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No excuse for losing such a beautiful villageIitate, Fukushima mayor Norio Kanno speaks to JBpress

June 13, 2011  Satoshi Kawashima

This is the English translation of the article which appeared on JBpress on May 30.

When some of the residents of Iitate, a village near the Fukushima nuclear plant that was severely impacted by the accident, started to verbally abuse a TEPCO executive who had come to apologize, other residents quickly told them to stop and not bring shame on the village. Mayor of Iitate Norio Kanno calls this, using local dialect, the spirit of 'madei,' or respect, care and consideration for others.

But it's not all sweetness. Mayor Kanno also established a taskforce of local residents to patrol the now practically deserted village and pressed tenaciously to get 600 million yen from the government to cover the personnel costs. You could say that he has achieved a combination of warm-heartedness and a strong business spirit.

This is a beautiful village with wonderful scenery and people. All of us want to do whatever we can to help it to quickly recover.

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Iitate is around 40 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. I never thought that we would be exposed to radiation, so now I’m really asking myself why this has happened.

菅野典雄・飯舘村長/前田せいめい撮影Norio Kanno
Born in Iitate, Fukushima, in 1946. Served as head of the Iitate Community Center from 1989-1996, while also running a dairy farm. Became mayor of Iitate in October 1996.
Photos: Seimei Maeda

When the hydrogen explosions happened at the plant soon after the earthquake, the wind was blowing in our direction. And as our village is in a cold upland area, ten centimeters of snow fell that day. So radioactive materials hit the surrounding mountains and fell down onto the village.

We didn't know that at the time and spent about 10 days after the quake accepting around 1,200 evacuees. The radiation levels were really high at that time, so all of us - residents and evacuees alike - are very worried about the impact.

We are currently carrying out what's called a 'planned evacuation.'

But not all residents will leave. We decided that people in old folks' homes, for instance, would stay, and business establishments would do whatever necessary to continue to operate. We negotiated with the national government and got approval for village residents to commute from evacuation centers back to the village, as long as they are not exposed to more than 20 millisieverts of radiation annually.

Fighting with the government to protect residents' livelihoods

It's pretty problematic to tell everyone to evacuate for health reasons without thinking at all about the risks to the residents or their livelihoods. Even if they are protected from radiation danger their physical and mental health could be damaged for completely different reasons.

Radiation levels are low indoors even in Iitate. Forcing elderly people living in old folks' homes to evacuate would pose more risk to their health than exposure to radiation. My own mother-in-law was forced to move after the earthquake and died in the process.

Our approach regarding businesses was aimed at protecting our villagers' livelihoods. We figured that if we could sort out evacuation centers close enough for residents to commute back to the village, we could get by without people losing their jobs. We're evacuating after everyone else so our destination options are limited, but our staff did everything possible to find places less than an hour away. Thanks to this we managed to keep nine businesses open and save around 550 jobs.

We also set up a crime prevention system. As Iitate is a farming village people's houses tend to be far from one another and anyone can freely enter the village because it is not within the 10 or 20 kilometer zones. In short, we’re an attractive target for criminals. So what we've done is get elderly evacuees to go back and patrol the village in short shifts. We have patrols in place 24-7. We got 600 million yen from the government to pay the people doing the patrols. Everything we did was to protect our villagers' livelihoods.

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