Broken Families, Broken Health: Two Grandmothers Speak of the Ongoing Effects of Evacuation

Shizuko Watanabe & Keiko Takahashi

 Shizuko Watanabe & Keiko Takahashi were both residents of the Odaka ward of the city of Minami Soma who were forced to evacuate due to the explosions at the Fukushima #1 Nuclear Complex. Their stories document the physical and mental hardships of the lives of internally displaced persons (IDP) in the Developed World.

Shizuko Watanabe

Before the tsunami and nuclear accident, we were all living peacefully here in Odaka, the southern part of Minami Soma, near my parents’ home with my grandchildren. By March 14th, two days after the first explosion at the reactors, we had decided to evacuate. On our way out, we by chance stopped by the town office at a little past 10:00 in the morning, because my young grandson wanted to see his father who was staying behind. They talked together and about thirty minutes afterwards, there was the second explosion. Many people said then that we should leave Fukushima entirely, so we went to Tokyo, then further south to Kanagawa prefecture, and then finally back up here to Miyagi prefecture to the north.

In total, we have relocated four different times and will have to relocate yet again next year for my grandchildren’s education. I have three grandchildren, two girls and one boy who is the youngest. He is going to be in first grade from next year, and the eldest sister will be a sixth grader and entering junior high school. It has been difficult for her especially to jump into the new environments. Even if they have made friends in a new school and think they’ve gotten used to it, we have had to move and change schools again. So this time, we are hoping that when the sixth grader enters middle school, we won’t move and she’ll be able to keep her friends. I have returned here to Odaka for the time being and am living apart from my grandchildren. However, since my daughter has to work, I often have to go to drop them off and pick them up from school. So next year, we are thinking we should live together, and I will move again to be with them.

It has also been difficult time for me too. My mother passed away in September. She had been ill since last April, after the disaster happened. We took her to the doctor and got medicine to relieve the pain in her legs and to control her blood pressure. However, in the days and weeks after the disaster, our situation changed so much, and it seems she became emotionally down. This situation made her more ill, and she couldn’t eat. So her illness got worse, and she finally fell very ill. She tried hard for a year to continue to live, but she finally went to where my father is. I miss so much our family, the doctors, and the community in Odaka that used to help us. Although she evacuated with us, she eventually returned here to die. The children really wanted to come back home here and see her for the last time. We are grateful that she was able to have her funeral at her home temple, Ganoku-ji. If only there had been no disaster, she might have lived longer. I really regret that.

It may take some years for this situation to be resolved and for the natural environment to recover. We cannot see the radiation, but it still scares us. This is always a concern, so I have a hard time sleeping at night. During the nights, in my heart, I feel lonely. My husband has become alcoholic during this time, and it has destroyed his health. We have stayed in different places where people have allowed us, and they have accepted us with good spirits. However, other people really can’t understand our feelings as people from the actual place of such a nuclear accident. The politicians come to visit this area for short periods only. They can never understand how things are unless they get into our situation more deeply and stay with us for some months. In the future, I want to see the generations change and my grandchildren come of age. We want to live well, but I’m not sure this is possible. It will be difficult to return back to our homes.

Keiko Takahashi

I evacuated after the nuclear power plant incidents. At the time, my husband had been sick, but the doctor had said that his health was coming back surprisingly quick. He had just returned from his last medical treatment when the earthquake happened. Our family wasn’t affected by the tsunami, so we wanted to do something to help. We made rice balls and carried them to those in the affected areas. It was close to noontime on the next day, March 12, when I got information through the radio that the evacuation shelters were lacking mattresses and blankets, so with my two sons we collected some of ours and took them over.

At that time, a friend called from her parent’s house telling us about the dangerous situation taking place at the nuclear reactors and said they were going ahead and evacuating. We thought if we also evacuated that we would be able to come home in one or two days or even the next evening. We didn’t realize it would be that dangerous. We first went to the village of Iita-te but there was a blackout there, so we went to Kawamata and then on to Fukushima where there was also no electricity. Since we were scared of the tsunami and the aftershocks of the earthquake, we slept in our car for one night—eight people in an eight-seater car. Then we decided to call another friend and ask if we could go to their house. However, this friend had already evacuated to Iita-te as well and her whole family was there when we returned from Fukushima City. They were staying in the ward office that was acting as an evacuation shelter.[1]

The shelter was filled with over 100 people, some of who were sick with influenza. There was also garbage strewn about, and we didn’t have masks to wear. Our doctor had told us to be careful that my husband didn’t get pneumonia, so I asked my nephew and son to come with me to ask the ward office for information on another place. They let us stay in a model house used for selling real estate in Iita-te for two nights. Then we moved to Fukushima and stayed with our relatives for two nights, even though they didn’t have any water.

Our second grandchild was studying at Yamagata University in the next prefecture. Her landlord said he had two rooms so my husband went ahead to Yamagata city for a week. However, he came down with a fever on the second day there, and the doctors decided to hospitalize him. Finally, I was able to go to Yamagata by the bullet train. We were then introduced to a private hospital, but by that time my husband’s illness had progressed. By the middle of June, on the 15th, he passed away at 3:00 in the morning. If there had been no disaster, he could have tried harder.

Since I was by myself I didn’t know what to do and was given advice by a Buddhist priest to conduct the cremation ceremony in Yamagata where I knew no one. Even though I hadn’t been able to inform anyone, I was surprised that everyone in my family came, even my husband’s sisters. This was because a friend called me just on the day he died and through her everyone found out. At this time, I really broke down and cried. It was just so terrible.

I have another grandchild in his senior year of high school. By good fortune, he was able to pass the preliminary test and advance towards his first choice for university in Yamagata. In January, when he had the main examination for it, the high school teacher said he could miss school, so he came to stay with me in Yamagata City. I was staying near the Yamagata ward office which is in the center of town, and no one from our area of Minami Soma staying in evacuation shelters lived near there. Although I could make friends with people at the local stores, they were indeed different to me. So I really wanted to go home soon. My grandkids are in different places like Sendai and Yamagata. Everyone here in Odaka is old, and after the incidents, we just wanted to return home; that is just all that we wished for. I guess I was so relieved after returning home that I fell ill, and now I have to go all the way to Sendai to go to the hospital.

[1] Editor’s Note: At this time, the Japanese government was not providing public information on the spread of the radiation, so many people ended up evacuating from less radioactive areas towards and into higher radioactive areas like Iita-te, which is now an official radioactive hotspot where people are not allowed to live.

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