10 years after the Fukushima disaster, this nurse may be the region’s best hope

Reena Tsugawa recounts a childhood in northeastern Japan among rice trees, roaming on bicycles with her sister and roaming the streets of her village, where monkeys occasionally descend from mountains and neighbors and girls. Used to feed them sweets by planting moths in their homes.

The sisters were the only children in their colony living in Fukushima province, living in the house where their grandfather was born, along with their mother and grandparents. A decade ago on that terrible day when Fukushima Catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, Setting of a Triple meltdown At the nuclear power plant, a 12-year-old Ms. Tsugawa was at school 90 miles away. As powerful tremors shocked his sixth grade, he and his classmates hid under their desks, weeping for fear.

In the years that followed, many of her peers have left for jobs in Tokyo and other cities, a common outflow to rural Japan but intensified by the disaster in Fukushima. Ms. Tsugawa has different plans. After graduating this month from nursing school, she eventually wants to return to her hometown to take care of aging residents who helped raise her.

“They gave us very little time,” said 22-year-old Ms. Tsugawa.

Japan is still reeling from the unfinished business of recovering from its worst disaster in nearly a century, which killed more than 19,000 people after the 9-magnitude earthquake on March 11, 2011, causing extensive damage in three provinces, including Fisushima Hui. Till date, some parts of many cities The uninhabited lives near the nuclear plant.

In Fukushima, the ongoing nuclear clean-up and efforts to revive the province have played against the backdrop of another disaster: a rapidly growing age and dwindling population, which has hollowed out cities across the country and the region’s enormous challenges. Has ended.

Since 2011, Fukushima’s population has decreased by 10 percent compared to a 2 percent decrease in Japan. Residents over 65 represent about a third of Fukushima’s population, compared to about 29 percent nationally.

With its remote, mountainous location, Nishiziu, which encompasses the town of Ms. Tsugawa, Many gray and shrinking communities, Where jobs are low, lifestyle is inconvenient Birth Rate Are less. The city’s population, which was close to 20,000 in 1950, fell to 6,000. Aging people are close to half of the population, and health care workers are in short supply.

The indescribable burdens facing Fukushima are not just about Japan’s deep-rooted demographic problems or the direct effects of the crashing waves of the tsunami and the subsequent nuclear meltdown. A decade after the disaster, the prefecture is suffering an indefinite blow to its reputation – a stain on the entire area that cannot be easily removed or recreated.

Like Chernobyl, the province is synonymous with nuclear explosions, even in places like Nishiziu, which were unaffected by earthquakes and tsunamis and received much lower doses of radiation than communities close to the coast. This stigma has only accelerated the collapse of the region.

“These are invisible losses,” said 72-year-old Toshoi Uski, mayor of Nishiziu. “It is much larger and perhaps larger than the destruction of buildings.”

Despite rigorous radiation screening, local farmers who try to sell rice and vegetables from the area, Mr. Uski said, “all are under the Fukushima brand,” which warns consumers of potential contamination. China, South Korea, Hong Kong and Macau still ban the import of produce and fish from the province.

Japan’s central government has worked vigorously to develop an image of a recovering area – including a plan to showcase Fukushima during the Summer Olympics – and says it has been tarnished by misinformation.

“Elimination of science-based prejudice and discrimination is inevitable,” Katsui HirasawaThe country’s 10th minister said in a news briefing to rebuild since the disaster. “We should communicate that there is no safety related issue in production from Fukushima.”

While the background level of radiation has fallen in the prefecture and scientists consider the short-term risks to be minimal, they are divided about the long-term consequences for public health.

“We know relatively little about the long-term effects of exposure”, to low doses of radiation, said Timothy musu, A biologist at the University of South Carolina, has studied how radioactive contamination has affected animals and plants in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

As the disaster unfolded, Ms. Tsugawa did not learn how devastating it was until her grandparents went on television. Like a horror film on an endless loop, he watched the tsunami scenes as it devoured the beach. The next day, he inquired about the explosion at the nuclear plant. A wall of water knocked out the cooling systems of the reactors.

