Wataru Suenaga and Aoi Suenaga, son and daughter of Masayoshi Suenaga, live together with Mariko Suenaga, their mother, in Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture. (Toshiyuki Matsumoto)
Thousands of residents whose lives were shattered by the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant say their flight was made much easier thanks to the efficient work of government officials. Officials in Niigata Prefecture, that is.
For central government officials, those forced to evacuate their homes in Fukushima Prefecture have a quite different opinion.
Niigata Prefecture stepped up to the challenge when throngs of residents fled from the Fukushima power plant in the early stages of the crisis, housing thousands of evacuees despite the chaotic situation.
The prefecture's recent experience in dealing with two huge earthquakes proved invaluable.
On March 15, four days after the March 11 disaster, a traffic jam more than 10 kilometers long formed on Route 49 near the border between Fukushima and Niigata prefectures. The 241-km road connects Niigata city and Iwaki, the largest city in the southern coastal area of Fukushima Prefecture.
Katsumi Tsuboi, a 46-year-old resident of Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, and his family were on the congested road on their way to Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, part of a "convoy" of 18 relatives in four cars heading out of Fukushima Prefecture.
Tsuboi's house is only 3.5 km from the Fukushima plant. He told his wife: "This is it. We'll never be able to return home."
Their biggest concern was the effects of radiation exposure on their children. "Let's get out of here and live as far from the plant as we can," Tsuboi told his family.
Tsuboi recalls the traffic becoming heavier as they neared Niigata Prefecture. Seeing most of the vehicles carrying Iwaki or Fukushima license plates, he thought, "Everyone is leaving."
Tsuboi crossed the border at 6:30 p.m. on March 15 and arrived in Kashiwazaki four-and-a-half hours later.
"When we crossed the border, the rain turned into snow, making me feel we were now in Niigata Prefecture," Tsuboi said.
The previous afternoon, the Niigata prefectural government became aware of the exodus of evacuees on Route 49. All telephones at the government's disaster control headquarters began ringing, many from drivers seeking hotels and other accommodations in the prefecture.
The prefectural government added four personnel to its 10-member team handling evacuees. The team prepared sites where the evacuees could rest, consult with officials or even be checked for radiation exposure.
Team members also asked municipal governments to establish evacuation centers.
On March 16, Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida watched Minami-Soma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai plea for help on TV.
"We have no relief supplies or information on the situation (at the Fukushima plant). All routes from Minami-Soma city have been cut off," Sakurai said.
The mayor's words reminded Izumida of Yamakoshi village, which was in a similar situation in the aftermath of the Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake seven years ago.
Ten minutes after the TV program ended, Izumida called Sakurai, although they had never met.
"Since Niigata Prefecture experienced the Chuetsu Earthquake and the Chuetsu-Oki Earthquake, we have a good sense of what the situation is like. We will be immediately prepared to accept a large number of people from Fukushima Prefecture," Izumida told Sakurai.
The Niigata prefectural government had already started asking municipal governments to set up evacuation centers. Within one day, 10 of the 30 municipalities in the prefecture and the prefectural government were ready to receive about 3,000 evacuees.
On March 18, 26 municipalities opened 64 evacuation centers. The next day, the prefecture accepted 10,574 evacuees.
Teruhiko Matsuoka, vice manager of the prefectural government's residents' life and environment division, stressed the importance of lessons learned from the two earthquakes in Niigata Prefecture.
"Every municipality can open evacuation centers in two hours," said Matsuoka, who led the evacuation response team at the disaster control headquarters until the end of March.
Late on March 16, the Minami-Soma government sent more than 200 evacuees in six buses to Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture.
Sakurai criticized the system that forced municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture to find evacuation sites on their own if given evacuation orders by the central government.
"The central government is so irresponsible for the evacuation orders it issues," the mayor said. "It should at least specify where to evacuate to."
Sakurai said, "(One phone call from Niigata) was our real savior, considering we were in an extremely chaotic situation."
In May, Akira Shishido, a 76-year-old evacuee from Minami-Soma who temporarily stayed in a gymnasium in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, visited an earthquake rebuilding museum in an area that used to be Yamakoshi. The village was incorporated into Nagaoka city in 2005.
When the 2004 earthquake hit the prefecture, all Yamakoshi villagers left the town.
Photographs exhibited at the museum showed houses buried under sand and mud in the Kogomo area. As Shishido read a statement at the entrance of the museum, tears welled in his eyes.
"Cry as much as you want. Then smile," the statement read. "There is a way you can open up brighter future. I was just like you. Everyone is waiting for your smile." That was words from a woman in the village.
Shortly after the Chuetsu Earthquake, the slogan "Let's return to Yamakoshi!" spread in the area.
"With the slogan in place, local residents managed to come through the challenging times as evacuees," said Tamio Mori, mayor of Nagaoka, who serves as acting chairman of a discussion group of the government reconstruction panel.
"It is important for the central government to set goals (on evacuation plans) right away. Otherwise more people will lose motivation (to return home) and will feel isolated," Mori said.
Haruji Matsui, the head of the area's community, invited Shishido and other evacuees from Minami-Soma to participate in rice planting.
"I thought it may help them relax and get to feel a little better," Matsui said.
Even after Shishido retuned to Minami-Soma at the end of May, Shishido still keeps in touch with Matsui by calling once a week. In early August, Shishido grumbled to Matsui, "I was going to fight hard to rebuild my hometown, but I have hardly seen any children here, and most stores remain closed. I don't know how much longer I can hang in here."
Matsui told him, "It's been only 150 days (since the May 11 disaster). It took us seven years to get to this point (after the Chuetsu Earthquake). You will see signs of recovery if you continue working for your hometown."
About 6,500 evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture still live in public housing and rental houses in Niigata Prefecture.
(This article was written by Kohei Tomida and Seiji Kanda.)