Akiko Fujita on assignment in Japan, five years on from Fukushima

Sadatsugu Tomizawa | AFP | Getty Images

Friday March 11: Unable to move forward

Yuko and Junichi Kikuchi lost their son
Akiko Fujita | CNBC
Yuko and Junichi Kikuchi lost their son

Yuko and Junichi Kikuchi thought they had been spared the worst, when the tremors stopped on March 11, 2011. When the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck their hometown of Rikuzentakata, the Kikuchis were at home with their two daughters and son, Yuki. The family planned to evacuate together, after tsunami advisories were triggered. But 25 year-old Yuki, a volunteer firefighter, chose to go help other victims.

He never returned home.

"Following my son's death, I couldn't find the tears," Yuko says. "There are no words, just numbness. A mother never thinks about burying her son."

The tsunami also washed away the family's two-story home, where the Kikuchis also ran a tatami shop, leaving them without a home, their business, and their only son.

"The question isn't about whether the recovery has been fast or slow," Junichi says, referring to the past five years. "I simply haven't been able to move forward."

Like 3000 other residents in Rikuzentakata, the Kikuchis now share space in a temporary home, roughly one-tenth the size of their old one. The tatami shop is now housed inside a separate, temporary structure just down the street, where Junichi operates the family business. Photos of his son hang in every corner. Near the machine he uses to weave the traditional Japanese mats. On the bookshelf, next to a family photo taken two years ago, with Junichi's father holding a framed photo of Yuki. A grainy picture of Yuki smiling is taped to the refrigerator door.

Junichi says his son had trained hard to carry on the family business, started by his grandfather.

"Before the tsunami, it was three of us," Junichi says, referring to his father, who recently passed away. "Now, I do everything alone."

The Kikuchis have already picked out a lot on higher ground, to build their new home. But crews will first need to flatten the mountain, to prepare for construction. Junichi and Yuko say they won't be able to begin building the structure, for at least another two years.

"Our son's spirit is here. We will never leave this city," Junichi says.

One man's hearbreaking choice

Futoshi Toba, the mayor of Rikuzentakata, had to choose between leading his city after it was destroyed by the tsunami or searching for his wife.
Akiko Fujita | CNBC
Futoshi Toba, the mayor of Rikuzentakata, had to choose between leading his city after it was destroyed by the tsunami or searching for his wife.

Futoshi Toba achieved national fame, in a way he would never have hoped.

As the mayor of Rikuzentakata, a coastal city that lost a tenth of its population to the tsunami, Toba became the national face of the March 11, 2011 disaster.

But in leading the city's 24,000 residents through their darkest days, he was making a painful choice: fulfill his duty to the public or go in search of his missing wife.

He chose the former, and didn't get to the morgue to identify his wife's body until three weeks after the tsunami struck.

"To be honest, I didn't know which role I should chose, whether to be a father and husband, or a mayor," Toba tells CNBC. "As a result of my actions, I lost my wife and I robbed my sons of a mother. I ask myself everyday, if I made the right call."

Rikuzentakata has spent the past five years reshaping its future from the ground up. Fields once piled with debris have been cleared to make way for heavy machinery. Crews are shaving dirt off the mountains and re-depositing it at sea level, part of a larger plan to raise the entire city by at least 10 meters (32 feet).

Along the waterfront, a new 12.5-meter (41 foot) seawall is taking shape – its height, more than double that of the old one.

"Prior to the disaster, our contingency plans evolved around how to avoid catastrophe, but the reality is you can't," Toba says. "When you're dealing with nature, you can't. We need to focus on how to minimize damage."

Like many cities in Japan's northeast coast, Rikuzentakata has chosen not to build at all at sea level anymore. Waterfront property will instead be converted into a memorial, complete with 70,000 new pine trees.

But in Rikuzentakata alone, 3,000 people still remain in temporary shelters.

"We are still in no condition for begin the process of building homes," Toba says. "A lot of hurdles still remain."

From Tanzania, with love

Takanori Obayashi moved from Tanzania to help rebuild Rikuzentakata, a town he fell in love with as a student.
Akiko Fujita | CNBC
Takanori Obayashi moved from Tanzania to help rebuild Rikuzentakata, a town he fell in love with as a student.

Takanori Obayashi's relationship with Rikuzentakata began as a college student 20 years ago.

He visited the coastal town for a performance with his A capella group at Keio University, and fell in love instantly.

"It's been like a second hometown for me, so after the disaster I wanted to do something here, as a resident of Rikuzentakata," Obayashi said.

Obayashi and his wife moved from Tanzania, where he was managing government projects for the Japan International Cooperation Agency, to help with the recovery efforts.

