Column: Entire town has evacuated from the disaster zone

by Makoto Iwasaki, Editorial Writer

The elderly looked weary, their eyes closed, sitting or lying along aisles partitioned with cardboard walls. I was visiting the Saitama Super Arena, where the evacuees from Futaba-machi, Fukushima Prefecture, are taking shelter. The lively children playing around them offered me a touch of solace.

The troubled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is located in their hometown, which has suffered the assault of triple calamities: a huge earthquake, a giant tsunami, and radiation contamination. About 1,300 people have evacuated from Futaba-machi together with the town office. I was told that some of their family members are working at the power plant, doing their best to bring the situation under control. The evacuees must be terribly anxious about their family members, as there is no knowing when and how this difficult situation will be resolved.

In the arena, I saw a lot of volunteers offering encouragement to the evacuees, who may falter at any moment. High school students were asking each one, “Is there anything we can do for you?” Retired teachers were conducting ad-hoc classes using hand-made materials. The whole arena seemed to be enveloped in a caring atmosphere.

I recall the evacuees from Miyakejima Island. When the volcano there erupted 11 years ago, more than 3,000 people were forced to flee the island. They became scattered in different parts of Japan, but when the evacuation order was lifted four and a half years later, most of them returned home. The people’s efforts to maintain their community ties pulled them back to their hometown, where they were reunited.

The people from Futaba-machi must be feeling as the evacuees from Miyakejima once did. Since yesterday they have begun moving to their next shelter, set up at a former high school in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture. They say the scenery of rice fields around the school reminds them of their hometown. The mayor of Futaba-machi said, “The final destination of our journey will be our own homes.” I want to believe the day will come when his wish is fulfilled.

(Originally published on March 31, 2011)