HIRONO, Japan — It has been more than a year since the evacuation order was lifted in this town near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, site of one of the worst environmental disasters in history, but Hirono Mayor Motohoshi Yamada still longs for the sound of children's voices.
Hirono is within a 30-kilometer radius of the plant that experienced a triple meltdown in March 2011, triggered by the one-two punch of an earthquake and tsunami.
"From this room, you can see the ocean, and it was all black and it was really scary. I was really scared," said Yamada, 64, as he recalled that fateful day in his Hirono office, which overlooks the town and the now-blue Pacific Ocean. After the earthquake, Yamada felt it was necessary for the people of Hirono to evacuate to nearby towns in the Japanese prefecture.
The evacuation order in Hirono was lifted in September 2011 and its government reopened in March 2012, but Hirono's streets are still largely empty. Most of the people on the streets are decontamination workers dressed in hazmat suits and helmets, and construction workers rebuilding parts of the small town. Fewer than 600 of the more than 5,000 pre-disaster residents have come back in the 20 months since the disaster.
Yamada, who has been mayor of Hirono for seven years, would love for the residents to return, but he recognizes their concerns.
"I just hope that as many as possible return by the end of this year," Yamada said, although he noted that he still doesn't have "certainty" about "the actual situation of the nuclear plant" in order to reassure his people.
"I kind of understand that is it difficult," he said. "Nobody knows that it is really safe," he added, referring to radiation fears following the nuclear accident.
"But if we don't hear the children's voices, this town is going to be [a] very lonely, isolated town," Yamada said.
In a nearby elementary school, the voices of about 60 children do echo in the halls, but they are a small fraction of the school's original enrollment of 300 students. Only about 20 of those 60 students actually live in Hirono; the others commute by bus from Iwaki, a town about 90 minutes from Hirono.
"I'm coming from Iwaki and going back from Hirono," third-grade student Asaka Yamada said of her daily travels. "I get tired," she said in the school's cafeteria, just after lunch.
The school's principal, Masaru Sampei, says that parents are in constant contact with the board of education and that the school now teaches its students about "what is radiation" and "that radiation is not something that is very scary as long as we control [it] correctly."
However, despite these assurances, many young families still haven't returned to Hirono.
Chizuko Abe, who owns a roadside restaurant in Hirono called "Futaba," which means "twin leaves" in Japanese, said she returned to the town after recovery workers begged her and her husband to reopen.
"They were telling us that they didn't have any place to eat, even though they are working here, including the policeman and the construction workers. They were asking us when we are going to open the restaurant," said Abe, whose family restaurant has been in Hirono for nearly 40 years.
But Abe's family is still spread out all over the prefecture since the Fukushima accident.
"All of the families are separated," Abe said. Her granddaughter has changed schools three times since March 2011. Abe said it would be "very nice" if the rest of her family could come back to Hirono, but she understands why they might not want to — the radiation level on the second floor of her building still measures 2.5 millisieverts per year. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency's yearly limit for radiation exposure for the average person is 1 millisievert a year.
Tokyo Electric Power is still working on recovery efforts at its damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and many of the surrounding towns are still considered "no-go zones" due to radiation contamination.
Naraha, which is adjacent to Hirono, is within a 20-kilometer exclusion zone and has an evening curfew. It is essentially still a ghost town, to which volunteers and decontamination workers return for recovery efforts during the day. Damaged and boarded-up houses and broken power lines are on nearly every street corner in Naraha, while the roads and parks are lined with jet-black decontamination bags. As the residents of Hirono are deciding whether to return home, the former residents of Naraha don't really have much of a choice.
The author is reporting from Japan through a program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the U.S.-Japan Foundation.