Now working in the city's tourism office, Obayashi has been tasked with attracting visitors to help revive Rikuzentakata's economy.

He's found success with the Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project, a volunteer-tourism venture launched in 2014. The program offers visitors the opportunity to work alongside local farmers or fisherman in return for a small donation. Activities include tasks ranging from rice harvesting and apple picking to oyster farming.

The idea is to connect residents here with those from outside the community, so a wider group feels invested in the city's future.

There's also a practical element to the program; any of the local workers are elderly and welcome the help that comes with volunteer tourism.

"For them, it's like they have new sons or daughters outside the city," Obayashi said. "Whenever these volunteers return, they say 'okaeri' or welcome back. The relationship is the biggest benefit for them."

'There are signs of regrowth'

William Saito, a special adviser to Japan's Cabinet Office, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, tells CNBC it's a testament to the Japanese people's perseverance that they'd got through the difficulties of the past five years.

There's definitely seeds of growth and entrepreneurship visible in the areas devastated by the twin disasters, he adds.

The plight of the clean-up underclass: By AP's Mari Yamaguchi

The ashes of half a dozen unidentified laborers ended up at a Buddhist temple in this town just north of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant. Some of the dead men had no papers, others left no emergency contacts. Their names could not be confirmed and no family members had been tracked down to claim their remains.

They were simply labeled "decontamination troops" — unknown soldiers in Japan's massive clean-up campaign to make Fukushima livable again five years after radiation poisoned the fertile countryside.

The men were among the 26,000 workers — many in their 50s and 60s from the margins of society with no special skills or close family ties — tasked with removing the contaminated topsoil and stuffing it into tens of thousands of black bags lining the fields and roads. They wipe off roofs, clean out gutters and chop down trees in a seemingly endless routine.

Coming from across Japan to do a dirty, risky and undesirable job, the workers make up the very bottom of the nation's murky, caste-like subcontractor system long criticized for labor violations. Vulnerable to exploitation and shunned by local residents, they typically work on three-to-six-month contracts with little or no benefits, living in makeshift company barracks. And the government is not even making sure that their radiation levels are individually tested.

"They're cleaning up radiation in Fukushima, doing sometimes unsafe work, and yet they can't be proud of what they do or even considered legitimate workers," said Mitsuo Nakamura, a former day laborer who now heads a citizens' group supporting decontamination laborers. "They are exploited by the vested interests that have grown in the massive project."

Residents of still partly deserted towns such as Minamisoma, where 8,000 laborers are based, worry that neighborhoods have turned into workers' ghettos with deteriorating safety. Police data shows arrests among laborers since 2011 have climbed steadily from just one to 210 last year, including a dozen yakuza, or gangsters, police official Katsuhiko Ishida told a prefectural assembly.

Residents are spooked by rumors that some laborers sport tattoos linked with yakuza, and by reports that a suspect in serial killings arrested in Osaka last year had worked in the area.

"Their massive presence has simply intimidated residents," said Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai. "Frankly, the residents need their help but don't want any trouble."

A July 2015 photo of clean-up workers decontaminating the village of Iitate in Fukushima prefecture. Iitate was directly in the path of a radiation plume set off by the meltdown at the nuclear plant in 2011.
Toshifumi Kitamura | AFP | Getty Images
A July 2015 photo of clean-up workers decontaminating the village of Iitate in Fukushima prefecture. Iitate was directly in the path of a radiation plume set off by the meltdown at the nuclear plant in 2011.

Most of the men work for small subcontractors that are many layers beneath the few giants at the top of the construction food chain. Major projects such as this one are divided up among contractors, which then subcontract jobs to smaller outfits, some of which have dubious records.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare examined more than 300 companies doing Fukushima decontamination work and found that nearly 70 committed violations in the first half of last year, including underpayment of wages and overtime and failure to do compulsory radiation checks. Those companies were randomly chosen among thousands believed to be working in the area.

"Violations are so widespread in this multi-layer subcontract system. It's like a whack-a-mole situation," said Mitsuaki Karino, a city assemblyman in Iwaki, a Fukushima city where his civil group has helped workers with complaints about employers.

Karino said workers are sometimes charged for meals or housing they were told would be free, he said, and if they lose jobs or contracts aren't renewed, some go homeless.

"It's a serious concern, particularly for workers who don't have families or lost ties with them," he said.

Government officials say they see no other way than to depend on the contracting system to clean up the radiated zone, a project whose ballooning cost is now estimated at 5 trillion yen ($44 billion).

