FOCUS

Minamisoma:
the trauma of
a split city

As of 1st May 2015

Area
Population
Density
Evacuees

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 400 km²
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 63,152 (70,752 on 1st March 2011)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 158/km²
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7,000 (living in 2,665 temporary houses)

A coastal city of 63,000 inhabitants, Minamisoma was created in 2006 through the merger of three districts: Kashima, Haramachi and Odaka. Rocked by the mega-earthquake, swept within minutes by the tsunami that claimed some 600 lives, and contaminated by the fallout from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant located only 14 kilometers away, the city paid a particularly heavy price for the March 2011 tragedy.

An administrative nightmare...

Immediately after the accident, Minamisoma was split by order of the government into different zones, depending on their distance to the power plant. Odaka had to be evacuated, as it is located within the 20-kilometer radius from the plant; Haramachi and the southern tip of Kashima, located within the 20- to 30-kilometer strip, were declared an in-house sheltering; residents were allowed to stay  in the remainder of the Kashima district. 

The March 11, 2011 catastrophe translated into quite different impacts on the urban, rural and coastal areas which compose the multifaceted geography of Minamisoma.

The problem of radiation is not just to return or not to return; there are many other problems

As a consequence, a majority of residents had to evacuate, with only 66% of them returning by spring 2014, at the time the 8th Dialogue was held in Minamisoma. In the meantime, the zoning underwent revisions, resulting in the division of Minamisoma into five zones: the difficult-to-return-to zone; the not-permitted-to-live-in zone; the ready-to-be-lifted evacuated zone; specific spots recommended for evacuation; and the no-restriction zone. A real nightmare…

... worsened by isolation and desolation

Adding to this complex zoning, access to the city was made difficult due to the damage caused by the tsunami on the coastal railway line and to the closure of the segment of National Route 6, located within a 20-kilometer radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

dividing lines

It is easy to imagine the difficulty for those who experienced the triple trauma to find the strength needed to steel themselves and regain confidence in the future. The administrative zoning intended to protect people unwittingly divided communities, with each individual feeling a strong sense of inequity due to the different treatment applied by the public authorities, depending on the zone concerned. In particular, many of the 140 patches of land designated by the government as specific zones recommended for evacuation comprised only a few houses eligible for compensation, whereas neighboring houses were not. It was an unnecessary source of social division for communities and even families already fragmented by conflicting opinions on the risk of radiation, on raising children in a contaminated environment, and on maintaining ancestral habits and traditions.

“The fear of radiation and judgment of the associated risk differ considerably among people because of contradictory information given by different exp erts. Information on dose measurements circulated by the authorities is received with skepticism. People have the feeling that they have been left on their own and are wondering who is trustworthy and who is not,” stressed a participant in the 8th Dialogue. Entitled The situation and challenges of Minamisoma – Working together in the affected zones, the Dialogue brought together more than 120 participants at a time when many citizens of Minamisoma were still overwhelmed by anxiety, confusion and anger.

the leavening effect of dialogue

During the 8th Dialogue seminar, testimonials from the Norwegian participants – reindeer herders from Lapland areas contaminated by the fallout from Chernobyl – and from representatives of the Suetsugi and Kanagawa communities showed that there are ways to gradually improve the radiological situation and to reconnect affected areas with the outside world. Opening up new prospects, the Dialogue created a desire in many participants to find ways to overcome the present situation and to engage in the rehabilitation of living conditions in Minamisoma, a desire echoed by a couple of individuals who were already taking action to rebuild the city and make a plan for future generations.

The seminar ended with recommendations for a measurement program focused on individuals to better characterize the radiological situation and identify room to maneuver at the individual and community levels. Among other recommendations were the development of forums for dialogue between citizens, experts and authorities to share information and exchange views on the future of the city, mechanisms to support decisions by individuals, whatever their choices, and local projects funded by the authorities to rehabilitate living conditions in Minamisoma and foster the city’s sustainable development.

looking to the future:still a challenge for minamisoma inhabitants

The 8th Dialogue seminar acted as a catalyst for coexistence among all participants, but it did not magically remove all the fears and uncertainties. What will come of this catalyst? Although a large percentage of the people who had left the City of Minamisoma in March 2011 came back more than three years after the accident, some still prefer to live in exile pending completion of the decontamination work to return it to safe conditions. In this context, the governmental measure allowing some people to return home early is regarded as a way of coaxing them into making the kinds of decisions the authorities want, in spite of serious local obstacles, such as the difficulty of finding a job, the disorganization of the school and health systems, and more generally the disruption of the social and economic fabric.

For those with a low sense of self-worth, who feel discriminated against, regaining their dignity, daring to envisage their future again is a long and winding road. This is the case of the young man who left Minamisoma and came back. He reported during the Dialogue seminar that he had a girlfriend from outside the prefecture but they didn’t dare announce their engagement to her parents. He wonders also about the future of his unborn children: would they find a job in Minamisoma? could they get married? And how does one build a common future when the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear accident affected the communities that form Minamisoma so differently?
These are still pending issues…

focus

date:
leadership at work

focus

SUETSUGI:
INDIVIDUALS TAKING THEIR FATE
INTO THEIR OWN HANDS