Recreation and recuperation for evacuees during the Pandemic

Fukushima Today

Following the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, various organizations have been working on “retreats (recreation and recuperation for evacuees),” bringing children temporarily to areas with less radioactive contamination. Although ten years have passed since the disaster, there is still a strong need for “retreats” as an option for people living with anxiety about the effects of radioactive contamination and exposure.

After the nuclear disaster, many people did not feel it was easy to talk frankly about radiation and the effects of radiation exposure, and this situation itself caused a lot of stress for parents. In addition to allowing children to play outdoors to their heart’s content, the retreats provide a place where participants can relax, discuss and share their concerns and questions with other parents and children. The nuclear disaster caused vast amounts of psychological damage to so many people, and yet there has been insufficient research and care regarding this issue[1].

In 2020, many organizations were forced to cancel their retreats due to the Novel Coronavirus pandemic.

FoE Japan surveyed parents in Fukushima whom in the past participated in retreats about their thoughts on the pandemic. The closure of schools, refraining from going out, and wearing masks has caused many people to remember the pain, suffering, and anxiety they felt immediately after the nuclear disaster 10 years ago. Some also noted that immediately following the disaster, there were no immediate school closures despite the risk of radiation, in contrast to the swift school closures that were seen during the pandemic. There were also those who stressed the importance of retreats, which could not be conducted because of the pandemic.

In the contaminated areas of Belarus and Ukraine after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a state budget was set aside so that children up to the age of 18 could participate in retreats in non-contaminated areas for three weeks every year. Even though there is great need for retreats, the Japanese government and Fukushima Prefecture have not recognized the need for such a program, and private citizens’ groups have taken initiative in answering these needs.

Groups providing retreats in various areas have been exhausted both financially and in terms of human resources and have been forced to downsize or cancel their activities regardless of the effects of the pandemic. There is a growing need to position these retreats as a concrete measure to reduce radiation exposure as part of national policy.

Voices of the Participants

・We don’t know how long we will be asked to refrain from going out (as a result of the pandemic). I think that time is flowing even more slowly for children compared to how us adults are experiencing it. They are not able to do many daily activities that they used to take for granted, and they spend their days in anxiety because of the virus, an invisible threat. Since the day of the nuclear disaster, we have been living in fear of radiation, another invisible threat, wearing masks, and restricting the time we spend outdoors and the foods we eat. I believe that everyone in the world is suffering from the pandemic right now. We in Fukushima have been in such a situation for 10 years.

・Wash our hands, wear a mask, don’t go out unless necessary…this is very similar to the way we were living ten years ago when radiation levels were high. However, at the time, there were no restrictions on going out, and the decisions on whether to go to school or not, whether to evacuate or not were left up to us. There are many things I don’t understand about the government’s current policies. I feel sad and hopeless about the time I’ve lost that I can’t get back.

・We have not been able to participate in any retreats because of the pandemic. I am concerned that the nuclear disaster will rapidly fade away from people’s memories after the 10-year anniversary mark. Radioactive materials may be invisible, but they are still there. I sincerely believe that these retreats will continue to be of vital importance to us.

・Schools were closed due to the Novel Coronavirus. Why weren’t the schools in Fukushima closed on that day in April 2011? I still feel frustrated to this day.

・I feel that the public is losing interest in the nuclear disaster because of the Novel Coronavirus situation. I hope people will remember that the mothers in Fukushima are still suffering and struggling.

“The Fukushima Poka Poka Project” 2020 Year Status

Since 2012, FoE Japan has regularly continued the “Fukushima Poka Poka Project,” a retreat for parents and children in Fukushima. However, in 2020, due to the pandemic, we had no choice but to cancel the planned March miso making, Minamata Nagasaki study trip, German youth exchange workshop, and the Golden Week retreat program in Inawashiro.

At the end of July, due to the lack of outdoor activities for the children and the stressful situation the mothers were continually facing, we conducted a total of 9 small group retreats from July 2020 to January 2021. All staff members underwent PCR testing prior to the program, and the program was held with as many safety measures as possible, separating spaces such as washing areas, toilets, tables, cars, and kitchens between staff from outside of Fukushima and participants.

Comments from participants of the retreat: Participating in the retreat while the number of COVID-19 infections was increasing daily was very complicated for both the staff and the participating families, and there was a lot to discuss and think about for each family. That is why I am very grateful for the efforts of the staff who carefully organized this event for us. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

[1] Although it is not clear how much of this is due to the nuclear disaster, the number of cases of abuse consultations at child consultation centers in Fukushima Prefecture has increased 9.04 times over the past 10 years (compared to the national average of 3.44 times), and the number of suicides under the age of 20 is the highest in Japan.