KAWAMATA (majirox news) – Shoko Watanabe recently returned to her home inside the 20-kilometer evacuation zone, one train stop away from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which has been leaking radiation since Japan’s earthquake three months ago.
The 62-year-old hair salon owner revisited the once quaint fishing village of Namie, which was heavily damaged by the tsunami, to offer prayers to her son who is still missing.
Japanese authorities set up return trips for residents from the towns and villages that are within the evacuation zone, which has high-radiation levels. Many left behind their valuables, including passports, bankbooks and birth and employment records. About 680 of Namie’s 20,000 residents made the trip back to their homes during four days designated for such visits in May and June.
Watanabe’s two-story house was swept away by the tsunami. All that remains of the home she shared with her missing 37-year-old son (a hairdresser and volunteer firefighter), daughter-in-law and two grandchildren is the concrete foundation.
Returning gave her a sense of relief because a Namie resident saw her son driving before the tsunami hit. It was the last time anyone saw him.
“My son was swept away and probably buried under the debris in his car,” Watanabe said. “I found out for the first time that he was warning residents to flee from the coast with a colleague before the tsunami. I did not understand what had happened to him until I returned to my house.”
Watanabe and her daughter-in-law and grandchildren escaped to higher ground.During her visit inside the zone she attended a Shinto ceremony to mourn her son. A local priest, wearing an orange robe over his protective gear, returned temporarily to Namie to pray for the missing residents.
Watanabe lost her family grave in the tsunami, which contained the remains of her parents, her husband and her two youngest sons, who passed away before the tsunami.
She laid sunflowers, her son’s favorites, at the site. “Junya,” she said, “I finally came back. Sorry that I could not help you any sooner. Please come home soon.”
Namie’s residents were driven along the coastal road dotted with boats washed ashore to the port city where they were allowed 20 minutes to look around their homes before they were rushed back to their buses.
Watanabe’s homecoming trip began at a horse race track on the edge of the evacuation zone. She and the other residents who accompanied her donned white, contamination-proof suits. Their mouths and hair were masked, and they pulled on multiple pairs of green rubber gloves and shoe covers before boarding a bus in groups of 20.
They discarded their gloves and shoe coverings before boarding the bus to go back. They were also checked with dosimeters to find out their radiation levels after walking over iodine- and cesium-contaminated soil close to the nuclear plant heavily damaged by the earthquake and tsunami.
After they were evacuated from the zone, people moved to ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) or gyms in Fukushima prefecture. Some preferred to live closer to the edge of the 20-km exclusion zone.
Watanabe rents a house in Kawamata, a village 45 kilometers away from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, with her sister, daughter-in-law and her two grandchildren, so the children can go to a school in the prefecture where they grew up.
“My son was such a wonderful and healthy person,” she said. “The workers in the evacuation zone can find my son only if they remove the debris under which he may have been buried, but they say they can’t look for him anymore. I can’t leave here until he has been found.”
Leussink is a Dutch journalist based in Tokyo. His articles have appeared in Asia Times, Law.com, and Dutch and Belgian newspapers.