"That's how the construction industry has long operated. In order to accomplish decontamination, we need to rely on the practice," said Tadashi Mouri, a health and labor ministry official in charge of nuclear workers' health. He said the ministry has instructed top contractors to improve oversight of subcontractors.

"[They're] doing sometimes unsafe work and yet they can't be proud of what they do" -Mitsuo Nakamura, Former day laborer

Several arrests have been made in recent months over alleged labor violations.

A complaint filed by a worker with labor officials led to the October arrest of a construction company president who had allegedly dispatched workers to Fukushima under misleading circumstances. The investigation found that the worker had been offered pay of 17,000 yen ($150) per day, but after middlemen took a cut he was getting only 8,000 yen ($70).

In another case, a supervisor and a crane operator were arrested in July for alleged illegal dumping of radiated plant debris in Minamisoma. Five companies heading the project were suspended for six weeks.

Most workers keep their mouths shut for fear of losing their jobs. One laborer in a gray jacket and baggy pants, carrying cans of beer on his way home, said he was instructed never to talk to reporters.

A 62-year-old seasonal worker, Munenori Kagaya, said he had trouble finding jobs after he and his fellow workers fought for and won unpaid daily "danger" allowance of 10,000 yen ($88) for work in Tamura city in 2012.

Officials keep close tabs on journalists. Minutes after chatting with some workers in Minamisoma, Associated Press journalists received a call from a city official warning them not to talk to decontamination crews.

Beyond the work's arduous nature, the men also face radiation exposure risks. Inhaling radioactive particles could trigger lung cancer, said Junji Kato, a doctor who provides health checks for some workers.

Although most laborers working in residential areas use protective gear properly, others in remote areas are not monitored closely, according to workers and Nakamura, the leader of the radiation workers support group. Many are not given compulsory training or education about dealing with radiation, he said.

Though group leaders' radiation exposure levels are regularly checked, decontamination workers' individual levels have not been systematically recorded. The government introduced a system in 2013 but only for a fee, and many lower subcontractor workers are likely not covered. Even non-alarmist experts say that workers doses must be kept individually for their own records as well as for studies of low-dose radiation impact.

Mouri, the government official, said decontamination workers' average annual dose fell to 0.7 millisievert last year, a fraction of the 20-millisievert annual limit for those working at the nuclear plant, and is not a concern.

Though no radiation-induced illness has been detected, workers have developed diabetes, cerebral and respiratory problems, often long untreated due to lack of money, awareness and social ties, local hospital intern Toyoaki Sawano said in a medical magazine last month.

Having trouble making ends meet, a growing number of laborers are seeking welfare assistance, local authorities say. The officials worry that they may end up staying on, like construction laborers did in Osaka and Tokyo after the 1960s building boom, forming Japan's poorest ghettos.

Police and volunteers have started neighborhood patrols amid concerns about safety. Some big construction companies have taken steps to address concerns. Hazama Ando Corp. imposed an 11 p.m. curfew on workers.

Residents say they avoid convenience stores in the evenings, when many laborers stop by after work to buy snacks, bento boxes or beer on their way home. Some of them used to discard their contaminated gloves and masks in garbage bins there, triggering complaints from the neighborhood and prompting the government to launch a "manner" campaign in December.

"Frankly, residents need their help but don't want any trouble." -Katsunobu Sakurai, Mayor of Minamisoma

At a convenience store in Minamisoma on a recent evening, workers came in waves, waiting quietly in line to pay for food and other items.

"The workers face heartless rumors as if they are all reckless outlaws. They are the same human beings. Like anywhere, there are good guys and bad guys," said Nakamura, the support group leader.

One resident grateful for the workers is Hideaki Kinoshita, a Buddhist monk who keeps the unidentified laborers' ashes at his temple, in wooden boxes and wrapped in white cloth.

"We owe a lot to those who clean this town, doing the work that locals don't even want to," he said.

Minamisoma city official Tomoyuki Ohwada said the worker population should decline next year, when intensive decontamination efforts are scheduled to end. But Kinoshita believes many will still be needed, given the amount of work left to do.

"There is no end to this job," Kinoshita said. "Five years from now, the workers will still be around. And more unclaimed ashes may end up here."

Thursday, March 10: How Japan's 'most beautiful village' became a ghost town

Iitate's mayor Norio Kanno says he was "completely ignorant" of the dangers of nuclear energy before his village was destroyed by the Fukushima meltdown.
Akiko Fujita | CNBC
Iitate's mayor Norio Kanno says he was "completely ignorant" of the dangers of nuclear energy before his village was destroyed by the Fukushima meltdown.

Once dubbed "the most beautiful village in Japan," Iitate has become a ghost town over the last five years.

