Japanese town Namie and its ghost citizens

The once desolate town will be re-opened soon(Photographer: Diricia De Wet)

by Silvia Martell

Namie, a Japanese town inside the Fukushima nuclear disaster exclusion zone, was hurriedly evacuated following the 11 March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. It has been a ghost town ever since: among the deserted streets and shuttered shops, the only sign of life has been some weeds pushing through the frequent cracks of paving stones. Heavy black bags of radioactive soil, piled up at every corner, remind gloomily of the accident. However, the town is hoped to reanimate soon: from April 1, inhabitants will be able to return, although it is highly uncertain whether or not they will want to.

Located only 5 kilometers away from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, Namie’s 21,000 residents were asked to leave on the morning of 12 March 2011, following the nuclear alert. Due to the high risk of radiations, the town was not searched for bodies until a month later. Since then, former inhabitants have been occasionally allowed to come back and collect some belongings, rigorously wearing anti-radiation suits and masks, and never staying for longer than a couple of hours.

What the majority of the public does not know is that back in 2011, the town was dangerously radioactive only for a few days: the isotopes were soon gone. “People could have been returning after a month, when the iodine had disappeared,” says Shunichi Yamashita, a thyroid cancer specialist at Fukushima Medical University and advisor of the Japanese government in the aftermath of the accident. Yamashita’s consideration was however ignored due to Japanese government’s concerns with safety, and it was only recently decided that Namie is now ready to be repopulated. In April 1, the first train will pull into the railway stations and buses will run


However, it is highly questioned whether inhabitants will come back to their old homes. Naraha, a nearby town, has registered only a fifth of its former inhabitants returning, and surveys suggest it will be no different for Namie. In fact, although records prove Namie’s radiation dose is around two millisieverts, with the standard threshold set at 20 (a fifth of the level at which long-term health effects are likely), the chaotic aftermath of the accident strongly reduced public trust in official reassurances about radioactivity. Ken Nollett, director of radiation health at the Fukushima Medical University, acknowledges the public’s mistrust: “It’s very difficult to convince the public that it is safe to return. They don’t accept the scientists’ view, because they see us as nuclear allies”. Recent reports of sky-high radiation levels inside the molten core of one of the reactors — levels that would kill humans in seconds — can only worsen the spread fear. Another cause of the reluctance to come back is that years have passed since the evacuation, and families have now moved on: new homes, jobs, and schools for children.

It seems therefore very likely that Namie’s destiny will be of desolation and its main population of wild animals as last summer’s bear spotted in the suburbs of the town seems to suggest.