However, for those living outside the no-go zone, the situation was much different. The decision was theirs to make. To stay or to go?
Staying would mean facing an intrusive, invisible, and ever-present enemy; it would mean being separated from family and neighbors who decided to leave. But it also meant clinging to some familiarity, their jobs, their livelihood.
Leaving meant distancing themselves from the danger of the radioactivity, being able to trust the food, regaining control over their lives, finding a safe haven. But the price of this was leaving loved ones behind, their neighbors, friends, their history. They would have to live with the feeling that they had abandoned those who stayed behind, and being a stranger in the eyes of those already living in their new home. Sometimes there was also the question of finding a place to go!
TOUGH DECISIONS FOR ONE’S CHILDREN
Some stayed, while others decided to leave. The decision was heart-wrenching, even more so when children were involved.
Mayumi Ootsuki, 39 years old at the time of the accident, lived in Ryozen, a rural area on the outskirts of Date. With her husband and parents, she decided to stay in the family home in the country with her two sons, Seiya, 8 years old, in elementary school, and Shunya, 6 years old, in kindergarten.
A member of the local parent-teacher association, Ms. Ootsuki was very involved in the operation of the elementary school and kindergarten, on which she believes the future of her village depends: “The people in the district of Ishida, where our elementary school is, are doing all they can to maintain traditions. They place great importance on culture, and also on our small school. This is the country. There are not many students at the school. The same goes for the kindergarten. Our lifestyles are those of a village, of a small neighborhood, not those of a city!” she explained.
Mayumi Ootsuki, resident of the village of Ryozen, city of Date
At noon of March 14, 2011, I was told I should make some preparations for immediate evacuation. But at the same time, many people who wanted to leave couldn’t, first and foremost because they had nowhere to go.
Sanae Ito, 50 years old at the time of the accident, was a resident of the district of Haramachi, in Minamisoma. Immediately after the accident, she decided to leave with her mother and daughter. She recalls how she felt: “The accident happened on the day my daughter graduated from college. The only thing I could think about was protecting her!” The tiring journey brought her first from Minamisoma to Tokyo, then Kyoto, where she still lives today.
Her daughter did not share her views on the merits of leaving the city where she was born and her classmates. She demonstrated her frustration by arguing each day with her mother and obstinately refusing to work at school. These difficulties got better over time, as she made new friends and grew more and more interested in foreign languages.
Sanae Ito, evacuated to Kyoto, former resident of Minamisoma
I go back to Minamisoma two or three times a year. Now, after four years, I feel like I would be happy to go back, but the feeling that it’s impossible is stronger.
While Sanae Ito is considering staying in her new city, Maiko Momma, 33 years old at the time of the accident, returned to Yotsukura, a district of the city of Iwaki. At just 300 meters from the coast, her home was very fortunate to have been spared by the tsunami. But the horrific memories of the raging ocean pouring into the countryside, while she and her children ran to higher ground, will forever remain etched in her mind. Mother of a daughter of 11 months and a son of 2 years at the time, Ms. Momma decided to evacuate Yotsukura with her children, leaving behind her husband, whose departure would have forced him to leave his job as manager of a pharmacy and to fire his employees.
Led by the duty to protect her children, she went to Koriyama, some sixty kilometers away, where she stayed for one month with her husband’s parents. Encouraged by her own parents to put more distance between herself and the damaged reactors, she left for Sendai, where she was born. She is familiar with this city in the prefecture of Miyagi, located some 110 km from Koriyama, since her parents and younger sister still live there.
Life would have been almost normal if Mr. Momma had gone with his wife and children. Their separation became more and more difficult, since they could not see each other as often as they would have liked - far from it! - due to the three-to-four-hour detour between Minamisoma and Iwaki, as a result of the power plant accident. “In the spring of 2013, I heard from an acquaintance that it was possible to obtain authorizations making it possible to go directly from Minamisoma to Iwaki by national route 6,” recalls Maiko Momma. “So I wondered, if things had gotten that much better, why not go home? That’s how I decided to go back in August.”
Maiko Momma, radiation protection advisor for residents, city of Iwaki
I was worried about going back to the coast. And my children were still small. I was really afraid.