Maruzoi fled his home, less than two miles from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, on March 12. In a fit of fury and despair, he decided last week to return and see for himself the havoc wrought by Tokyo Electric, known as Tepco.
He got into his white Subaru and set off for a 25-mile drive back to Okuma, the site of Tepco’s tsunami-battered plant. Police in anti-radiation protective clothing tried to stop him at a checkpoint but, after a heated argument, let him pass. Arriving in Okuma, Maruzoi drove past cows wandering along deserted streets. He thought of “The Day After,” a 1983 TV movie about the aftermath of a nuclear war.
He went, he said, because, unbelieving of everything Tepco says, he had to see with his own eyes what had happened to his home, and to a pet cat and dog he’d left behind. He stayed for less than an hour, just long enough to inspect his property, grab some clothes — and dig up some soil from his garden.
He wrapped the earth in plastic and set off back to Tamura, his dog, left behind yet again, yelping as it tried to keep up with his accelerating Subaru. Back in the gymnasium, Maruzoi had the soil tested at a radiation screening center. The Geiger counter flashed an alarm. Maruzoi quickly got rid of his contaminated sod. He also ditched all hope of returning to Okuma to live anytime soon.
“I wish I could go back, but realistically it will not be possible for 20 or 30 years,” he said, smoking a cigarette outside the sports complex where he sleeps on the floor with 600 others evacuated from Okuma. With him is a son who used to work at Tepco’s plant.
Before a tsunami crashed into the six-reactor complex, Maruzoi “never worried at all. They kept saying it was safe. We were brainwashed.”
Now, like many others, he blames Tepco more than nature’s furies for the ruin of his life. He wants the company to pay, not just in cash but also in honor.
When Tepco sent company vice president Norio Tsuzumi here to offer apologies on March 22, Maruzoi demanded to know why the president, Masataka Shimizu, hadn’t come instead.
“Where is Shimizu? Can we see Shimizu?” he asked the vice president, who had no answer and “just kept mumbling, ‘Sorry, sorry.’ ”
Shimizu, Tepco has since revealed, was recuperating from a “small illness” due to overwork. Shimizu suffered another bout of ill health early last week and was hospitalized with hypertension and dizziness. He was still in the hospital Sunday, the company said.
At Tamura’s town hall, fury at Tepco and dismay at its absentee boss is also running high.
“We are beyond anger,” said Tokutaro Kato, the head of the economics section.
The town has set up three posts that monitor airborne radiation and is now waiting for equipment so it can check soil.
Kato gets bombarded with calls from farmers who want to return to abandoned farms: “I tell them, ‘I’m sorry about your animals, but your life is more important. Please don’t go.’ ”
Still more distressing, he said, was news that Tepco workers scrambling to repair the plant had been exposed to dangerously radioactive water while in the basement of a turbine building.
“I thought, what the hell is Tepco doing?” he said. “It is obvious the water there is contaminated.”
Japan’s nuclear regulator on Friday reprimanded Tepco for sending workers into danger without dosimeters, a device used to measure radiation exposure.
Rumors among evacuees
Filled with anxious, uprooted people, Tamura’s gymnasium swirls with rumors of both doom and possible salvation, careering between despair at reports of a spike in radiation and hope stirred by whispers of a secret American powder that can purge contamination. Many, including Maruzoi, the previously fearless construction worker, now want to play it safe and are planning to move to a new shelter further inland in Aizuwakamatsu.
Tepco “betrayed us. They said everything was safe, but look at this mess,” said Jiro Tochikubo, another former Okuma resident. “Of course the tsunami was higher than we all expected, but why did Tepco always say everything was definitely okay?” After the tsunami, he added, Tepco insisted that radiation definitely wasn’t leaking.
“Tokyo Electric should stop using the word ‘definitely,’ ” he said.
Like everyone here, he thinks the company must pay compensation but isn’t optimistic; Tepco, burdened with huge debts even before the tsunami, now looks doomed unless the government steps in. Its credit rating has plunged; its shares have lost more than 80 percent of their value.
But not everyone is cursing. Some still remember, wistfully, how Tepco brought jobs and investment to Okuma.
“There is no point getting angry,” said Kai Michiharu, who works for a waste disposal subcontractor hired by Tepco. He was finishing his shift near the unit 4 reactor when the earthquake hit. He rushed to his employer’s office on higher ground.
The experience, he said, was “terrifying,” but he still hopes Tepco will one day reopen at least part of Fukushima Daiichi, so he can go back to work. He got paid in full for March and will get 60 percent of his nearly $3,000 salary for April, but he’s not sure what will happen after that.
A few days ago, Michiharu got a call from his boss asking if he would be willing to work at Tepco’s nuclear plant in the future. He’s not keen on going back now, but “if I can’t find any other work,” he said, “then I’ll return.”