Noriko Matsumoto, the single mother of a 12-year-old, grew increasingly concerned when her daughter suffered some mysterious nose bleeds, stomach pains and diarrhea. She thought she knew the reason why.
She was living near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power station that suffered a triple meltdown exactly six years go today. Two months after the nuclear accident, she took her daughter and moved to Tokyo.
For six years Fukushima prefecture paid for her to rent a new place in Kanagawa prefecture -- but at the end of the month those payments will stop, and Matsumoto will have to pay rent out of her own pocket or move back to a region she still feels is unsafe.
“If we lose the housing support, single mother evacuees like me will fall into poverty,” she said at a Tokyo press conference.
She is one of the so-called “volunteer evacuees” from the nuclear disaster, so called because they were not ordered out of their homes by the national government and forced to find other accommodations considerably farther away from the plant.
Immediately after the tsunami and nuclear disaster, the national government imposed a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) mandatory evacuation zone around the disabled plant, ordering everyone in the nearby towns and farms to leave immediately. That zone remains in effect.
But radiation does not spread in neat circles drawn by governments on the map.
Prevailing winds blew the radioactive contaminates directly to the northwest, falling on towns and villages like Matsumoto’s Koriyama city that were far outside the formal exclusion zones.
The central government did not get around to advising residents of these more distant towns until more than two months after the disaster stuck.
By then many of the inhabitants had fled to safer places, hence the description of “voluntary evacuees”.
The Fukushima prefectural government has been paying the cost of public and private housing for voluntary evacuees under the Disaster Relief Act. They are also eligible to compensation from the plant owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco.
The prefectural government counts approximately 12,000 volunteer evacuees. That’s a relatively small slice out of a total of 165,000 people made homeless by the nuclear disaster.
In some cases, the male breadwinner of the family has remained to work in Fukushima, while their wives -- especially those with children -- have moved to further and safer communities, thus paying for two accommodations.
Like Matsumoto, many of the women evacuees had an instinctive feeling that their children were uniquely in danger.
This instinct is backed up by scientific evidence that women and children are more vulnerable to the effects of radiation than men, said Kendra Ulrich of Greenpeace.
She and her colleagues at the environmental group are trying to get the government to change its policy and renew payments, as well as having the authorities acknowledge that the health and well-being of evacuees is a human rights issue.
The national government is preparing to lift the evacuation order on the village of Iitate, which was in the direct path of the radiation plume six years ago -- a move Ulrich thinks unwise as the town still has “hot-spots” where radiation exceeds established norms.
She thinks that the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a strong proponent of nuclear power, is too eager to give the impression that life is returning to normal around the disabled plant.
A pattern of imbalance has persisted everywhere the government has lifted evacuation orders.
For the most part, mainly older residents have been drawn back to towns where they grew up. But younger residents, especially those with children, have established new lives elsewhere.
The national and prefectural governors say the community is safe and radiation levels have returned to more normal levels.
The township, however, is not optimistic about how many of the former residents will want to return.
“We still have a long way to go to rebuild our village,” said Mayor Norio Kanno, who has presided over Iitate since the accident occurred.
By Todd Crowell in Tokyo