POSTED: 10:25 a.m. HST, Dec 22, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 10:41 a.m. HST, Dec 22, 2012
NAHA, Japan » Okinawa is about as far away as one can get from Fukushima without leaving Japan, and that is why Minaho Kubota is here.
Petrified of the radiation spewing from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant that went into multiple meltdowns last year, Kubota grabbed her children, left her skeptical husband and moved to the small southwestern island. More than 1,000 people from the disaster zone have done the same thing.
"I thought I would lose my mind," Kubota told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "I felt I would have no answer for my children if, after they grew up, they ever asked me, 'Mama, why didn't you leave?'"
Experts and the government say there have been no visible health effects from the radioactive contamination from Fukushima Dai-ichi so far. But they also warn that even low-dose radiation carries some risk of cancer and other diseases, and exposure should be avoided as much as possible, especially the intake of contaminated food and water. Such risks are several times higher for children and even higher for fetuses, and may not appear for years.
Okinawa has welcomed the people from Fukushima and other northeastern prefectures affected by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that set off the nuclear disaster. Okinawa is offering $750 a month to help relocating families of three or four pay the rent, and lower amounts for smaller families.
"We hope they feel better, maybe refreshed," said Okinawan official Masakazu Gunji.
Other prefectures have offered similar aid, but Okinawa's help is relatively generous and is being extended an extra year to three years for anyone applying by the end of this year.
Most people displaced by the disaster have relocated within or near Fukushima, but Okinawa, the only tropical island in Japan, is the most popular area for those who have chosen prefectures far from the nuclear disaster. An escape to Okinawa underlines a determination to get away from radiation and, for some, distrust toward Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that operates Fukushima Dai-ichi.
Kazue Sato lived in fear of radiation because the roof of her home in Iwaki, a major city in Fukushima, was destroyed by the earthquake.
And so she moved with her husband, a chef, back to Okinawa, where she had grown up. She now lives in her grandparents' home and hopes to turn it into a coffee shop with her husband.
But Sato is still struggling with depression, especially because her old friends criticized her for what they thought were her exaggerated fears about radiation. She struggles with a sense of guilt about having abandoned Fukushima.
"Little children have to wear masks. People can't hang their laundry outdoors," she said. "Some people can't get away even if they want to. I feel so sorry for them."
Sato and Kubota are joining a class-action lawsuit being prepared against the government and Tokyo Electric on behalf of Fukushima-area residents affected by the meltdowns. It demands an apology payment of $625 a month for each victim until all the radiation from the accident is wiped out, a process that could take decades, if ever, for some areas.
Independent investigations into the nuclear disaster have concluded that the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant was unprepared for the massive tsunami, in part because of the nuclear industry's cozy relationship with government regulators.
"We think people have the right to live in an environment not polluted by radiation that may harm their health, and that right has been violated by this accident," Izutaro Managi, one of the case's lawyers, said in a meeting earlier this month for plaintiffs in Naha, a major Okinawan city.
Japan's statute of limitations requires that the lawsuit be filed no later than March 11, 2014. About 20 of the evacuees in Okinawa have signed on to the lawsuit, which has gathered 100 other people in the three weeks since it began.
Kubota, who now works part time for an Okinawa magazine publisher, said the problem is that no one is taking responsibility for the accident.
"Seeking accountability through a lawsuit may feel like such a roundabout effort. But in the end, it's going to be the best shortcut," she said.
She is getting health checkups for her children, fretting over any discovered problems, including anemia, fevers and nosebleeds.
Her fears are heightened by the fact that she and her children had lived in their car right after the disaster, which had liquefied the land and destroyed their home. They had unknowingly played outdoors while the nuclear plants had been exploding, she recalled.
The disaster ended up separating her family. Her husband refused to leave his dentist practice in Ibaraki Prefecture. They argued over whether to relocate, but she knew she had to leave on her own when he said: "There is nothing we can do."
These days, he visits her and their two boys, ages 8 and 12, in her new apartment in Okinawa on weekends. He sends her money, something he didn't do at first.
"I wake up every day and feel thankful my children are alive. I have been through so much. I have been heartbroken. I have been so afraid," she said.