Located 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Fukushima Daiichi Plant, Iitate's farmlands and mountains were contaminated when reactor meltdowns and explosions spewed radiation across a wide swath of the village.

Now, five years after the disaster, all 6,000 residents remain evacuated, unable to return home permanently.

"I was completely ignorant to the dangers of nuclear energy," says Iitate Mayor Norio Kanno, who was heavily criticized for acting too slowly in the initial days of the disaster.

"It wasn't just us. The entire country was. We kept hearing it was safe and didn't do our homework. We didn't have any knowledge."

Now he does, thanks to the central government's $16.9 billion clean-up effort designed to decontaminate evacuated communities closest to Fukushima.

The work requires removing topsoil that contain cesium, a radioactive material with a half-life of 30 years, from vast fields. The contaminated dirt is sealed inside black garbage bags that now litter farmlands. The tedious process has turned Iitate into one large construction site, with the sound of excavators constantly humming in the background.

Kanno says radiation levels have been slashed to a fraction of what they were in the days after the Fukushima disaster. The central government has set March 2017 as a target date to return 70 percent of the evacuees home, including those in Iitate.

But Kanno says convincing families to return will be another hurdle.

"I think if we're lucky, we'll get 1,000 [residents] back," he says. "Worst case, it will be just 500 people. Young people, especially those with kids, likely won't return. They can't return because of radiation fears."

That would reduce the size of Iitate to a tenth of pre-disaster levels, putting the future of this village in the hands of its most elderly residents.

The struggle to return home

Yoshiyuki Kouri, 67, wants to return to Namie but doesn’t want to be separated from the rest of his family.
Akiko Fujita | CNBC
Yoshiyuki Kouri, 67, wants to return to Namie but doesn’t want to be separated from the rest of his family.

Yoshiyuki Kouri fits the profile of so many of Japan's nuclear evacuees.

He's 67, a lifelong resident of Namie, just 10 km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Kouri and his wife hope to move back next March, when the government is scheduled to reopen 70 percent of the nuclear evacuation zone. But he doesn't expect his kids and grandchildren to return.

"I don't know what to do," he says.

"My kids and their families have no plans to return but my ancestors are buried here. I need to keep coming back to honor them and keep my home intact."

It's a dilemma faced by so many towns still reeling from the radiation fallout.

When the city of Naraha became the first to reopen its doors inside the nuclear evacuation zone, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touted the community as a beacon of hope for nearly 100,000 other nuclear evacuees.

Yet five months later, just 440 residents (less than 6 percent of the city's pre-disaster population) have returned. The 1000 out-of-town workers living in Naraha to help with decontamination currently outnumber those who call the town their home.

Kouri says he is torn. He wants to return to the only house he's known but he doesn't want to be separated from the rest of his family.

Even with all the government assurances, he says he doesn't believe it's safe for his young grandchildren to live in Namie. He also knows his hometown cannot survive with the elderly, alone.

For now, he makes the two-hour commute from his temporary home in Fukushima City to Namie.

"Nothing has changed," he says. "But I have seen more wild hogs and other animals roaming around my house."

Wednesday, March 9: Five years on, still looking for answers

Managing contaminated water is the biggest risk in the decommissioning of Fukushima's nuclear plant, says Toru Ogawa from the Nagaoka University of Technology. He notes that authorities are dealing with much larger amounts of radioactive waste than is usually the case.

Authorities don't yet have a clear picture of each reactor either. Typically robots are used in such a scenario but the high radiation levels mean they can only work for a brief period of time, Ogawa says. This means connecting this information with simulations to find out what really happened in each reactor.

Read MoreJapanese taxpayers foot $100B bill for Fukushima disaster

Japan's teachings on natural disasters

Japan's many "natural risks" means it excels in preparing for natural disasters, and is willing to teach emerging markets how to do so as well, says Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez from the World Bank.

Ijjasz-Vasques, the senior director at the bank's social, urban, rural and resilience global practice, told CNBC's "Street Signs" that every $1 spend on preparation for a natural disaster saved $4 that would've been spent on repairs and clean-up afterward.

And with climate change increasing the frequency and intensity of weather-related events, such preparation is more important than ever, he says.

Big leaps in robotics needed

Japan's long history as a "safe" country meant that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) was not in the mindset of predicting disasters in a way that may have mitigated the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, an adviser to Tepco says.

Lake Barrett, who is advising Tepco on the decommissioning of the damaged nuclear plant, says that it was also difficult for the Japanese public to understand afterward what went wrong at Fukushima.

"It's highly technical, and the emotions that go with it are huge," Barrett told CNBC's "Street Signs."

