Japan quake: Inside the evacuation zone

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Dai Saito lives in Haramachi-ku in Minamisouma, which lies inside the 20-30km "stay indoors" zone around the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. After the quake he chose to stay with his mother in Haramachi-ku, while his wife and children went to stay with her parents. His job as a children's football coach has gone. One month on from the disaster, he tells the BBC about his life now.

In the past four weeks the situation in Haramachi-ku has changed a lot. Private shops have started to open gradually. My mother returned to work on 4 April - her company deals in scrap wood so she will probably stay in Haramachi-ku.

Image caption,
Dai Saito (pictured centre) says he will have to give up his dream of being a children's football coach

People come and go from time to time; some have come back home because they are tired of living as evacuees, some have returned to work. Every reason is different, but people are returning. One big difficulty is that moving and searching through the debris takes a lot of time because there are not enough people to help.

Large supermarkets and restaurants are not open in Haramachi-ku. I met the people who turned off the power to the large supermarkets and heard that all the employees had been evacuated - suggesting (although it has not been announced officially) that it will be difficult to reopen in the near future.

Also, restaurant chains are not open. Food safety has not been established and it seems the stores belonging to larger chains are being forced to stay closed by their management.

Some things we need we can buy nearby, and some things we can't. Private shops and convenience stores started opening (though not 24-hour) and we can buy drinks and some daily goods. However, distribution is stagnating and overall stocks are low.

Until my mother restarted her job, we shared tasks. I was in charge of shopping and filling the car, while my mother was in charge of domestic chores such as cooking and washing.

When I go out I wear a hooded coat that I call "protective clothing". By wearing the same clothes, I try to minimise the number of items exposed to radiation. If I changed my clothes every time I went out, I would have to wash my clothes in potentially polluted water, then all my clothes would probably be contaminated.

Communication breakdown

In the neighbourhood we are helping each other. We exchange information and collect our rations together, and if we have anything spare we share it. Since the earthquake struck, I feel relationships have grown stronger.

Image caption,
Rations, medical care and some toll roads are free

My money is decreasing. I need to juggle things to make ends meet and I find it hard. Right now, I am spending more than I expected on communication to contact people after the earthquake. However, it is crucial to confirm people's safety and stay informed.

Rations, medical care and some toll roads are free. Free medical care here apparently only applies to Haramachi-ku residents using the facilities in Haramachi-ku. Toll gates from Fukushima to the edge of the evacuation zone are free as long as we are using them for evacuation purposes.

Energy, communications and fuel are not free. I heard a rumour that the energy companies would allow late payments but we still have to pay for everything even though we were hit by the earthquake.

The local council in Minamisouma is working hard. Since they finished transferring those who wished to leave the area, they have been delivering food and aid to the remaining people. It must be difficult to reach every citizen but I can see they are trying.

On the other hand, I am far from satisfied with the government, which has so far failed to provide transparent information to the people in the evacuation zones, failed to deal swiftly with the neighbouring village of Iitate - where radiation levels are high - and failed to disclose how it made decisions that are not in line with international standards.

I feel that the reports on the nuclear power plant all too often suggest that radioactive materials pose no risk at all. We are being told that the radioactive materials, which do not exist naturally and have for sure leaked from the damaged plant, do not cause immediate harm to human health.

However, that information means very little to us who are concerned about our health in five or 10 years' time. It may be difficult to predict the long-term effects of radiation exposure on human health, but I find it very disappointing that they cannot even predict the effects in the next six or 12 months.

In addition, the nuclear plants are facing one problem after another: I want information that helps us look into the future, such as how the worst of the crisis can be avoided and where we are at present.

I don't know if the plant's operator, Tepco, is handling the situation all that well. As far as the news conferences go, responses like 'I need to discuss that with my colleagues' and 'let me get back to you on that' dominate.

It makes me think that Tepco has no working policy on information sharing. I can see that full communication could be difficult and delays are possible in large companies. However, it is a serious problem that companies like Tepco have no tried-and-tested emergency communication system in place.

'Very hard decision'

Reflecting on everything that has happened, I feel more sadness than anger. The earthquake and the tsunami caused huge damage to the Tohoku (north-east) region. People lost their homes, their loved ones, their jobs. People's lives were changed in a flash. But I believe striving forward is part of human nature. We will make every effort to rebuild our homeland.

Image caption,
The government has suggested moving people out of the 20-30km Indoor Evacuation Zone

I want to see a swift recovery. But the problem of the nuclear power plant is a serious obstacle. The other day, the chief cabinet secretary suggested the transfer of people out of the Indoor Evacuation Zone. People have restarted work here. What happened to the previous assessment that we would be safe as long as we stayed indoors? It really fills me with deep sadness.

I want to stay in Minamisouma living the life I had before, and I want to continue teaching football. But both my wife and I think it will be impossible if this situation continues.

Even if the nuclear power station is brought under control soon, it will take several years to clear up completely and for things to return to normal.

Right now, Haramachi-ku has the problem of radiation. Without it I think it would have been possible - even with the other issues - to lead a simple life here. However, we need funds and I think an environment that has a radiation risk simply isn't right, especially for my new baby.

I have to make a very hard decision. I want to live peacefully in my hometown. It pains me that I can't. I worry about my mother.

I went to Tokyo for five days earlier this month. I could see quite a difference between Tokyo and Minamisouma. If I stay in the Indoor Evacuation Zone there is no guarantee of work. I also felt that staying in Tokyo would be safer when I consider my baby's future.

I have no choice but to carry on with my life, and I will work away from home temporarily.

I haven't decided what I will do long-term yet. What I know for sure is that I have to give up my dream of being a children's football coach. Sadly my life has changed completely as a result of this disaster.

This article was produced with the assistance of Mayumi Geater