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Friday, Dec. 17, 2004

Miyake Island prepares for homecoming

Some set for business; others wonder who'll return to live under volcano

Staff writer

MIYAKE ISLAND -- The white skeletal trunks of dead trees and hulks of cars rusted away by volcanic gas that line the roads here give visitors the impression that this is no man's land.

News photo

News photo
Norihisa Ishii, head of the Miyake village industry and tourism division, harvests taro potatoes at a farm in the Tsubota district of Miyake Island, while Tsuneyoshi Kanakawa stands outside his damaged home in the Miike district.

Undaunted, the village of Miyake, which encompasses the entire island, in February will lift the evacuation order it issued to the roughly 3,800 islanders in September 2000 following heightened volcanic activity at Mount Oyama. It is currently working to restore infrastructure and other facilities.

Activity on the island has been on the rise since it was announced in July that the evacuation order would be lifted.

Ferry services linking Miyake with downtown Tokyo were increased in October to daily trips from three times a week, making it easier for islanders to return to repair their homes and other property.

One of them, Tsuneyoshi Kanakawa, 66, who hails from the Miike district in eastern Miyake, has a tall order to repair his wooden house, whose nails holding it together are completely rusted by the sulfuric gas.

Rust has also created holes on his tin roof, requiring that the furniture inside be covered with plastic tarps to protect it from the rain.

"There's nothing to do but try hard" to repair the house, he said.

He said his mother died of illness while living as an evacuee. The house holds many family memories, he said.

Kanakawa will not be able to move back into his house because the village has banned people from living in the Miike district due to frequent high levels of volcanic gas.

He said he hopes to return once they subside, but admitted he has no idea when that may happen.

In the meantime, Kanakawa said he plans to live in municipal housing on the island.

Accommodation for 210 households who had lived in areas affected by high gas levels and plan to return are currently under construction. The project is expected to be completed by the end of March.

The roughly 3.7 billion yen for the housing project was jointly provided by the village, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the central government.

While the damage from volcanic gas has received the most mention, volcanic mud flows have also wreaked havoc with homes and property. Thirty-six of the roughly 2,000 houses on the island were damaged by mud flows. The village is currently working to remove the debris.

To better ensure safety, new facilities are also being set up. At a junior high school in the northern part of the island, workers are installing equipment that removes sulfur dioxide, the main component of the volcanic gas, from the air.

But as authorities prepare to roll out the welcome mat, there are concerns over how many islanders will return and the future of local industries.

Tadashi Sakuma, head of the village's general affairs section, said construction of needed facilities is going well and he is relieved to see such necessities as electricity almost restored to its original state.

He said some residents are jittery about the volcanic gas.

"I am really worried about how many islanders will actually come back," he said.

His concern was shared by Shinichi Hasegawa, owner of a grocery store in the western district of Ako, which has suffered relatively little damage.

With the village's permission, Hasegawa, 47, restarted his business two years ago in what used to be a nursery to serve workers engaged in restoration efforts. He borrowed 10 million yen for the endeavor.

Sales have been brisk, but Hasegawa said he is worried whether he will have enough customers to keep the business going after the workers leave.

"I feel uneasy about how many families (with children) will come back," he said.

Elderly people do not usually buy many groceries, he added.

A study by the village between July and September found that 2,052 people, or 62.9 percent of the island's current population of about 3,200, wanted to return despite the gas risk.

Many of the expected returnees are elderly, village officials said.

They said the island's population is aging and many young islanders are married to people from other areas who do not want to live a risky life on Miyake.

Nevertheless, some remain optimistic that the island's key industries of tourism, agriculture and fisheries will recover and breathe life into the community.

Seiji Kikuchi, owner of an inn in the southern district of Tsubota, said he is unconcerned about volcanic gas. He said he has only smelled it a few times since reopening his inn for construction workers in January.

Kikuchi said he believes tourists will return to Miyake.

He borrowed 25 million yen to repair his business and set up equipment to remove airborne sulfur dioxide.

He said past guests have told him they want to visit the island again.

"I want to provide the same services for such customers when they come back," Kikuchi said.

Many farmers meanwhile will have to remove the volcanic ash blanketing their fields.

At one farm, the village has already planted taro -- an island specialty -- cultivated in mainland Tokyo by displaced islanders. The harvest will be used as seed potatoes, village officials said.

Before the eruption, seaweed used to make agar was a key marine product for Miyake Island, exceeding catches of fish and other marine animals in terms of volume.

Taku Nakano, an official of the metro government's fisheries section, said seaweed beds damaged by mud flows around the island are gradually recovering.

It will take at least two years before the marine ecosystem recovers completely, he said, adding, "We have hope, as seaweed has started to grow along the shore."

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