Last year's nuclear meltdown spewed radiation across a wide swath of Fukushima prefecture
Thousands of residents inside a radiation exclusion zone were forced from their homes
Mikio Watanabe's wife committed suicide after becoming depressed about the situation
They lost their home, their jobs and any hope for the future, Mikio said
Mikio Watanabe’s Fukushima home is contaminated with radiation and filled with the nightmares of his wife’s horrific suicide.
“I can still see it,” says the 62-year old, the tears welling in his eyes.
What he sees is Hamako, his wife of 39 years, on fire and scorched.
The 58-year-old doused herself in kerosene and set herself on fire last July after slipping into an overwhelming depression.
As evacuees from last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, Mikio and Hamako lost everything: their home, their jobs, and any hope for the future.
“If there was no nuclear accident, we wouldn’t have gone through this terrible thing,” he says. “This is TEPCO’s fault.”
TEPCO, or the Tokyo Electric Power Company, owns the Fukushima nuclear plant.
The triple nuclear meltdown at the plant spewed radiation across a wide swath of Fukushima prefecture, forcing the mandatory evacuation of 70,000 residents and a second tier evacuation of an additional 90,000.
The Watanabes were part of the second tier evacuation in Kawamata in Fukushima prefecture, where radiation readings top nationally acceptable levels.
In a landmark case, Watanabe filed a lawsuit last month against TEPCO, blaming the utility company for his wife’s suicide.
The aim of his lawsuit, he says, is to push TEPCO and the Japanese government to stop treating the nuclear accident as if it’s a natural disaster.
Watanabe wants TEPCO to compensate and treat victims for a man-made accident, which would expedite how the company cares for evacuees.
Evacuees like Watanabe say TEPCO is moving too slowly to restore the lives of impacted residents. That lack of speed, he says, is leading to social fallout like suicide.
TEPCO, in a statement to CNN, said it would not comment on lawsuits filed against the company.
Watanabe says his wife’s depression happened gradually, after they evacuated out of their home into a cramped temporary housing unit.
When the chicken factory where they worked shut down because it was in the evacuation zone, the couple lost their jobs.
Watanabe says his wife began to worry incessantly about how to pay off their mortgage, made worse because they had nothing to fill their days as evacuees.
“She cried so much and repeatedly asked me to take her to our home,” he says. He decided to plan an overnight trip to their house in Kawamata on June 30.
That night, the Watanabes enjoyed life as they expected to live it – eating in their dining room and looking out at the garden. “We talked a lot then,” recalls Watanabe. “I don’t quite remember what we talked about, but we shared a lot.”
Watanabe went to bed with his wife, feeling happier and more comfortable than he had in many weeks.
“At 1 a.m., I woke up to use the restroom and when I went back to bed, she grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go. She was crying so hard then.” Watanabe pauses.
That was the last time he would ever hear his wife’s voice.
“The next morning, I woke up early around 4 a.m. I snuck out quietly to start clearing the brush around the house again. When I got to the corner of the house, I saw a fire go up at about human height. I didn’t think too much of it at the time.”
Watanabe continued to weed around his house and went inside to take a shower. When he couldn’t find his wife after about an hour, he grew concerned. He started to wander around his yard and remembered the fire.
“I went there to take a look. Then I found her, burned.” Watanabe says it’s strange what you remember in trauma. He recalls being shocked and standing frozen but he also remembers trying to put out the fire with his hands.
But he will never forget the image of his wife’s charred and stiff body, her legs and midriff still burning, and the flies beginning to gather around her open mouth.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, says Watanabe. He and his wife met in elementary school but fell in love in their early 20s. They raised three children and a grandchild in their home.
They took out a second mortgage on their home so they could renovate it for the next generation of their family.
“We lost everything,” he says. “We were forced to evacuate. We lost our jobs. I lost my wife in such a terrible way. I really lost everything.”
Watanabe’s lawsuit seeks to elevate his wife’s suicide beyond the horror tale whispered among evacuees. “Watanabe’s case is very symbolic,” says his attorney Tsugio Hirota.
“All of Fukushima feels the same way. Their despair and their anger that they have no foreseeable future stands behind this case.”
TEPCO has begun decontaminating affected communities. Across Fukushima prefecture, crews are scraping away contaminated soil, acre by acre.
But it is painfully slow as the contaminated area is approximately 10 times the size of New York’s Manhattan Island. Due to the size of the affected area, TEPCO and the Japanese government are unable to estimate if and when residents will ever be able to return.
“I feel an unspeakable rage,” says Watanabe. “If I don’t do something, my wife is just another suicide case.”