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Fukushima survivors hope lawsuit will bring closure to tsunami nightmare

Two years after the disaster killed 19,000 people, a group of 800 are suing the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company to 'get their lives back'. Danielle Demetriou reports from Tokyo

A woman walks on a destroyed dock at a fishing port in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan, last month. Japan will mark the second anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that hit its north-east on Monday. EPA
A woman walks on a destroyed dock at a fishing port in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan, last month. Japan will mark the second anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that hit its north-east on Monday. EPA

TOKYO // Makoto Matsukawa was sitting in his second-floor office surrounded by tax paperwork when the building started shaking with such ferocity that the windows blew in and he was flung to the ground.

Three long minutes later, the first wave of Japan's worst earthquake on record may have stopped - but for Mr Matsukawa and thousands of others across Fukushima, the nightmare was only just beginning.

Two years have passed since March 11, 2011, when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake - and the epic tsunami and nuclear disaster it triggered - forever changed the landscape of north-east Japan.

Much of the rubble has been cleared and rebuilding is under way but in Fukushima prefecture, home to the damaged nuclear power plant, the sense of tragedy remains raw.

Once lauded for its delicious vegetables and stunning mountain scenery, Fukushima has acquired the status as a region forever tainted by a nuclear disaster.

From farming to tourism, the devastating effect on businesses across the spectrum has triggered growing reports of bankruptcy, suicide, depression and health concerns, in particular for the young.

Now, residents of Fukushima - including Mr Matsukawa - are fighting back. On Monday, as the nation stops to remember the 19,000 lives lost, a group of 800 will launch a major legal battle at Fukushima District Court.

The residents - ranging in age from six months to more than 80 - are suing the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), operators of the nuclear plant, in the biggest class action of its kind since the disaster unfolded.

"Life is very different compared to two years ago," Mr Matsukawa said. "Farmers cannot sell their produce, radiation contamination in the city has still not been cleaned up and residents, including children, are under heavy emotional stress.

"We cannot imagine the future. For people living in Fukushima, there is no optimism or sense of hope for anything that lies ahead. No one can smile."

Mr Matsukawa, 59, lives with his wife, 60, a nurse, his 83-year-old mother and his daughter, 31, on the fringes of Sukagawa city, about 70 kilometres from Fukushima Daiichi, the nuclear power plant that contaminated the surrounding land, sea and air with radiation during explosions after the tsunami.

An official evacuation zone spanning up to 30km has been imposed around the plant since the disaster, with as many as 160,000 residents relocated and warned they may never be able to return home because of high contamination levels.

However, thousands more Fukushima residents just outside the official zone - such as Mr Matsukawa - continue to live in contaminated environments. A recent Greenpeace report stated that radiation levels in places were 200 times higher than before the nuclear incident.

Mr Matsukawa's family has farmed rice, cucumbers, cabbages and potatoes for generations but this was abruptly ended by the radiation that spilled across the region.

The soft-spoken Mr Matsukawa, who is also head of the regional branch of an organisation representing small businesses and farmers, recalled how his life changed at 2.46pm on March 11 two years ago.

"When the earthquake first struck, I didn't think about the nuclear power plant at first as things were so chaotic," he said. "It was only later on the television that I learnt the plant had been damaged.

"Many people fled but in our case, we had no petrol, we had nowhere to go and I couldn't move my elderly mother. I also felt a sense of responsibility to the 400 farmers I represent to stay and help."

A week or so later, news arrived that the governor of Fukushima had ordered a ban on selling cabbage, cucumbers, mountain mushrooms and other seasonal vegetables at markets because of contamination.

"Farmers in Fukushima thought that's it, we're finished," recalled Mr Matsukawa. "Around 60 to 70 per cent of the population in Sukagawa are farmers. Over the coming months, the criteria for what we could sell kept changing, with restrictions changing depending on which produce was in season."

Farming has not been the only aspect of life affected. "Two years after the disaster, the city contamination has still not been cleaned up," said Mr Matsukawa. "The top soil has not been changed and atmospheric contamination is high."

Mr Matsukawa said he recently recorded 1.036 microsieverts per hour of contamination outside his farm. The government recommended safety level is 0.23, he said.

"Many people are still eating Fukushima food, the produce they grow themselves at home but cannot sell," he said. "I don't think it's safe for them to eat. Caesium levels are also high in children's urine tests."

Radiation levels may be recordable, but less tangible - and perhaps even more damaging - has been the emotional toll on residents.

"The biggest impact has been in terms of stress levels," Mr Matsukawa said. "At least one farmer has committed suicide. Children have also had a stressful time and have not been able to play outside. We have also encountered prejudice from people outside Fukushima. If people see a Fukushima car plate for example, they have refused to serve them in petrol stations or have anything to do with them in case they are 'contaminated'."

Of his own personal challenges, he said: "My daughter has also been deeply affected mentally by this.

"She was an office worker but she stopped going to work 18 months ago. She suffers from depression."

Tales of depression, bankruptcy, health fears and loss of hope for the future are common among each of the 800 residents in their suit, said Izutaro Managi, their lawyer.

They say the governmment and Tepco failed to take adequate steps to protect the plant against nuclear meltdown, despite being aware of the damage a tsunami could cause.

Each of those involved in the case, which could take up to a decade to reach Japan's Supreme Court, is claiming 55,000 yen (Dh2,100) in compensation for every month since the disaster.

For many, however, the financial compensation is only the tip of the iceberg. Echoing the sentiment of hundreds involved in the lawsuit, Mr Matsukawa said: "It's not just about money. We want our Fukushima lives back."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae