FUKUSHIMA, JAPAN – 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.
One key reason for this is that families have already rebuilt their lives and bought new homes elsewhere, including Ms Satou’s.
The 51-year-old was a former resident of the coastal town bordering the Pacific Ocean, but now lives with her two daughters who have full-time jobs in the neighbouring Iwaki city.
But her ties with Naraha have led her back to run a food business – one of only two eateries there. Both close at 3pm.
Every day she has about 70 customers – mostly workers tasked with rebuilding the town where black bags of contaminated soil still remain a common sight, or former residents who have come back to visit.
She estimates only 10 per cent of her customers are residents who have moved back home.
“There is really no demand and so there is no point opening late,” she said. “Naraha used to be a much livelier town before the disaster, but now it just feels very lonely.”
It makes no sense for young families to return, when it is more convenient to live near their new workplaces or schools, she added.
But despite the nuclear disaster having changed her life, she offered a moderate take on the use of nuclear power.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has said that Japan “cannot do without nuclear power” and has set a target to have nuclear power make up as much as 22 per cent of the country’s energy needs. Recent attempts to restart reactors elsewhere in the country – halted over public safety concerns following the 2011 disaster – have become entangled in a web of lawsuits.
The use of nuclear energy has split popular opinion in Japan. Ms Satou acknowledged it was a difficult question.
“It is an industry that can create a lot of jobs,” she said. “It will of course be better to use other forms of energy but I don’t think we have found one yet.”