KUSATSU, Japan - Tadanori Anzai and his wife Michiko left their town in Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture, more than a month ago to escape the radioactive contamination spewing from the earthquake-damaged nuclear power plant located close to their home and tiny eatery.
Along with sixty others, the Anzai couple and their grandchild travelled by bus to this snowy hot spring town 150 kilometres west of Minamisoma on Mar. 25, after the local government invited them over.
"I survived the terrible earthquake and tsunami that hit Fukushima that fateful day. But today, I feel my situation is far worse than those who have lost everything in the natural disaster," said the 58-year-old Anzai.
Referred to popularly as nuclear refugees, the Anzai family are among thousands of people who have left radiation affected areas, some still crammed into hastily prepared evacuation sites, in line with the Japanese government’s new regulation to clear the 30-kilometre area around the nuclear plant.
The Anzais and another family arrived at Nakamura Ryokan, one of the oldest inns in Kusatsu, a small town with a population of 7,000. "We have been warmly welcomed by the owners and extremely grateful to have a place to live. Still, the terrible situation is that I cannot return and we are starkly aware that we cannot live here for ever," said Anzai.
Kusatsu local government official Takashi Nakazawa agrees. In an interview with IPS, he explained the invitation to accept displaced communities from radiation-affected Minamisoma aimed to provide a temporary home until they could return.
"Kusatsu is not a wealthy town that has the necessary infrastructure to accept newcomers who need jobs and other support. We are doing what we can for now but resources are poor and will not last long," he said.
According to disaster experts, the lack of a national vision to steer a future for Japan’s first post-war nuclear refugees illustrates this country's shocking unpreparedness to deal with a nuclear crisis.
"There are no lessons that can be drawn because the nuclear accident is leading to displacement of large populations who cannot return for many years at least," pointed out Professor Yoshiteru Murosaki, head of the disaster research dept at Kwansei Gakuin University.
Murosaki, who led a research project on the rebuilding of towns and communities after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, explained that successful resettlement is not only about providing new homes but also including such important aspects as employment similar to their former occupations, which is what the newcomers seek.
"Moreover, communities in Japan are traditionally averse to remaining divided and one solution would be more temporary housing close to their original homes, another key for effective resettlement," he said.
Murosaki said current policies have missed these crucial aspects entirely. "The government is still scrambling to deal with a dire situation on a temporary basis and has no answers for the long-term," he said.
Experts are calling for financial subsidies to local governments that have accepted the nuclear refugees as well as a more concentrated effort by the authorities to listen to the displaced to find out their concerns and ideas.
Professor Ikuo Kobayashi said his work with reconstruction of local towns after the Kobe disaster also clearly indicates the urgent need to deal with displacement in a more humane manner.
"Unlike natural disasters, the displaced from radiation-affected areas live with no prospect of returning. Naturally, emotions are tense and explosions from frustrations can grow against a situation that can offer them very little long-term relief," he said.
One-third of the estimated almost 75,000 new temporary housing units needed for disaster resettlement will be set aside for people moving out of the contaminated areas.
Meanwhile, Anzai and his hosts in Kusatsu are working hard to develop closer ties as they ponder the future.
Innkeeper Hiromi Nakamura said she is happy to play the role of host and feels "deeply for the loss faced by Anzai and the other family in my care."
Kusatsu is now providing financial support for 210 people from Minamisoma. They live in the famous hot spring resort and are extended meal coupons and other benefits.
Anzai said he and his fellow nuclear refugees share their deep anxiety of how they can manage to move out soon and start living independently.
"My eatery is closed. The parents of my grandchild live closer to our homes because they have to work. Not until we are able to live together as before will I be able to sleep well again," he said.