Japan Looks For Ways To Keep Communities Intact

Japanese officials are experimenting with ways to help people displaced by last year's earthquake and tsunami. One idea is to create parallel towns where everyone from the dog-catcher to the schoolteacher can shift to one town while their old village is being rebuilt. It's a way of keeping communities intact. But after more than a year, many of the affected communities have already scattered.

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Now to Japan, which is still recovering from last year's devastating earthquake and tsunami. It triggered a meltdown at a nuclear power plant, and high levels of radiation forced at least 100,000 people to evacuate; many of them living in temporary housing since.

Now, as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, the Japanese government is considering a new plan to help the evacuees.

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JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: A high school band teacher patiently goes through the paces with one of his students at a secondary school in Aizuwakamatsu City. A couple of fans lazily move hot air around the room. But the students don't seem to mind the stifling heat, they're focused on the music.

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NORTHAM: But this isn't just a school. It's also a town hall, a temporary home for the leaders of Okuma, a town 50 miles away on the east coast of Japan. Four of the six reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant are located in Okuma. The high levels of radiation there forced the town's 11,000 people to evacuate. Now, many are living in Aizuwakamatsu City.

Keigo Akimoto is a director of planning and coordination at the makeshift Okuma Town Hall.

KEIGO AKIMOTO: (Through Translator) The biggest concern the residents have is what's going to happen in the future. We can't move back to Okuma until it has been decontaminated. That's 10 to 15 years at least. The Okuma residents need to have a plan, quickly.

NORTHAM: Akimoto says about half of Okuma's residents are currently living in temporary housing in Aizuwakamatsu, but others have dispersed to different areas of Japan. Akimoto says that's worrying because a sense of community is both important and fragile.

Minoru Kimura, a director with the government's new Reconstruction Agency, says one current idea to keep communities intact is to create new towns, where the evacuees can live and work and go to school together while their old town is being decontaminated and rebuilt. The so-called temporary or parallel towns would be set up next to an already existing community. Kimura says while this sounds good, this concept presents challenges.

MINORU KIMURA: (Through Translator) This temporary town concept would require building new facilities, roads and infrastructure. That could take at least three years. We've done some surveys and we're not confident everyone will want to live in these new places when they're ready.

NORTHAM: But for many evacuees who have been living in temporary housing, the idea of staying in a new town together until their old one is rebuilt sounds pretty appealing.

Business is brisk here at this small grocery store set up at one of the temporary housing units. Japanese noodles, vegetables, and drinks line the shelves and the freezer is loaded with ice cream. One of the women working here is Takako Suzuki, an evacuee from Okuma. She likes the idea of a temporary town since it may be set up to another coastal community called Iwaki.

TAKAKO SUZUKI: (Through Translator) I really want the government to make a decision soon, whether we can go to Iwaki. We know people in the area and there's no snow in the winter like there is here.

NORTHAM: Local and federal officials are negotiating, but say there is some reluctance in Iwaki to adopt the Okuma residents. Land and jobs are already hard to come by.

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NORIAKI SHIGA: (Foreign language spoken)

TOREEKO SHIGA: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: Ninety-one-year-old Toreeko Shiga smiles warmly when she greets her son, Noriaki, at the door. Shiga, another exile from Okuma, has also heard about the plan to set up the temporary town. But she's suspicious that the authorities will actually see the project through.

SHIGA: (Through Translator) I feel both anger and regret how the government and the power company have handled things. It's been 16 months and they still don't have a concrete plan for us.

NORTHAM: Shiga says one thing she does know: That her family will never be able to back to their home in Okuma in her lifetime.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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