Japan's Refugees Crowd Shelters And Wait

As many as 400,000 people in Japan are now displaced due to the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent crisis at the nuclear power plant. Doualy Xaykaothao reports for NPR from Fukushima prefecture, in one of the largest shelters in Koriyama City.

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

As many as 400,000 people are now displaced because of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident. Since last week, NPR's Doualy Xaykaothao has been reporting in Fukushima Prefecture, where the nuclear plant leaking radiation is located. She's at a safe distance, outside a government-ordered evacuation zone, and visited one of the largest shelters in Koriyama City.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: Usually, at the Big Palette, people enjoy cultural events. But now, some 2,000 people are crowded onto every inch of this modern concert hall. And every half an hour or so, an announcement calls over loudspeakers about missing family members.

XAYKAOTHAO: (Japanese spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: Everywhere you look, people are distressed. Men smoke outside. Women search through donated clothes for their children. Some people try, unsuccessfully, to call family or friends. The elderly lie wrapped thick with beige blankets on the floors.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

XAYKAOTHAO: Eighteen-year-old Fumito Fukuda sits not far from some crying babies. He's charging his cell phone. On a different day, you might think he was just a skinny, punk kid - looking grungy and hanging out. But today, his dark clothes, his greasy hair, his tired eyes and his weak voice tell a different story. He says he hasn't showered in five days...

M: (Japanese spoken)

REIKO: He feels disgusting, but if he takes a bath once, he maybe feel a little better.

XAYKAOTHAO: Most evacuation centers are without showers, and some places don't even have running water. Japan's self-defense forces are building bathtubs at some locations. Fukuda says his home was not damaged by the earthquake or tsunami. But he and his family had to evacuate because of possible radioactive materials leaking from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

M: (Japanese spoken)

REIKO: We have a program at nuclear plant so people, humans, don't have to create nuclear...

XAYKAOTHAO: Reiko, who is helping to interpret for me, can't finish Fukuda's sentence. She is moved by his words, asking to make this a nuclear-free world. Other refugees here echo this same sentiment.

POST: The correct name of the power company is Tokyo Electric. Also, Doualy Xaykaothao reported from Aizuwakamatsu, not Aizukawamatsu.]

Outside the evacuation center, buses are being unloaded. More refugees are arriving. Seventy-five-year-old Kichisaburo Suzuki is wearing a face mask. He stands outside Big Palette with his family; a little girl clutches his legs. He explains that he used to work at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, as a contract worker for Tokyo Electronic Power Company.

M: (Japanese spoken)

REIKO: He really worried about pollution. He knows about TEPCO. He watches TV. It doesn't tell the truth.

XAYKAOTHAO: Do you think it's safe to be here?

M: (Japanese spoken)

REIKO: He doesn't think Koriyama City is safe.

XAYKAOTHAO: But the Japanese government reassures the public repeatedly that the levels of radiation reported in Fukushima and other prefectures are safe, and international health organizations agree. For now, Suzuki says his family trusts the government, so he must remain in Koriyama. His granddaughter smiles at me, tells me she's 4, and they go back inside the evacuation center.

Doualy Xaykaothao, NPR News, Aizukawamatsu, Japan.

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Correction March 21, 2011

The power company is incorrectly referred to in this story as Tokyo Electronic; the correct name is Tokyo Electric. And Doualy Xaykaothao reported from Aizuwakamatsu, not Aizukawamatsu.

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