The Ghost Towns Behind The Gates

Fukushima was forever changed by one of the world’s biggest nuclear disasters nearly a decade ago. The Japanese government has poured billions of dollars into recovery efforts. But what does recovery really mean? The answer is a combination of resilience, reinvention and regret.

Earlier this spring, Kazuo Okawa stood on a seaside cliff on the edge of Japan’s Fukushima prefecture, looking over the Daiichi nuclear power plant in the distance. Waves crashed below, and wind swept through trees nearby. Okawa, 65, had been a maintenance man for the six reactors at Daiichi — until everything changed nine years ago.

“The tsunami, it came all the way up here and covered everything,” Okawa said in Japanese, “as far as you can see.”

In 2011, an offshore earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in the country, triggered a massive tsunami that barreled into Japan’s northern coast. The wave — over three stories tall in some places — washed over a mile inland, sweeping through neighborhoods and towns, taking thousands of houses, cars and nearly 20,000 people with it back to sea.

Caption: Tsunami waves hitting the coast in Fukushima prefecture in 2011. (Sadatsugu Tomizawa/AFP via Getty Images)

It also hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, owned by Tokyo Electric Power Co., crashing through what little tsunami protection it had and flooding all backup generators. Without power, three reactors overheated and exploded, blanketing nearby communities with plumes of radioactive material and forcing more than 160,000 people to flee. The whole area was devastated.

Map of Japan

Okawa used to fish from this cliff. Now, he needs a special permit to visit, and his radiation exposure levels are checked as he leaves. No one fishes from here anymore.

“This coastline, the sea, that power plant, they all look pretty much the same,” Okawa said. “But if you go in further, you see the aftermath. The ghost towns, the piles of nuclear waste.”

The Japanese government has worked to clean up Fukushima: clearing away radioactive soil, tearing down buildings, reopening towns and rebuilding a major train line. It all could end up costing over $700 billion over 40 years, by one estimate. Before they were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Summer Olympics were even hailed as the Recovery Olympics, meant to champion the massive efforts to make this area livable again.

Caption: Piles of radioactive topsoil are gathered from affected areas in Fukushima and transported to holding areas.

But for many of the people affected by the triple disaster in Fukushima, celebrating recovery here never felt quite right. Few have returned.

Caption: Okawa visits his former home inside a restricted part of the evacuation zone in Futaba on the anniversary of the disaster.

Homes and businesses sit abandoned, rotting and overgrown. The towns in Fukushima that once stood to gain the most from nuclear power have instead lost the most, residents and analysts say, as the disaster left Japan rethinking its nuclear dependence.

Caption: A beachside facilities building inside Futaba's evacuation zone remains in disrepair from the 2011 tsunami.

Okawa feels he paid a big price for nuclear power. He now lives hundreds of miles away with his wife, in a town where neither have roots, and they can’t find work. The government and TEPCO stopped sending him compensation three years ago, and he’s suing them for more pay.

“The moment I heard the explosion, I knew my life was going to change,” he said as he turned to the ocean. He took a deep breath and sighed. “I’ll never come back here.”

Okawa isn’t alone. Only a fraction of the 160,000 evacuees have returned, most of whom are elderly. Tens of thousands of others are stuck in limbo, residing elsewhere while still claiming residency in towns that sit largely abandoned and unlivable. Even as parts of this area reopen, most residents have decided to forget their old homes and start anew.

After the Daiichi explosions, officials scrambled to relocate the population, drawing a mandatory evacuation zone within a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) radius.

Exclusion zone

But the wind carried clouds of radioactive material far beyond the initial evacuation zone. Radioactive elements seeped into the soil and mixed with the thick forests, leaving hot spots in difficult-to-reach places and settling in a somewhat random pattern. Radiation levels often varied by neighborhood, or even by street.

legend for radiation map
Caption: Radiation readings collected during three years after the tsunami, colored on a logarithmic scale

The government realized the evacuation zone needed to include the hardest-hit places outside the original radius. This whole area would become known as the exclusion zone. No residents would return for years.

Nine years on, radiation levels have generally decreased, both from cleanup and from the natural decay of radioactive particles. Reports by the United Nations and the International Commission on Radiological Protection say radiation risks in Fukushima are low. Other organizations, like Greenpeace, contradict those findings, and many residents and evacuees remain concerned about radiation.

Year by year, the government has deemed parts of towns safe for residents to return, lifting restrictions in an ad hoc manner that often means the only barrier separating a “safe” area from an “unsafe” one is an accordion gate set across a road to keep the public out. The exclusion zone has slowly shrunk.


