A student prays as he observes a moment of silence for the victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami during an earthquake simulation exercise at an elementary school in Tokyo, Japan March 10, 2017, a day before the six-year anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster that killed thousands and set off a nuclear crisis. Reuters/Issei Kato

March 11 is a day of remembrance in Japan. Midafternoon, the nation falls largely silent to remember the children, wives, husbands, schoolteachers, grandmothers and thousands more whose lives were snuffed out in unexpected minutes on this day six years ago.

At 2:46 p.m., the seabed off Japan’s northeast pacific coastline had heaved in the biggest earthquake in the country’s recorded history. The quake lasted about six minutes and threw a three-story tsunami at the coastline. By late afternoon, more than 15,000 people were dead. Another 2,500 are still listed as missing.

What became known as the Great East Japan earthquake wiped out scores of villages and towns in Japan’s northern Tohoku region and forced the evacuation of almost half a million people.

Around 154,000 of those people were forced to flee because of radiation fallout when the tsunami hit a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, causing building explosions and the meltdown of three nuclear reactors.

Some inheritance: Officials check for radiation on children evacuated from the area near the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011. Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Noriko Matsumoto is one of them. While living just outside of the officially imposed nuclear evacuation zones, she was one of many that didn’t trust the government directives in the weeks following the disaster and fled with her daughter, who was 12 years old.

She left the family home in Koriyama city in July 2011 as her daughter was experiencing repeated nosebleeds. She still wonders if she left it too late.

“Looking back on the past six years, I always have this sense that I ended up subjecting my daughter to unnecessary exposure,” she said at a press conference in Tokyo. She became what was known as a “voluntary evacuee” along with thousands more. They are now bracing for a new challenge as the housing assistance they receive is due to end this month.

Atomic divorce

The number of radiation evacuees now amounts to about 123,000 people as the authorities lifted exclusion zones in areas it said were now safe after decontamination and reconstruction work.

Many former residents don’t believe the government and are reluctant to move back. The number of voluntary evacuees like Matsumoto is harder to track, but reports have put the number at as many as 27,000.

Matsumoto’s husband remained because he needed his job to support the family — a situation common among voluntary evacuees which led to the coining of the term “genpatsu rikon” or  “atomic divorce.” The Matsumoto’s eldest daughter, then 27, had a family of her own and moved to Tokyo.

School children take part in an earthquake simulation exercise in an annual evacuation drill at an elementary school in Tokyo, Japan March 10, 2017, a day before the six-year anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster that killed thousands and set off a nuclear crisis. Reuters/Issei Kato

“My [youngest] daughter was then 12 years old. We evacuated from the place where we had our home, where we had my husband, and her friends, but she understood how I felt that it was necessary not to expose her to any more radiation,” Matsumoto said in a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo.

She added: “This nuclear power plant accident has a perpetrator but somehow it was turned into a situation where we were somehow responsible for this, so it’s been a very tough six years for us.”

Mother’s instinct

Rika Mashiko is another voluntary evacuee who fled the region with her daughter about two months after the disaster. She said such evacuees felt they should not need to pay their housing costs because they were “victims of the state’s nuclear policy.”

Mashiko’s husband also stayed behind in their house in Miharu in central Fukushima prefecture, but many women were compelled by their instinct as mothers to avoid danger, Mashiko said.

“Maybe nothing might have happened, but if it had, it would have been too late,” for my daughter, Rika Mashiko told the Kyodo news agency.

Many women were labeled as neurotic or irrational because of their concerns about radiation exposure, whereas many men chose to believe the official safety assurances, according to a report by the environmental group Greenpeace.

The report argues the government’s response to the disaster had a disproportionate impact on women and children. As women were already economically disadvantaged, the upcoming removal of housing assistance means that “many may have no choice but to return to contaminated areas. This amounts to nothing short of economic coercion.”

Radiation zones

Japan’s minister for reconstruction, Masahiro Imamura, emphasized progress in the disaster recovery, saying nuclear-related evacuation orders now covered just 5 per cent of Fukushima prefecture.

“The air dose rates in 95% of Fukushima prefecture are not much different from those in major cities around the world; rather, some of them are lower,” he said in a briefing to the Foreign Press Center Japan.

“Even in areas within 80 kilometers of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, air dose rates have decreased by approximately 71 per cent compared to November 2011.”

Map of evacuation and exclusion zones set by Japan’s government based on radiation plume dispersion after the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011.

Imamura said the government aimed to lift evacuation orders in most areas by next spring, with the exception of “difficult to return zones” with particularly high dose rates.

Still, he acknowledged some people were wary about going back, partly because they had found new homes, jobs, enrolled in schools and made friends in the places to which they fled.

In some towns in Fukushima where evacuation orders have been lifted for some time, just 8% to 14% of residents have returned, according to government figures.

“The current percentage is very low because they don’t have any idea of what kind of town it is going to be and they are not sure whether jobs are available,” the minister said. “That is why people are reluctant to come home.”

As many of the areas face such economic challenges, Imamura called on tourists to visit the Tohoku region and asked countries to lift remaining restrictions on imports of produce from Fukushima.

It was “irrational to restrict the import of Japanese food products that are sold on the market which have passed very strict inspection,” he said.

Staying put

Asked about the plight of voluntary evacuees, Imamura said they had made their own judgment to leave their homes, but local governments would consider providing more help based on individual circumstances.

Fukushima prefecture did not respond to a request for comment this week, but an official previously told Reuters that the March 31 deadline marked the end of unconditional assistance. Subsidies would be adjusted to suit individual households, he said.

Matsumoto said while her home had undergone decontamination, she remained concerned about health impacts because Fukushima had many forests and parks that had not had such treatment. She said she would stay in her new home in Kanagawa prefecture where she would pay for the housing out of her own pocket.

Matsumoto said some evacuees felt they had no choice but to go back to their original homes when the housing assistance ended, “but most people are saying they are unable or do not want to return.”

“Among ourselves – evacuees and those who support us – we are trying to work something out with the local administrations and try to get their support,” she said. “We want to make sure that nobody will be deprived of the housing they have.”

(This is the final in a three-part series marking the sixth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster. The first examined outstanding questions about the causes of the nuclear accident. The second report looked at setbacks as engineers sent robots into the wrecked plant as part of the cleanup plan.)