Uncertain homecoming prospects plague '11 Japan nuclear disaster evacuees

"I guess more people might return to Fukushima when their rent subsidies expire."

That is how Emiko Fujimaki, 35, feels when she stops to think about what may happen to the people who now live outside Fukushima Prefecture since they left the prefecture in the wake of the 2011 nuclear disaster.

Fujimaki is one of those who left the prefecture to live somewhere else after the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.

Concerned about the effect of radiation emitted during the accident, Fujimaki, 35, and her family voluntarily evacuated from her birthplace of Soma, Fukushima Prefecture. Since 2012, Fujimaki has been living in Yaese, a town in the southern part of Okinawa Island, with her husband, 17-year-old daughter and two sons aged 7 and 5.

In January this year, her 41-year-old husband returned to Soma to take over the family business in his hometown.

However, their daughter has her heart set on finding work in Okinawa, and their sons have completely settled into the lifestyle there. Fujimaki feels there is no way they will go back to Fukushima anytime soon. Her feelings are torn.

They have been able to make ends meet even living apart thanks to the rent subsidy and remittances sent from her husband.

But, at this stage, the subsidy will expire at the end of March 2016. The monthly rent for her Yaese home - which has three multipurpose rooms, a living room, a dining room and a kitchen - is ¥60,000 (S$13,200).

For now, Fujimaki is unsure whether the subsidy covering this entire amount will continue, so she is thinking about starting to look at public housing, which has cheaper rent.

About 119,000 Fukushima Prefecture residents have evacuated due to the March 2011 nuclear accident. Of them, about 46,000 have shifted outside the prefecture, a figure that is more than 20 per cent lower than the peak recorded in the spring of 2012.

Fukushima prefectural government officials estimate that about half of the people who evacuated outside the prefecture did so on their own accord due to concerns over radiation.

"I think people will keep coming back as decontamination makes progress and more social infrastructure is put in place," a prefectural government official said.

A survey released in April 2014 by the prefectural government provided some revealing results.

According to the survey, 36 per cent of Fukushima households that evacuated outside the prefecture said they had not decided where they wanted to live, more than double the 17.5 per cent that wanted to return to the municipality they had previously called home.

The survey reveals the reality that many evacuees are hesitant to return, as they juggle their various circumstances.

Many of the about 73,000 residents who evacuated to other parts of Fukushima Prefecture had been living in areas where evacuation orders were issued after the nuclear accident. These orders were lifted for the eastern part of the Miyakoji district of Tamura in April 2014, and for the eastern area of the village of Kawauchi in October.

Despite this, only a handful of residents have returned to these areas. Most evacuees are still deprived of the option of going back.

In May 2014, the town of Naraha declared that it was aiming to have its evacuation order lifted this spring or sometime after that. Radiation levels in Naraha have dropped. If the about 7,500 residents of Naraha who evacuated elsewhere were to come back, it would mark the largest such return since the nuclear accident occurred.

However, this is easier said than done.

As the evacuation has stretched into months and then years, boars and other wild animals have been appearing in Naraha. Homes have fallen into disrepair. About 700 buildings need to be demolished, and about 1,100 need to be rebuilt. Work has been slowed due to a shortage of laborers and other reasons, and just 113 buildings had been demolished as of the end of February.

At an explanatory meeting held for town residents at the end of that month, many attendees were very pessimistic about the chances of the town's evacuation order being lifted.

"The decontamination work is insufficient," one attendee said, while another added, "Even if we come back, there are no jobs here." Naraha Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto was forced to concede, "The conditions to enable people to come back are not yet in place."

At the outset, people strongly wanted the area to be decontaminated. In November 2014, the Reconstruction Agency and other entities released the findings of a survey conducted on Naraha residents.

According to the survey, 45.7 per cent of residents said they would "return soon" or "return when the conditions are right," significantly more than the 22.9 per cent who said they "would not return."

New homes are starting to be built in parts of Naraha where entry is permitted during the day. An increasing number of people are plugging away at cleaning up the town from their rebuilt homes.

There could be a mass return of residents, each with different thoughts about coming back, different conditions they want met, and of different generations. Nevertheless, the central government and local authorities need to make the evacuees' environment satisfactory enough to make them feel like returning home.