Mayor struggles to entice people back into city near Fukushima

Minamisoma is still struggling to recover from exodus in the wake of nuclear disaster

Katsunobu Sakurai’s mayoral office overlooks a lattice of dense, squat housing stretching to the Pacific coast about seven miles away.

From here, he can recall watching in disbelief the towering tsunami that barrelled inland five years ago, drowning hundreds of his constituents and carrying away much of Minamisoma’s coastal infrastructure.

Not surprisingly, he says he rarely looks out the window today.

Sakurai had been running the city for just a few months when an earthquake struck beneath the sea about 60 miles east of the city.


The force of the quake – one of the most powerful in history – tugged the Pacific coastline nearly 12ft closer to the United States.

The tsunami it triggered knocked out the cooling system of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, 15 miles south of his office.

In the nightmarish week that followed, the city of 71,000 people was showered with fallout, triggering panic that sent most residents fleeing.

Services collapsed, deliveries stopped and journalists, who might have reported the crisis, joined the mass exodus.

By the time the exhausted, isolated mayor made a now famous YouTube plea for help, fewer than 9,000 people, mostly elderly, were left.

Depleted of resources

Bound by duty and attachment to his ancestral home, Sakurai stayed, steering his remaining constituents though the disaster.

At its lowest point, the city ran out of food, petrol and even doctors.

He recalls identifying the bodies of tsunami victims in a makeshift morgue while still unaware of the fate of his own parents, who were out of contact (they survived).

Five years later, his city still licks its wounds. A veteran marathon runner, Sakurai’s long jogs take him through pockets of shuttered shops and the deserted homes of dead or missing friends.

Above all, it is the silences that are striking; while the population has recovered to 57,000, thousands of mothers and children have stayed away.

The city’s kindergartens are half-full, he laments.

“Some of the people who left still don’t feel safe,” he says. “Others have enrolled their children in schools elsewhere.”

It’s a problem common across Fukushima’s evacuated areas, he points out: much of the working population has moved outside the prefecture.

“This is also the generation that has children. Many have left for good.”

About 160,000 people fled the prefecture in 2011; 100,000 are still scattered across the country.

The central government has launched a vast cleanup operation to make their homes and farms livable and persuade them to return.

Hundreds of work crews scrape topsoil made toxic from the rain and snow that fell in March 2011.

Four years after it began, decontamination is just one-third complete.

With or without it, the environmental impact of the disaster "will last decades to centuries", predicts Greenpeace Japan in a report released this week.

Over nine million cubic metres of nuclear waste is scattered across Fukushima, said the environmental watchdog.

In Minamisoma, the crews are a little over half-way through 23,000 homes, working house by house.

Still, Sakurai’s small corner of Japan is now less radioactive than many European cities, he says.

“We have to appeal to people to return, tell them that the food and air here is safe.”

Sakurai hopes an area once known as one of Japan’s key breadbaskets, with its famously beautiful rugged coast, rich fishing grounds and majestic mountains to the west, will attract a new generation of young people from Japan’s crowded cities.

Sakurai has not lost his distrust of the operator of the Daiichi Plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co, which he says left him in the dark about what was going on.

Last week, Tepco admitted it had ignored its own internal regulations by failing to announce the meltdown sooner.

It was two months after the crisis began before the utility admitted that uranium in three of the plant’s six reactors had completely melted.

“They [Tepco] haven’t changed at all,” says Sakurai.

He says the mass media in Japan is unquestioningly reporting the government line: that the disaster is over and it is business as usual in the nuclear industry.

The government has green-lighted several reactor restarts and pledged in its latest national energy plan to meet 20-23 per cent of the nation’s energy needs with nuclear power.

Decontamination cost

Returning to normality has been expensive. The price tag for making Minamisoma livable is $300-400 million, estimates Sakurai; the final bill for decontaminating Fukushima will be “billions of dollars”.

Decommissioning the Daiichi plant, already behind schedule, is expected to take decades.

And there is still nowhere to permanently store its cargo of toxic waste. “It’s okay”, he says, laughing bitterly, “Japan is rich”.

Still, Sakurai is optimistic. New businesses have opened. Toshiba plans to build a local solar-power plant.

Last year, the city became the first in Japan to issue a non-nuclear declaration, committing itself to generating most of its energy from renewables.

The mayor himself is back in office after a landslide victory in local elections. “I stayed even when everyone left,” he explains.

“I think people understand and appreciate that.”

Sakurai considers himself steady in a storm, the embodiment of his favourite poem by Kenji Miyazawa, a local literary hero whose most famous piece of writing became emblematic of the disaster: "Strong in the rain/Strong in the wind/Strong against the summer heat and snow/He is healthy and robust/Unselfish/He never loses his temper/Nor the quiet smile on his lips/That is the kind of person/That I want to be."

Is he still strong in the rain? “We have been to hell,” he says. “Compared to that, we are in good shape.”