When the earthquake struck Japan at 2:46 pm on March 11, Masaru Ouchi, an electrician who was just putting his tools back after a routine maintenance job at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, knew exactly what to do.
He dropped everything, he recalls, ran to a prearranged assembly point outside the plant’s administrative offices, and helped his boss count fellow workers. When they were all checked in he jumped into his car and drove to the school.
His father, Mitsuo, a plasterer working elsewhere in the reactor complex, fled immediately. He stopped at his home nearby to pick up his wife and mother-in-law, then drove to find his son.
As the family sheltered in the dark, cold school that night with hundreds of their neighbors, none of them knew that a massive tsunami had knocked out critical cooling systems at Fukushima Daiichi, just a few miles down the road.
The mainstay of their town, Okuma, was about to go into near meltdown, and their lives with it.
The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami is expected to rise above 20,000. Nearly half a million people have lost their homes or been displaced. Some 210,000 homes still have no electricity, and close to 1 million households are without water. In the quake zone, food is short and gasoline still hard to come by.
Officials today expanded the evacuation area around Fukushima from 12 to 19 miles, urging residents to leave voluntarily. The nuclear crisis remains "unpredictable," Prime Minister Naoto Kan said today.
Now, like thousands of other families across the northeast, stunned by their plight and deeply uncertain about their future, the Ouchi family is living in limbo on the floor of a gymnasium here 20 miles west of the plant.
Bereft of all their belongings save a blanket, a bank book, and a cash card, they are making the best of it along with some 700 other radiation refugees huddled under comforters.
“I try not to think about things too much and concentrate on hoping to go home,” says Masaru’s mother, Takako, a vivacious woman with a ready smile. “I try to be as positive as I can.”
“We are waiting and we will be patient,” adds her husband. “We’ll eat as many instant noodles as it takes until we can go home, and already I’m fed up with instant noodles.”
It is by no means clear, however, that the Ouchi family will ever again be able to live in their homes, built in the shadow of the plant.
Their houses withstood the earthquake and were untouched by the tsunami, but the power station has been leaking radioactivity that is contaminating everything in the vicinity, including the soil and the water supply.
Even if one day the area is deemed safe for human habitation, the wrecked plant, where four of six nuclear reactor units have been damaged by fire or explosions, is unlikely to function again. Thousands of jobs with Tokyo Electric Power, the plant operator known as Tepco, are gone.
Those jobs have been a godsend in this decaying corner of rural Japan, already experiencing population decline. The best thing about living in Okuma, a quiet town of 11,500, “is that my husband and son did not have to go somewhere else to find work,” says Takako. “The family could stay together, thanks to Tepco.”
About half the workforce in Okuma is employed at the nuclear plant next door, according to residents. It is a company town, where almost every family has someone on the payroll.
‘Everybody said it was safe.’
“Where I come from, it is quite natural to work there,” says Mitsuo, who has worked for a Tepco subsidiary at the plant almost all his adult life. Bonds with the company are strong. “Everybody said it was safe, so I believed them.”
He remains loyal to his employer. “The reactors stood up to the earthquake,” he points out. “It was the tsunami that did the damage. But the government’s at fault too. They haven’t solved the problem as quickly as we expected.”
Reminded that it is Tepco, not the government, that is running the emergency operation, he grudgingly allows that the company too shares some blame.
His wife is just as loyal to her hometown in its darkest hour. “Okuma is a nice place to live,” says Takako, using the present tense. As in much of the rest of rural Japan there are not many young people in town, she concedes, but since she moved there after her marriage 32 years ago “I’ve been getting older myself, so I don’t notice so much, and I’ve got all my friends.
“It’s a green town, and the rice they grow around there is delicious,” she boasts. “I’ll send you some if you like, but I don’t suppose you’d eat it now, seeing as how it comes from Fukushima.” She laughs, ruefully.
The only rice the family is eating at the moment, sitting cross legged on the patch of school-provided blankets laid over judo mats that is now their home, comes cold in vacuum-packed individual servings donated by regional governments elsewhere in the country and by private companies.
The food is basic but sufficient, prepared by local volunteers at a field kitchen set up under a tent in the sports hall parking lot: two meatballs in a bowl of steaming broth, cold rice, pickled vegetables, and bread made up one recent supper menu. But instant noodles have become a staple.
The mood is subdued in the brightly lit basketball court where the Ouchi family has installed itself alongside its real life neighbors on a patch of blankets surrounded by cardboard cartons that define its space.
Most of the people here are elderly, reflecting the demographics of the region, and many spend their days staring vacantly into space. Only rarely does a child’s squeal enliven the atmosphere.
Some of the gymnasium’s residents chat in low voices to one another or on their mobile phones. Others snooze under their comforters, read the papers, sew, play chess, or go to the foyer to watch the television, tuned permanently to the news channel of the state broadcaster, NHK, where the aftermath of the March 11 disaster is the only story.
Takako Ouchi spends much of her time caring for her 88-year-old mother, whose health problems have deprived her of her voice and made it difficult to swallow even the soup her daughter feeds her from a paper cup. But her eyes are bright, and she passes her time doing crosswords in a children’s puzzle book.
Mitsuo, the father, appears more despondent, sitting slightly apart from the rest of the family lost in thought, occasionally popping outside for a chat with other men grouped at the sports hall entrance, sheltering under a canopy from the snow.
His son Masaru, whose own wife and two sons have found their way to his mother-in-law’s home down the coast, rallies himself from time to time to help local volunteers shift boxes of supplies, and takes long walks three times a day around the sports center grounds. It kills the time, he says, “and keeps me fit for when I go back to work.”
What that work might be he has no idea, except that his boss has warned him to be prepared to join the emergency team battling to control the stricken reactors. “If they call me I am ready,” he says simply. “If I can help solve the problem more quickly, I’m ready to go.”
In the longer run there is a chemical factory in Okuma, he says, “and there ought to be some kind of work taking care of the power plant, maintaining it or decommissioning it.”
But neither he nor his father has even begun to talk about how they might earn a living if Tepco has no jobs for them. Masaru has only ever worked for that company since he left high school 11 years ago, except for a six-month break, and Mitsuo has been at the plant for 30 years.
Nor will any of the Ouchi family openly allow any doubts about the safety of their homes to creep into their minds. “I can imagine only that we will go home,” says Mitsuo. “Everyone here is the same,” he adds, gesturing around the gym.
I’m sure we’ll go back home,” Takako chimes in. “There is nowhere else for us to go.”
A few feet from the Ouchi family’s patch of blankets, by the door, a group of women are sitting on the floor sewing scraps of material into small bags and stuffing them with bits of torn up polystyrene noodle cups to make juggling balls. One of them, Yoko Koyama, has also made a teru teru bozu, a traditional rag doll that the Japanese hang in their windows to bring better weather when it is raining.
“I think we’ll hang it in the window here,” says Mrs. Koyama. “We hope the sun will come out again."