Jan 6 9:00 PM

Inside Fukushima’s ghost towns

An abandoned intersection in the town of Namie, inside the Fukushima disaster exclusion zone.
America Tonight

Learn more about our four-part investigative series on Fukushima's ongoing fallout. 

Masami Yoshizawa is a lifelong rancher. His cattle and farm, nestled in the Japanese town of Namie, are his life.

So when a major earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster just a few miles away from his farm, he had to decide whether to obey the government’s evacuation orders and leave his cattle. He decided to stay.

“I had 330 cows to care for. I couldn’t flee,” he said.

In the days that followed, the situation grew more dangerous. On March 15, explosions at Reactor 2 and Reactor 4 blanketed Masami’s farm and wide areas of Fukushima prefecture with cesium and other radioactive particles. But after seeing other farms abandoned, Masami still could not bring himself to leave.

“I heard animals crying out. … Wherever I looked were scenes from a living hell,” he remembered. “I couldn’t do the same thing to my own cattle.”

After testing positive for internal exposure to cesium 134 and 137, Masami has undergone careful monitoring at a radiation research hospital. His levels have since dropped.

“Of course I was worried,” he said about his radiation exposure. “But I am not going to get hysterical or have a mental breakdown from it.”

Masami is an exception. Most people in the area heeded the evacuation orders, fleeing in waves and leaving ghost towns in their wake. Three years later, tens of thousands of former Fukushima residents have yet to return.

Frozen in time

An elementary school in Namie city is left frozen in time, with writing still on the chalkboards.
America Tonight
An empty street in the city of Namie.
America Tonight

Leading up to the third anniversary of the nuclear disaster, America Tonight journeyed to the affected areas, which are separated into zones of higher and lower radiation risk. In the hardest-hit area, known as the “exclusion zone,” the streets remain virtually empty, eerily silent and frozen in time at the moment residents fled the quaking earth and incoming sea. The garbage and debris that litter the area defy the kempt and pristine neighborhoods for which Japan is famous.

Residents can visit parts of the exclusion zone, like the city of Namie, but only for brief durations during the day to pick up important belongings.

Outside the exclusion zone, some residents – mainly older ones – have returned. Parents with children are the least likely to return.

Though many who fled in 2011 expected to return once the dust settled and the waters receded, even longtime residents have stayed away – afraid of what many call the “invisible enemy” that haunts hundreds of square miles around Fukushima Daiichi.

"When our population dropped to 10,000, there wasn’t a soul in the streets. That’s when I wondered what would become of us."

Katsunobu Sakurai

Mayor of Minamisōma

Estimates about how many “nuclear refugees” are scattered across the country range from 40,000 to more than 80,000. Many live in cramped temporary shelters and collect modest monthly compensation from the government as they wait for news about their towns.

Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minamisōma, one of the affected cities, is trying to convince displaced residents to return. Before the disaster, 71,000 people lived there. “When our population dropped to 10,000, there wasn’t a soul in the streets,” he said. “That’s when I wondered what would become of us.”

But Katsunobu, who said he never once considered leaving, believes no good comes from agonizing over the past. “I just focused on how to move the city forward into the future.”

The mayor devoted himself to making sure the city had a future. His quest to rebuild his town has been helped by a massive, government-led effort to decontaminate Fukushima prefecture. 

A never-ending process

Workers in the city of Minami Soma decontaminate an area by replacing the topsoil.
America Tonight

Decontamination after a nuclear disaster is not a simple process.

To reduce the radiation, all of the topsoil must be scraped away and eventually replaced, with the collected soil then dumped at hundreds of sites around Fukushima. Contaminated shrubs must be pruned. Trees are cut down. Roofs are washed. The process is repeated until radiation levels decrease. The cost is about $10,000 per house.

But because rain can bring contaminants down from mountains into areas where soil has already been removed, decontaminated areas can easily become re-contaminated, leaving cleanup crews feeling like the work is never complete.

A worker collects contaminated debris in the city of Minami Soma.
America Tonight

In the past, the government issued estimates for how long it could take to decontaminate the 11 evacuated towns, but after falling behind schedule in eight of them, it no longer sets projections for completion.

The government is helping to pay for the costs of the multi-billion-dollar decontamination efforts by selling shares of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the ruined, ruinous plant.

For Katsunobu, convincing his city’s residents that it is safe to return has been a tough sell. Despite decontamination efforts, radiation remained high in many parts, and a third of the population has yet to return to Minamisōma. Many remain skeptical that the government’s plan will actually work, distrustful of its promises.

Even Masami, one of the few who made the decision to stay, doubts that residents will return to Namie. “How do you change this most contaminated area into towns where people can live?” he asked. “Our towns have turned into Chernobyl. … And if people return, what will they do? They won’t return.”

‘Nuclear divorce’

Kaori Saito, who divorced her husband after he refused to leave Fukushima city, plays with her two sons in a park by their new home in Matsumoto city.
America Tonight

For those with a choice, deciding whether or not to return can take its toll.

Kaori Saito was living in Fukushima city with her husband and two young children when the government ordered everyone inside after the explosions at Fukushima Daiichi.

After they were allowed outside, she continued worrying about radiation, and about her children. “I think [my husband] believed I was overreacting,” she said.

Though the government maintained Fukushima city was safe to live in, she did not buy it. “I heard, but didn’t believe it,” she said. “My youngest son had blood in his urine and stool… He kept catching colds ... and had a cough. But when I took him to a doctor, he told me there was no link to radiation. All the doctors there said that.”

She constantly bathed her children, washed their clothes and traveled outside of Fukushima whenever possible. When her husband ignored her fears and refused to leave Fukushima, the strain was unbearable. She filed for divorce. Though there are no statistics, it is a kind of marital discord so common these days that the Japanese have a name for it: genpatsu rikon, or “nuclear divorce.”

“My youngest son had blood in his urine and stool… But when I took him to a doctor, he told me there was no link to radiation. All the doctors there said that.”

Kaori Saito

“I felt like that if I stayed with him, I wouldn’t be able to keep my children from harm, and that’s how I got here,” she said of Matsumoto city, far from Fukushima’s radiation worries, where she now lives.

Fukushima’s psychological trauma affects more than just marriages: In late 2012, a report from Japan’s education ministry showed that children from Fukushima topped national obesity rankings in multiple age groups for the first time. Among some age groups, the obesity rates were double the numbers from 2010. The change, the report found, could in part be attributed to a lack of exercise, as parents and schools kept children indoors in fear of radiation exposure.

Another product of the trauma is one that few will openly discuss: the social stigma some in Japanese society harbor against people from Fukushima. Stories circulate about people from the area being rejected from giving blood, being asked to provide radiation level reports when applying for jobs and women being perceived as “damaged goods” when it comes to childbirth. Though no one has died directly as a result of the nuclear disaster, its harmful effects are wide-reaching.

Kaori said she does not know if splitting the family was the right choice, but she is enormously relieved that she no longer has to worry about how radiation might be affecting her children. “The best thing about being here is seeing my children outside playing and laughing,” she said.

When asked if she believed Fukushima city would ever be a safe place to live again, her pessimism was palpable. “Not in my lifetime. Not the same Fukushima that existed before… where you could eat the food without worry, where you could drink the water from the river. That would be wonderful. Someday.”

Updated: March 10, 2014. 



Energy, Fukushima

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