Maintaining a Vigil and Hope inside the Nuclear Exclusion Zone

by Rev. Junsho Shirae

Rev. Junsho Shirae is the abbot of Kokei-ji, a Jodo Shin Nishi Honganji Pure Land denomination temple, located within the mandatory evacuation area of the Odaka ward in the city of Minami Soma, Fukushima.

4 KokeijiThe city of Minami Soma is divided into several districts. In the coastal area, everyone was victimized due to the tsunami, and about 600 people perished in it. After the nuclear incident, our city was divided into three areas: one that is inside 20 kms from the nuclear power plant; one that is 20-30 kms away; and one that is beyond 30 kms away. In the areas that are beyond 30 kms, people quickly went back to their houses, cleaned up the earthquake damage, and were able to restore their homes. In the area of 20-30 kms, like Haramachi ward where the city hall is located, houses were put under temporary restrictions, but the people could remain living there. To a certain extent, these people could resettle themselves, resume their daily lives, and confront rebuilding after the disaster. In the area inside the 20 kms, which covers most of the Odaka ward where my temple is located, people were forced to evacuate and have not been allowed to return, except in certain areas during the day time for work related matters. Since the disaster of March 11, 2011, they have had to flee to evacuation centers and then move into temporary housing units all while continuing to rely on their relatives.

I myself had to evacuate and have been living in the city of Sendai to the north in Miyagi prefecture. The center of Sendai has pretty much returned to the same life style as before the disaster. However, the coastal areas of Sendai were quite damaged by the tsunami. There is a temple called Seno-ji in the Gamo district whose abbot I have know since a while back. I stayed there for about a month after the disaster. The people in this area had quite a difficult situation. Now after more than a year has passed, however, they have moved forward with reconstruction. All the people of that area are now thinking about what to do as they had to all relocate en masse after the disaster.

In this way, I have been commuting back and forth between Sendai and my temple here in Minami Soma. It takes about five hours to get here from Sendai, so I have often spent the night in my car. However, when the season changes and it gets colder, I ask some people I know in local areas to spend the night with them.

In the first days after the disaster, ongoing tremors damaged the roof of the main hall of Kokei-ji so that water leaked in for over one year. In April of 2012, we put a big sheet over the roof to prevent such leaking. The problem in rebuilding the temple is not that the government does not permit it because we are in the 20 km restricted area, but that all available workers and construction firms are busy with other rebuilding work that has higher priority.

I have received some basic sympathy money from my denomination, but this was earmarked for my lay followers to help their daily living as refugees. These funds have not been enough to support the rebuilding of the main hall. If you visit the coastal areas in Miyagi and Ibaraki prefectures affected by the tsunami, you will see tremendous damage. In this way, the Honganji denomination has not so much prioritized the rebuilding of temples of their own denomination and have donated money to people from any Buddhist denomination in these areas. They also made large donations to the Miyagi, Fukushima, and Ibaraki prefectural governments as well as the Red Cross.

It may also take another perhaps 5-10 years before people of this area return to their homes. When they do, they will be busy with rebuilding their own homes, so getting their support to fix the temple hall will come after that. In this way, we won’t be able to do work on the main hall any time soon.

I would like to believe that there is the possibility of people returning soon. I am working for that now. However, various people’s opinions differ on the extent and effect of the radiation, so it is hard to tell who to believe. I am told that the half-life of the radioactive matter here is twenty-eight years, so fundamentally, it will take 200 years for the radiation to dissipate. This is the estimate if no decontamination work is done, so it is now a problem of how to proceed with decontamination work. Just last month, the Taisei Construction company visited here. Since April of 2012, they have been coming to do decontamination work.

Since this area is within 20 kms of the Fukushima #1 Nuclear Complex, it has become a restricted zone. However, outside of this 20 km radius, for example at the parking lot of the Minami Soma City Hall, the radioactivity readings are almost the same as when that area’s restricted status was ended. If you look at the data from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) and the Ministry of Reconstruction, you can understand that this 20 km is simply a line drawn by a compass. The radiation level at the city hall lying in Haramachi outside of the 20 kms is just about the same level as here. This 20 km line is an estimate to establish the extent of people who can live in the area.

Among the people who have returned to live in temporary housing in the Haramachi and Kashima areas of Minami Soma, the percentage of those of child rearing age is basically zero. It seems there are many who are past the age of mandatory retirement. The reality is that there are people who have to work for their living and also have small children who need raising and education but find it difficult to get any work in this area. So these families with children are looking for work in areas where they evacuated.

I have heard from friends in India that after the great tsunami that hit their southern coast in 2004, the government moved people into refugee centers and temporary housing, completely took over the coastal lands, and have not allowed these people to reclaim their ancestral lands. In many areas in northern Japan, people who had their houses swept away by the tsunami also had to relocate en masse. The government has looked into purchasing this land, but they have to do so while taking into account the intention of the local citizens. In the center of Minami Soma as well as the coastal areas of Kashima and Haramachi, there has been a local movement towards a policy of using this land for establishing solar power generating facilities.

In the future, there will be a situation of some people who will return to this area and some who will not. In the event that people do return, I want to remain here and express to them, “The temple is here, and I have remained.” Also for those people who have decided not to return, this region is the place where their ancestors come from, where their homes used to be, and where their family graves are located. So I have been thinking that whenever they want to come to visit, it won’t be the case of nothing remaining here in Odaka. If they come and see, they will find the abbot of Kokei-ji temple.