In Japan, refugees bring new life to fading town

April 1, 2011

For four years, the abandoned high school in this sleepy farming district two hours north of Tokyo symbolized the decay of Japan’s rural hamlets, whose children had left for more promising futures in bustling urban centers.

But on Friday, Kisai High School and Kazo City were reborn — opening their doors to 1,337 weary refugees with nowhere else to go.

The residents of the city of Futaba had fled their homes near the overheating Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility March 11 when the massive earthquake and tsunami struck, battering their homes and triggering radiation leaks from the power plant.

For three weeks, they had remained together as a village of nomads, moving among temporary shelters, most recently at the Saitama Super Arena sports complex. Now they had arrived in the city of Kazo, perhaps their final stop. They don’t know how long they’ll be here, but it is clear they won’t be going home to Futaba anytime soon.

The group was met by an army of Kazo officials and volunteers sporting yellow baseball caps and moving a flotilla of supplies into the five-story school: 1,700 tatami, 1,337 futons, 4,000 bento box meals, 50 portable toilets, 10 new washing machines.

“They can use this place as a home as they develop their new lives,” said Kazo’s city manager, Masayuki Nomoto, who was directing the relocation operation from what used to be the principal’s office. “If they want to become residents, we will support them.”

It has been a long time since Kazo was much more than an afterthought in Japan. So steeply had the population declined there and in three neighboring towns that last year Saitama prefecture officials combined them into a single jurisdiction with a total population of 117,000. It is a scenario that has played out across rural Japan, where the country’s low birthrate and aging population are most apparent.

Not that the refugees now repopulating the district are the picture of youthful vitality. Many are elderly, and they looked exhausted shuffling between the cafeteria and the classrooms that have become makeshift bedrooms. They wore padded slippers and clutched loaves of plastic-wrapped bread. Women shepherded young children; men fingered cigarettes in an outdoor smoking area.

Katsutaka Idogawa, the soft-spoken mayor of Futaba, sported a two-day growth of white stubble. Throughout the three-week ordeal, he has fulfilled his official responsibilities nobly, doting on his constituents, giving a speech at the Saitama Arena and now setting up a mayoral office inside the high school.

“I think people need to accept it,” Idogawa, 64, said of the group’s new surroundings. “Of course they want to go home. I understand that. But they have to suppress those feelings and accept the situation. We have to take care of them mentally, let them have some relaxing time and hope they do something here from now on.”

As he spoke, Idogawa appeared on the verge of tears. His wife was with him at the school, but two grown children live in Tokyo and a third, who works for Tokyo Electric Power Co., has been among those battling to control a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

“I talked to him on the phone. He’s all right,” Idogawa said. “There’s nothing else I can do.”

About half the working-age adults in Futaba had been employed in one role or another at Tepco’s plants in Fukushima, Idogawa said. Now most are unemployed. Nomoto, the Kazo city manager, said some of the men will be offered jobs at local manufacturing plants or delivering newspapers. The 97 elementary and 68 junior high students have been enrolled in the local schools, which will begin the new academic year Friday.

Shuttle buses take the refugees to a public bathhouse in town, and the nearest grocery store is several miles away. To visit a shopping mall, they will have to ride the train.

On Friday, 11-year-old Kai Kumano and half a dozen friends ventured only as far as the baseball diamond behind the school. Gathered in the dugout, they debated their feelings about starting over at a new school.

“I don’t know anyone, and I might get bullied,” fretted Kai, who was nursing a broken ankle he had suffered at the Saitama Arena shelter. Hiromu Hashimoto, 13, snickered, boasting that he was looking forward to meeting new friends.

A few yards away, Hiromu’s brother Tokiya, 16, tried on a baseball mitt he had found in the Kisai High School gym. He picked up a ball and threw it against the wall, fielding it with youthful nonchalance in a once-forgotten corner of an aging town that was vital once again.

Tanaka is a special correspondent.

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