Exclusion zone


Exclusion zone

Reopened for habitation since 2011


Exclusion zone

Reopened for habitation since 2017


Exclusion zone

Reopened for habitation since 2019

But even as restrictions are lifted, very few have returned.

About one-fifth of the original exclusion zone still remains behind gates, including much of the two towns that host Daiichi — Futaba to the north, and Okuma to the south. Residents can visit for hours at a time. Many say they feel a mix of nightmare and nostalgia when they do. And the towns themselves — once quaint and idyllic — sit stuck in time, home instead to wild boar and packs of wild dogs.

legend for map
Caption: Population data as of December 2019

In early March of this year, about a week before Okawa stood at his old fishing spot north of Daiichi, the gate blocking the main road to his old hometown was unlocked and — finally — removed. It was the entrance to Futaba, the last town to be completely off-limits since the disaster.

Map of Futaba

Town limits near the Daiichi power plant

Journalists crowded to catch the moment the gate was opened. Officials lauded the opening as a major step in the area’s recovery.

Caption: The gate to Futaba is opened, and police prepare for residents to return.

In reality, downtown Futaba still looks much like it did right after the earthquake nine years ago.

Glass from broken windows litters the sidewalk. The entrance to a fallen temple lies toppled into the street. Goods from broken store shelves are strewn about, dusty and rotting.

This small corner of the town was opened mainly to inaugurate a bright, shiny new train station in time for the Olympic torch relay that had been set to take off just miles from here, before the pandemic halted those plans.

Caption: People ride a newly reopened train line that runs through the evacuation zone. Others purchase tickets, and officials mill about on the opening day of the brand new train station in Futaba.

“No one can live here yet,” Masato Suzuki, the sole police officer assigned to the town, told NPR on the night the gate was opened. “There’s no electricity, no water, no basic infrastructure.” He said his biggest concern is the wild boar that roam the area at night.

Futaba was once home to over 7,000 people. After the disaster, many of them lived in an old high school near Tokyo for years, hoping they could soon return home.

But this year’s grand reopening only accounted for roughly 4% of the town’s area, none of which is livable. Much of the rest of Futaba is instead designated to store the nearly 500 million cubic feet of radioactive topsoil the government estimates will be removed in the cleanup.

Daiichi straddles two towns: Futaba and Okuma.

Map of Okuma

Town limits near the Daiichi power plant

Okuma partially reopened in 2019, with a brand new town hall overlooking a planned community of identical one-story homes, all built on former rice fields left useless after the disaster.

But it’s only faring slightly better than Futaba. Less than 2% of the population has returned, mostly elderly, and life is far from ideal. Any hospital, school or grocery store is miles away, and once-familiar roads are blocked by gates and radioactive soil is piled nearby.

Caption: Kazuko Endo, 63, gardens outside her new home in Okuma. The few shops that opened in Okuma include a tiny electronics store and a shop that sells miscellaneous items.

“I’ll be heading up to heaven soon,” said Masaaki Sato, 98, with a chuckle, sitting in his new living room. “My old home is rotting behind gates, full of wild animals. This is the closest I could get.”

He was born and raised in Okuma and now spends his time tracing his family tree. He’s trying to find more than 200 relatives who once lived in this area but are scattered throughout Japan after the disaster. A kitchen shelf is stacked with letters that have been returned to sender.

Caption: Sato looks through old family albums in his new home in Okuma.

Sato remembers that when he was a child, his family used candles and lanterns for light. Nuclear power made a huge difference, he says — there was finally electricity. “If you don’t have an accident, nuclear power is very cost-effective, it’s great,” he said. “But if you do, it’s catastrophic.”

The construction company he owned helped build several Daiichi reactors. He nodded sadly about his role in building them. “Nuclear power came at a big price,” he said.

About 2 miles from Sato’s new home, the old downtown Okuma sits behind an accordion gate. Rusted shop signs clank in the breeze and a car is parked outside a store, almost as if someone had run in to buy something and never returned.

There are school crossing signs along the road, a reminder that children once lived here, too. If you squint, you can picture just how vibrant it once was, and how different it is now from the new Okuma.

Daiichi was built in the 1960s and ’70s, and for decades, Futaba and Okuma shared the wealth that was promised from the nuclear plant — huge subsidies for infrastructure projects and tax revenue that was sometimes triple the towns’ normal budget. It was welcome money for the fishing and farming communities, especially as young people moved to cities for school and work.

“This was a lifeline for them, getting that money every year,” said Daniel P. Aldrich, a professor at Northeastern University who has studied the benefits. He says Japan followed a pattern of offering more money than the rural communities that hosted the plants had ever seen while convincing residents the facilities were safe.