Although Nisiaizu residents never evacuated, Ms. Tsugawa began reading news items and social media posts stating that Fukushima was tainted. “There were rumors that everyone in Fukushima was dangerous,” she said. “And if you got close to them, you might get radiation sickness from them.”

When his mother, Yuki Tsugawa, took a business trip outside the prefecture for about a year after the nuclear accident, someone fired up the word “baka” – “stupid”. Ms Tsugawa, 47, said she was surprised if she had a reason for a Fukushima license plate.

Her elder daughter said she had no qualms about the safety of her hometown, where she hopes to someday raise her family. “Just because there are some areas that are not safe,” she said, “does not mean that all of Fukushima is unsafe.”

With her decision to become a geriatric nurse, Ms. Tsugawa is giving the province exactly what she needs.

Demand for nursing care is so high across Japan that before the epidemic, the country began to relax its long-term insights and allow more workers to be hired from other countries. Fukushima already has a shortage of doctors and nurses. Kiyoshi Hanazumi, head of the social welfare division of the prefecture, said that based on current trends, it will meet about three-quarters of its needs for health care workers for elderly residents by 2025.

Ms Tsugawa said that she had wanted to become a nurse since she was 3 years old. His grandfather was hospitalized with lung cancer, and saw the kindness of the medical staff he treated.

Her interest in geriatric nursing developed over time. While her mother worked as a welfare coordinator at Nishiziju, Ms. Tsugawa and her younger sister, 19-year-old, Maina, 74-year-old grandmother, Haruko Tsugawa, went to visit with neighbors.

“Everyone considered him as an honorary grandson,” Mrs Tsugawa said.

A year after the 2011 disaster, 42-year-old Yoshihiro Yabe also wanted to reclaim such a community. A landscape architect, Mr. Yabe, decides to return to Nisiaizu, where he was born, and start a family.

At one time, Mr. Yabe planned to escape. But now he wants to reverse the migration that is so common from his hometown.

When the earthquake and tsunami struck, Mr. Yabe was training in Canada and was hoping to get a job in the United States.

“I was watching the media in Japan and all over the world, and I felt that Fukushima is known as a vicious province,” he said. “So who will come here to build new businesses or want to start agriculture or raise their children?”

Mr. Yabe said he felt he had to return, and he moved into his ancestral home – it has been in the family for 19 generations – and renovated some old storage warehouses for miso and soy sauce, giving him a small Converted to inn.

He took over a local art center and established an artist’s residence. Over the past eight years, he said, he has recruited 60 people to live in Nishiziu, some from Tokyo and others from different parts of Fukushima Prefecture.

The city is far from revitalized. Near Mr. Yabe’s house, half the houses have been abandoned. Apart from his 8-8 and 3-year-old daughters, he said “I am the youngest man”.

Ms. Tsugawa, who begins a residency at the hospital associated with Fukushima Medical University in April, is likely to be the youngest person in Sugiyama – population 21 – to be the enclave of Nishizizu in which she grew up.

Even her mother did not originally intend to raise Ms. Tsugawa and her sister in Nisiaizu. Yuki Tsugawa attended the Technical College in Koriyama, more than 50 miles away, married and gave birth to Reina and Mana. It was only after the divorce that Yuki came back with her parents to a 100-year-old wooden and slate-roofed house where she was raised.

“If I had been married, I would probably have stayed out of Nisiazu like my childhood classmates.” “I often think that wow, nobody ever came back,” he said.

Reena Tsugawa, who said she wanted to take care of patients with dementia, knows that her city may struggle to survive.

“Of course, I don’t want my small village to disappear,” she said. “But even though we do things to try to get new people coming, it is not really happening. It is difficult to make progress. “

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