A Decade and a Pandemic: The Recovery of Fukushima

By Trishit Banerjee | Translated by Sachi Kikuchi

If November 29, 2020 would have been a normal day, the return of God to the Futaba Shohatsu Shrine in Fukushima after nearly 10 years would have been a pompous affair. However, with Japan battling the third wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic, it was a hushed event with a select group of people.

Fig 01: Renovated Futaba Shohatsu Shrine before God was brought in

In March 2021, Fukushima and the rest of the Tohoku region would be commemorating a decade since the Earthquake and Tsunami struck its shores. For Fukushima however, the additional challenge posed by the nuclear disaster means that towns like Futaba continue to remain abandoned in most areas. 10 years later as these towns prepared for the reopening of Joban Line with renewed hope of recovery and returning someday, the pandemic has now posed itself as an insurmountable barrier.

Recovery of ‘hard’ infrastructure nears completion

“Public attention to recovery is biased at the beginning of the disaster and people forget about it over a long time. Recovery is a long term process,” says Prof. Dave Nguyen at IRIDeS (International Research Institute of Disaster Science), Tohoku University. Since recovery is based on plans proposed by the regional communities themselves, the amount of time required for completion varies from area to area. In a response from the Reconstruction Agency, the governmental body has argued that for regions affected by the earthquake and tsunami, reconstruction is in the completion phase. “The construction of permanent public housing for people who have lost their homes to the disaster have achieved 99% completion rate as of September 30, 2020, and the goal is to also fully complete the move-in to permanent housing from temporary by the end of March 2021,” the agency said.

However, the same cannot be said for areas hit by the nuclear disaster. The government has currently designated certain areas such as those around train stations, etc. for prioritised reconstruction and clean-up of the radioactive material. For the Reconstruction Agency, the common challenge remains regardless of the pandemic. “Although the reconstruction of the ‘hard’ infrastructure such as roads, buildings, etc. is more or less complete or is on track for completion, rebuilding regional and community ties and providing psychological care for residents and evacuees alike remain one of the core missions of the Reconstruction Agency”, it said.

The agency maintains that the overall schedule has not been affected by the pandemic and the target is still to complete the building portion of reconstruction by March 2021. “We have received reports that some projects funded by the government had to be temporarily suspended or postponed in order to comply with necessary precautions against COVID earlier this year, but all of them have since then been restarted and are on track to be completed during this fiscal year. Even if some of the projects cannot be completed during this period, the government is also ready to coordinate with the local prefectural governments to make necessary arrangements accordingly”, it said.

Pandemic has affected disaster victim support

Even though the recovery of hard infrastructure appears to be immune from the pandemic, the same cannot be said for the victims of the disaster. At the Fukushima Bureau of the Reconstruction Agency, staff members highlighted the challenges that have arisen during the pandemic. “Since the disaster, the communities have been split in many ways. For some who have been able to return to their hometowns, their neighbours during the evacuation may not have returned yet. Therefore, exchange events organised for building a new community were affected by the pandemic as people can’t meet face-to-face”, the members said. They further highlighted the issue with the elderly victims of trauma stemming from the disaster. Many of these victims are leading a secluded life and up until the pandemic, someone would go and personally visit their homes to ensure their well-being. This has become increasingly difficult since the onset of COVID-19 and now the only way to contact them is through phones.

Surprisingly, there have been some benefits too. Earlier, some of these self-isolated people wouldn’t open the door when supporters visited them personally but now they have been able to connect with them through phones. Further, exchange events were organised at home up until now but when some of them were done outside, it made the participants more active in general. In the end, it is not just about the supporter and the supported. “The chances to sit down with fellow evacuees and have a conversation over a cup of tea have reduced drastically with the pandemic which has been making them feel lonelier”, the staff members highlighted.

Fig 02 : Elderly disaster evacuee in Iwaki testing a self-driving vehicle

Tourism recovery has been stymied by the pandemic

Apart from the disaster victims themselves, several sectors in Fukushima and especially tourism have been affected by the pandemic. Prof. Nguyen highlighted the ill-timing of the pandemic in the recovery process. “After 2011, the government pushed tourism for fast recovery and revamped the visa policies but the results have been uneven. 5 years since the revamp, Okinawa saw a jump by almost 800% in its number of tourists. Tohoku did benefit but it only brought the levels back to 2010. Many thought that 2020 would be the year with big events such as Olympics that the number would rise above the 2010 levels. However, the pandemic crushed those hopes”, he explained. 

At the Fukushima City Tourism and Convention Association, Andrew Coombs is the Inbound CMO. Each spring, Hanamiyama near Fukushima city attracts around 300,000 tourists. It is one of the 2 major tourism events for the city. In 2020, this park had to be closed in the middle of March as the pandemic spread across the country. For Coombs, although there are parallels between 2011 and now, the impact of the pandemic is larger. “In 2011, the challenges were focused around Tohoku and Fukushima but the current pandemic has evaporated the global tourism industry”, he says. “When the first cancellations started to happen in April and May, it was compared to the 2008 financial crisis but I think the impact will be bigger. It will take 2-3 years to recover to 2019 levels”, he further adds. Coombs also mentions that many local governments are now planning to cut down budgets for international tourism and focus on domestic. The Go To Campaign has been beneficial for businesses such as the 3 Onsens around Fukushima city. The Takayu Onsen even won a JALAN Tourism Award for customer satisfaction in late 2020 which led to increasing tourists but with the temporary cancellation of the campaign and the third wave, the enthusiasm has been lost again.

In Fukushima city alone, more than 100 businesses have closed down due to the pandemic. The city tourism’s homepage received only 25% visitors as compared to the average however, Coombs is already making an effort to adapt. “One of the projects I am working on is with a local Bonsai artist called Bonsaiya Abe. We are doing an online demonstration with Bonsai so that once tourism resumes, we can focus on tourism around Bandai Azuma Skyline and Bonsai”, he mentions.

In the city of Iwaki, Tatsuhiro Yamane has been living the life of an evacuee with his family who lived in Futaba up until 2011. He is the founder of F-ATRAS which is a tourism company working to revitalise the sector along with Futaba and coastal Fukushima. He mentions his apprehensions regarding the pace of recovery. “The market was already small and struggling. The pandemic struck around the same time as talks about releasing treated water from the nuclear power plant into the Pacific. Now the concern is if this leads to any further rumours about Fukushima, it will make recovery even challenging”, he said. “Treated water was released even before 2011 however, the disaster has made it a focal point. The pandemic makes it worse as it is one negative after another”, he further added.

In his original schedule, he planned to attract foreign tourists to Futaba around late 2020. That has now been delayed by 2-3 years. In his effort to adapt to a new normal, Yamane is now looking at eco-tourism and exploiting Fukushima’s sunny coast to provide a sense of openness to future tourists. This January, he was also elected to the Futaba Town Assembly.

Both Nguyen and Yamane believe that for a long term plan, Fukushima will have to dissociate from its image surrounding radioactivity. “Kitakyushu was once considered to be the dirtiest area in Japan but it spent a lot of money destroying factories and building green spaces. In Miami, the tourism office worked with police to increase patrols so as to shed its crime city image. Fukushima too has to find a way to clean its radiation issues”, Nguyen says.

The Futaba Shohatsu Shrine was rebuilt after extensive crowdfunding efforts. Yamane believes that just like the shrine; the region, the culture and the people are also at the core of the community. “The shrine lights at night feel to me as the real light of reconstruction”, he said. For both Futaba and Fukushima, missing out on recovery in the face of a pandemic is too big a cost to afford.