In Japan, Many Remain in Limbo as ‘Nuclear Refugees’

Chris Herlinger | December 26, 2013

Residents of Futaba, Japan, return to their town for the first time after the March 11, 2011, disaster, as seen in Nuclear Nation, a film by Atsushi Funahashi. Photo: First Run Features

Residents of Futaba, Japan, return to their town for the first time after the March 11, 2011, disaster, as seen in Nuclear Nation, a film by Atsushi Funahashi. Photo: First Run Features

Disasters occur. They uproot people. The world pays attention for a bit. And then the world largely forgets what happened to those who survived.

It’s part of being human, I guess, but it’s still a too-common scenario. And sad, whenever or wherever it happens.

Case in point: the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that crippled the Fukushima nuclear power plant. That disaster affected the small community of Futaba in particular and caused thousands to flee their homes as “nuclear refugees.”

CWS was among those providing assistance to those affected, and our emergencies coordinator in Asia, Takeshi Komino, tells me that he and others “are gearing up for advocacy work and recently established a coalition of major Japanese networks and NGOs to advocate together for the world to learn from Fukushima’s mistakes.”

“The nuclear industry is huge and has a large influence over global politics, and it is important to let the world know how NOT to create another Fukushima or Chernobyl; it is possible, but people need to learn from what actually happened,” Takeshi said. He added: “I think we are quite the rare agency that does both on the ground support in Japan, and at the same time linking to regional and global advocacy activities.” (A CWS video explores some of the issues.)

Hundreds remain stranded in limbo, and a recent documentary film, Nuclear Nation, chronicles their lives. The film has been showing in New York for a brief run and I hope it finds an audience in smaller markets.

It’s an affecting and moving film; I can’t recall another documentary that does a better job of showing the day-to-day difficulties, challenges and frustrations facing people who have been displaced.

Of course, there are singular challenges facing the residents of Futaba: a radiated area has its own set of difficulties that say, a one-time war zone in Sudan or a flooded plain in Pennsylvania don’t have.

In one of the movie’s most moving moments, farmer Ichiro Nakai is allowed (along with other residents) into the stricken area. All Nakai (and his son) want to do is to find a place to honor Nakai’s wife, who perished in the disaster, and, following Japanese custom, light incense. The two men, wearing heavy protective gear, face fierce wind, flying debris and a clicking clock – they can’t spend much time in the radiated area.

In many ways the film belongs to Katsutaka Idogawa, the community’s mayor. Idogawa was once a booster of nuclear energy. In fact, he actively supported expansion of the nuclear plant before the 2011 accident.

Yet Mayor Idogawa now recognizes his community made a tragic Faustian bargain (including bountiful tax revenues) with the nuclear power industry. His understated eloquence and quiet and controlled anger, as well as his ability to take personal responsibility for his administration’s support for nuclear power, are in marked contrast with national government and power plant officials, who throughout the film appear to shirk their duties to help the survivors.

Atsushi Funhashi, the film’s director, has said this about the disaster: “The entire country has been grappling with misinformation since the crisis began. And it’s the displaced residents who’ve been short-changed, left to fend for themselves as nuclear refugees. ‘What about our homes? What about our jobs?’

“It’s impossible to know when the answers to these basic questions will come, and it was critically important for me to document this waiting game. These refugees have had their lives put on hold and they must not be forgotten. It was this strong urge that propelled me to pick up a camera and go.”

In putting the refugees’ lives front and center, Funhashi and his crew have given us a humanitarian film of real insight and power.

Chris Herlinger is senior writer for CWS

View the trailer for ‘Nuclear Nation’