Fukushima returnees see nuclear tourism as an unlikely lifeline
On a cold day in February, Takuto Okamoto guided his first tour group to a sight few outsiders had witnessed in person: the construction cranes looming over Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Seven years after a deadly tsunami ripped through the Tokyo Electric Power plant, Okamoto and other tour organisers are bringing curious sightseers to the region as residents who fled the nuclear catastrophe trickle back. Many returnees hope tourism will help resuscitate their towns and ease radiation fears.
But some worry about drawing a line under a disaster whose impact will be felt far into the future.
The clean-up, including the removal of melted uranium fuel, may take four decades and cost several billion euro a year.
"The disaster happened and the issue now is how people rebuild their lives," Okamoto said after his group stopped in Tomioka, 10km south of the nuclear plant. He wants to bring groups twice a week, compared with only twice a month now.
Electronic signs on the highway to Tomioka showed radiation around 100 times normal background levels, as Okamoto's passengers peered out tour bus windows at the cranes poking above Fukushima Daiichi.
"For me, it's more for bragging rights, to be perfectly honest," said Louie Ching (33), a Filipino programmer. Ching, two other Filipinos and a Japanese man who visited Chernobyl last year each paid 23,000 yen (€180) for a day trip from Tokyo.
The group had earlier wandered around Namie, a town 4km north of the plant to which residents began returning last year after authorities lifted restrictions.
So far, only about 700 of 21,000 people are back - a ratio that's similar to that of other ghost towns near the nuclear site.
Former residents Mitsuru Watanabe (80) and his wife Rumeko (79) have no plans to return. They were only in town to clear out their shuttered restaurant before it is demolished, and they chatted with tourists while they worked. "We used to pull in around 100m yen a year," Mitsuru said as he invited the tourists inside.
A 2011 calendar hung on the wall, and unfilled orders from the evacuation day remained on a whiteboard in the kitchen.
"We want people to come. They can go home and tell other people about us," Mitsuru said among the dusty tables. Okamoto's group later visited the nearby coastline, where the tsunami killed hundreds of people. Abandoned rice paddies, a few derelict houses that withstood the wave and the gutted Ukedo elementary school are all that remain.
It's here, behind a new sea wall at the edge of the restricted radiation zone, that Fukushima Prefecture plans to build a memorial park and 5,200-square-metre archive centre with video displays and exhibits about the quake, tsunami and nuclear calamity. "It will be a starting point for visitors," Kazuhiro Ono, the prefecture's deputy director for tourism, said of the centre. The Japan Tourism Agency will fund the project, Ono added.
Ono wants tourists to come to Fukushima, particularly foreigners, who have so far steered clear.
Tokyo Electric will provide material for the archive, although the final budget for the project has yet to be finalised, he said.