Now, he needs big leaps in the robotics industry in order to decommission the plant; the technology is there but robots capable of undertaking the job have not yet been built, he said.

Tuesday, March 8: In adversity, comes opportunity

Yauemon Sato had no experience running an electric power company prior to March 11, 2011.

A ninth-generation sake brewer, the 65 year-old planned to spend his entire life carrying on the family business in Aizuwakamatsu, 75 miles east of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. But five years ago, he faced the prospect of losing his hometown.

"[The nuclear accident] created a huge scare," he says. "If the radiation reached our area, the water and soil would be contaminated, we wouldn't be able to live here. I was horrified."

The worst-case scenario never surfaced, but that fear led to an idea. In 2013, Sato started Aizu Electric Power Company, with help from a number of business leaders, including the former head of Qualcomm Japan.

The goal - using local resources, to power the local community.

Today, Aizu Electric has nearly 50 solar panels in the Fukushima region and generates enough energy to power 2,000 homes. Sato has created a fund that supports other renewable energy projects in the region, to help achieve the prefectural government's goal of 100 percent renewables by 2040, phasing out nuclear power for good.

"We weren't doing the obvious thing," Sato says.

"We had all the energy resources at our feet. We had solar power, we had hydropower, we had geothermal, and biomass. But we didn't wake up to that fact."

These images from Google Earth are a good illustration of how the tsunami-hit has changed over the past five years, as regeneration continues.


Monday, March 7: Former PM Naoto Kan recounts the aftermath

Among those looking back on March 11, 2011 is Japanese lawmaker Naoto Kan. As Japan's prime minister at the time of the disaster, he led the country through its worst crisis since World War Two. Some criticized his handling of the disaster, while others say he saved the nation from a far worse fate.

It was one of the darkest days in Japanese history

3/11. Or san ichi-ichi for short. Like saying 9/11 in the United States, it's a number that reminds Japanese of one of the darkest days in their history. March 11, 2011, was a Friday. People were looking forward to the weekend. Children were about to flood out of schools for home. Then at 2:46 p.m. JST, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck. It was one of the most powerful quakes on record, so strong it shifted the earth's axis and shortened the length of the day by nearly two microseconds. It moved Japan's main island, Honshu, eastward by more than two meters (6.5 feet) and the seafloor laterally by as much as 50 meters (164 feet).

The Great East Japan Earthquake unleashed towering tsunami that roared ashore, ravaging 700 kilometers (435 miles) of coastline and killing 15,894 people (a further 2,562 others are still listed as missing). More than 450,000 people were forced from their homes. Many in Japan and abroad remember the aerial video of seawater spilling into coastal communities and inland areas like dark ink across a page, destroying residences, offices, cars and anything else in its path. The surges of water were as high as 39 meters (128 feet) in some places, pushing water as far as 10 kilometers (6.24 miles) inland, flooding more than 560 square kilometers (348 square miles) and creating more than 20 million tons of debris, of which 5 million tons was washed out to sea.

Worse, perhaps, the earthquake and tsunami triggered an emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, disabling the power supply and cooling systems of three reactors, resulting in meltdowns and explosions. It was a level-7 event, the highest on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, a major accident on par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and one that a report for the National Diet of Japan called "profoundly manmade."

The Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power plant after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 14, 2011 in Futaba, Japan.
DigitalGlobe | Getty Images
The Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power plant after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 14, 2011 in Futaba, Japan.

Five years on, the decommissioning effort at Fukushima Daiichi is still very much in its early stages. It's a process that is expected to take 30 to 40 years and cost anywhere from $50 billion to $250 billion dollars, which includes the long and expensive job of decontaminating the communities around the facility.

For the far larger reconstruction of the northeast region, the final bill is expected to be roughly $280 billion. That job, too, is also far from over, but progress has been made, as both the office of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the government's Reconstruction Agency are quick to point out.

Memories of the disaster, though are still fresh for many people in Japan.

Some lost their husbands or wives, their sons or daughters, their parents, friends and neighbors. They watched the sea wash away their homes and businesses. Thousands of people have spent years in cramped and uncomfortable temporary housing, longing to return to the communities where they were born and raised. Others know they'll never be able to go back because the radiation from the Fukushima accident is just too high.

- CNBC staff

Last month personal items remained strewn around a tsunami-damaged home in Minamisoma, close to the devastated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Christopher Furlong | Getty Images
Last month personal items remained strewn around a tsunami-damaged home in Minamisoma, close to the devastated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

CORRECTION

This story has been updated to reflect that the date 3/11 is written as san ichi-ichi in Japanese.