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New Year despair for Japan's nuclear refugees
by Staff Writers
Tokyo (AFP) Dec 30, 2011

As most of Japan prepares to ring in the New Year at the end of a traumatic 2011, refugees from the country's nuclear crisis relocated far from home say they have nothing to celebrate.

All over the country families will gather for a midnight trip to a shrine, many donning traditional kimono for the centrepiece of several days of celebration during one of Japan's most important festivals.

But for the many tens of thousands of people forced to flee when reactors at Fukushima Daiichi began spewing radiation, festivities are a long way from their thoughts.

Many of the 1,000 or so refugees holed-up in a 36-storey Tokyo tower block say their mood will be altogether downbeat, after a devastating year which saw their hometowns engulfed by the worst nuclear crisis in a generation.

"I can't say a Happy New Year this year as I don't feel happiness," said Yuji Takahashi, who has been in the government-owned block since April.

Takahashi was one of tens of thousands of people ordered to leave their homes after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake of March 11 sent a huge tsunami crashing into Fukushima Daiichi.

The atomic plant's cooling systems were knocked out and reactors went into dangerous meltdown releasing radioactive particles into the air, sea and food chain.

Elsewhere along the coast 20,000 people were killed and many made homeless as the waves crushed whole towns.

In happier times Takahashi's extended family would gather at his home in Tomioka, six kilometres (four miles) from the nuclear plant to drink sake and eat special "osechi" dishes made for New Year from home-grown vegetables.

"It was so cheerful and enjoyable, but I can't do that this year," the 68-year-old former schoolteacher told AFP.

"My life has completely changed. I don't know how long I will have to live like this.

"That is the most stressful thing. I would almost rather that the government said we have to abandon hope of ever going back home. I'm trying to be prepared for the worst."

Japan has said decommissioning the tsunami-wrecked reactors at Fukushima could take as long as 40 years, and some areas around the plant could be uninhabitable for decades.

Shigeko Sasaki, another nuclear refugee whose house in Namie was swept away by the tsunami is angry at the government for its insensitivity in housing her in a bayside apartment building.

"I feared water the most," Sasaki said. "Why did (the government) put people like me into somewhere so close to the sea? At first, I thought I couldn't live here."

After nearly ten months, 61-year-old Sasaki says she has finally grown accustomed to looking at the sea that so cruelly shattered her life, but has not stopped worrying about the future.

"We have to find a place to settle down, and everybody who I'm now getting along with here will disperse again," Sasaki said, referring to the government's pledge to close shelters as early as April 2013.

In mid-December, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced the country finally had control of leaking reactors at Fukushima, in what authorities say is a vital step on the long road to recovery.

The government now plans to reclassify a 20-kilometre no-go zone around the plant in April into three categories based on levels of radiation.

But Kozo Misawa, 69, whose house and restaurant are in an area that may be reclassified as "habitable" says it doesn't matter what official pronouncements are made because the communities who lived there have been destroyed.

"The government can easily say, 'It's settled down. You may go home,' but how come we regain our life there?" Misawa said.

He said even if the no-go zone is relaxed, many of the shops, restaurants and hospitals that make up a town may remain shut.

Many families have also already decided that the unknown health risks of returning to their homes are not worth taking.

With no confidence in reopening his restaurant in Minamisoma, north of the plant, Misawa is undecided about whether to return home when the time comes.

"It's tough to live without knowing where to go," he said. "Being in limbo is a heavy burden."

Asked if he plans to send New Year greeting cards -- Japan's major New Year tradition -- Misawa replied: "No. I have decided to skip it this year. We are not in a mood to write, 'A happy new year.'"

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Japan's tsunami refugees brace for harsh winter
Ishinomaki, Japan (AFP) Dec 29, 2011
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