FUKUSHIMA, JAPAN - The Great East Japan earthquake of 2011 and nuclear fallout that ensued was one that displaced over 160,000 people. Around 100,000 evacuees have yet to return home. Just over half of this group are still living inside the Fukushima prefecture, while some 43,000 are scattered across the rest of the archipelago. Of the 57,000 or so displaced within Fukushima, over 18,000 are still living in temporary housing units.
While some were forced to abandon their damaged homes in the coastal cities almost immediately after disaster struck on March 11, 2011, others were only told to evacuate about a month later when heightened radiation levels were detected from the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
And then there were residents living in the inland cities who left the prefecture of their own accord, fearing for the health of their children. The government has begun lifting compulsory evacuation orders for some communities in the former no-go zone surrounding the stricken nuclear plant, which is still leaking radiation, and plans to remove any remaining restrictions in March 2017.
It will also build permanent apartments - some in cities within Fukushima itself - that will eventually replace the temporary quarters where many currently stay. But many evacuees still find their lives in limbo, and are not sure whether they want to return. The Straits Times speaks to some of them to find out their plans for the future.
Fukushima evacuee Yasuhiro Abe hopes to share same roof as wife and daughter
For Mr Yasuhiro Abe, 52, seeing his wife and daughter means an eight- to nine-hour drive south from Fukushima to Kyoto.
The mother and daughter have been living as evacuees for the past five years, since a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster in their hometown in Fukushima prefecture.
But unlike many others who were issued evacuation orders, they decided to uproot voluntarily because they are worried that harmful radioactive material could spread west with rain or snow.
Home will never be the same again for elderly couple evacuated from Fukushima
“Even if we wanted to return home, we can’t,” said Mrs Toshiko Suzuki, 72, when asked about her plans to relocate if evacuation orders on her village in Fukushima prefecture were lifted.
“Our house is in the mountains, which cannot be decontaminated,” said her husband, 78-year-old Hideji Suzuki.
The couple had expected to return home not long after the disaster, but the wait of one to two years soon became five years.
“After years of living here, our bodies have weakened. Even if we returned to the village to become farmers again, we might not be able to do the same work.”
Miyuki Satou returns to ground zero - only to serve up piping hot bowls of ramen
It was about 2pm on a chilly Tuesday but there were no customers in Ms Miyuki Satou’s makeshift shop next to the Naraha town hall office, where she serves up piping hot bowls of ramen and udon.
The town was evacuated in the aftermath of the triple Tohoku disaster in 2011.
Although Naraha was the first town located entirely within a 20km radius of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 power plant to have its evacuation order lifted in September last year, people have been slow to return. Only 976 of its population of 7,700 have come home – mostly the elderly.
But her ties with Naraha have led her back to run a food business – one of only two eateries there. Both close at 3pm.
High radiation keeps Fukushima evacuee Mitsue Masukura away from home
Retiree Mitsue Masukura, 63, who used to live in the coastal town of Namie, knows she will not be returning home anytime soon.
The Japanese government’s target is to declare all areas around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 power plant livable by March next year (2017), except for three towns. Namie is one of the three. Certain parts of the town remain off limits because decontamination works have been suspended given the high radiation dosages.
Residents like Ms Masukura, a former fishmonger, are already allowed to return for only short periods during the day. They are not allowed to stay overnight.
Not that she has any plans to return.
She said: “Even if we move home, there will hardly be any amenities because many of the former merchants have moved out and started new businesses elsewhere.
“Besides, people still do not really feel safe about returning to a town so badly affected by the nuclear fallout.”
Fukushima evacuee Hiroshi Ueno does not want to return to his old house
Having settled into a new life with his family outside Fukushima prefecture, Mr Hiroshi Ueno has no intention of returning home.
The 51-year-old, who was a florist in Minamisoma city - around 30km north of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant - now handles data management at a support centre for other evacuees.
His son was 18 and about to start his first job when disaster struck on March 11, 2011. The extended family of 10, including Mr Ueno’s elderly parents and his sister’s family, decided to evacuate the very next day.
At that time, there was no official word from the Japanese government for mass evacuation but many residents feared the worst - a meltdown from the nuclear plant.
“Most of us left our houses without even tidying up our homes which were damaged by the earthquake,” Mr Ueno told The Straits Times. “No one knew what would happen next.”