come.
All involved understand that the official designations are of critical significance in terms of compensation. If your property was anywhere but “never to return” you won’t be paid for much longer. Less appreciated is how such nuances taken together are playing out among those on the verge of their fourth winter in limbo.
One woman had a surprise for the others. “I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you before,” she began, perhaps taking advantage of the two strangers in the mix to break her news. “I applied to the (housing) lottery, and I’m sorry to tell you that I won. I’m very sorry. In a few weeks I’ll move away to a permanent unit. It isn’t much. I know I had a better chance because I’m on my own. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
Some might reduce these words to cultural essentialisms, yet a powerfully unprocessed atmosphere filled the room. The thin sense of community was yet again torn asunder, and while a few wished her luck — she had been in six different shelters before this — the rest gradually looked as if they would be sick and said nothing. Another woman fought off tears.
The newly published housing policy appears under the awkward slogan in Japanese and English — “Future From Fukushima” — and reveals itself for what it has been from the beginning: make it up as it goes along. Tiny details drive home the point. Even if you’re fortunate enough to win a permanent place and you manage to survive for more than 11 years, you’ll start having to pay rent.