Caption: A sign reading "Nuclear Energy For A Bright Future” stood at the entrance of the empty Futaba town in 2013. This sign was later removed. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Japan needed the incentives to be tempting. The country had few homegrown fuel sources, and its energy demands were rising along with its economic power.

For towns like Futaba and Okuma, the benefits seemed to hugely outweigh the costs. Thousands of jobs poured in, and new schools, roads and sports facilities were built. Japan soon had numerous communities on board to host nuclear plants, eventually building 54 nuclear reactors across a country rich in fault lines, active volcanoes and tsunami-prone coasts.

It was risky, but experts stressed the safety of nuclear power and said Japan needed to fulfill energy demands while addressing climate concerns. By the early 2000s, over a quarter of the country’s electricity was nuclear and Japan was one of the top energy consumers in the world.

The Fukushima disaster in March 2011 made Japan take a hard look at its nuclear choice, though. In the months after, the government put new safety regulations in place and every nuclear reactor in the country was taken offline. It would be years until any restarted.

Caption: A TEPCO employee measures the radiation near one of the reactors at Daiichi in March.

Today, only nine are producing any power, and the country has mostly filled the gap with imported coal and natural gas instead.

Nuclear’s Decline In Japan

Many reactors are slated for decommissioning, including all six at Daiichi. Every day, over 4,000 workers cycle in and out of the plant, carefully approaching high-stakes challenges, like what to do with hundreds of gallons of contaminated water or how to get melted fuel out of the damaged reactors. It’s estimated the process at Daiichi alone will take over 40 years and around $200 billion.

Caption: Unit 4 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi.

Beyond Fukushima, dozens of other offline reactors still need staff to keep them cool and functioning properly.

Public support for bringing reactors back online has dwindled since the disaster. During his time in office, outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his party have pushed for a nuclear restart, needing to bring down energy costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet the country’s climate goals.

Caption: An employee at Daiichi picks up a dosimetry film badge that measures radiation at Daiichi.

“The government and the utilities keep saying that nuclear power is the cheapest power source, but people don’t trust it anymore,” said Tatsu Suzuki, a former nuclear engineer and now professor at Nagasaki University. “It’s impossible to think that nuclear power is the cheapest, if you include the cost of decommissioning, the cost of Fukushima.”

It’s not just the economic concerns. Fukushima made people rethink the risks in broader terms, too.

“It is a social and ethical issue,” Suzuki said. “The cost of separating families, losing their land, losing their jobs … how do you measure all these impacts?”

Caption: A wall of rocks is erected between the ocean and Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors.

Many former residents have worked hard to document the experience of the Fukushima disaster — perhaps none more tirelessly than Katsutaka Idogawa, the mayor of Futaba at the time of the accident. He helped residents like nuclear worker Kazuo Okawa flee the town.

Idogawa, 71, now lives hundreds of miles from Futaba. He’s retired and has become fixated on documenting what happened to his town — not just after the disaster, but before it, too, as the prosperity from nuclear power faded.

When Idogawa became mayor in 2004, Futaba was nearly bankrupt, one of the poorest towns in Japan. He cut his salary in half and then in half again. The nuclear subsidies turned out to be short-lived.

Futaba had agreed to host two more reactors, to get more money. They were being planned at Daiichi when disaster struck.

“Futaba was addicted to the nuclear money, but what were the consequences? We didn’t get prosperity. People really believed that without nuclear power, Futaba couldn’t survive, and I thought that was very dangerous,” he remembered.

Idogawa is suing TEPCO and the Japanese government for what happened to Futaba. Dozens of similar suits have been advancing through the courts since the disaster. Many civil suits have been successful, although a Japanese court acquitted three TEPCO executives of criminal negligence last year.

He has turned an old camera store into an makeshift office, its walls lined with binders of meticulously cataloged files.

He often sleeps there to work longer hours. His wife no longer lives with him. His grown children have moved away. He doesn’t consider this new town his home, but he will never return to Futaba either.

Caption: Idogawa walks toward his office in Saitama, hundreds of miles from Futaba.

Idogawa grew up in Futaba. He says sometimes he can close his eyes and still feel the first days of spring there, when the leaves were just starting to turn green.

“I miss everything. If I start talking about what I miss, it will take too long. I took that life for granted. I lost it all,” he said.

On one wall is an old picture of the main street from before 2011. The photo shows a huge welcome sign that reads “Nuclear Energy For A Bright Future,” which became a kind of tagline for the town in the 1980s. That sign was quietly removed after the disaster.

Idogawa looked at the photo and sighed. “I feel so much remorse.”