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A car drives down the empty streets of Fukushima City during a snow storm on March 1, 2016. The city is located about 70km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
A car drives down the empty streets of Fukushima City during a snow storm on March 1, 2016. The city is located about 70km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.Dominic Nahr
A car drives down the empty streets of Fukushima City during a snow storm on March 1, 2016. The city is located about 70km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Japanese dictionaries for first-graders remain inside a classroom at the abandoned Kumano Elementary School in Okuma, Japan, March 4, 2016. The school lies within the 5km exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
A tree hovers over a lake that was contaminated by the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Minamisoma, Japan, March 8, 2016.
Decontamination bags are seen in the woods of Itate, Fukushima, Japan, March 7, 2016.
Temporary housing units are seen at night, March 4, 2016.
Damaged graves in Namie can be seen on the fifth anniversary of the tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011, after a massive earthquake along the northeastern coast of Japan.
Police search inside the exclusion zone for residents who are still considered missing from the tsunami, Namie, Japan, March 11, 2016. More than 2,500 people remain missing, according to government statistics.
Sachie Matsumoto, 43, and her mother look up at a Buddha statue called “Daihisan no Sekibutsu,” or “Stone Buddha statue of mountain of great sadness,” carved more than 1,000 years ago and situated inside the 20km exclusion zone, Osaka, Japan, March 6, 2016. Sachie would come here as a child.
An empty street scene in Minamisoma, Fukushima, March 8, 2016.
Students in the first rows prepare to graduate from Minamisoma's Ishigami Junior High School on the fifth anniversary of the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck the northeastern coast of Japan, damaging the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 25km away.
Pictures can be seen of Sachie Matsumoto, a hostess and a mother of two boys, and her best friend since elementary school. She said he committed suicide last December by jumping in front of a train, Minamisoma, Fukushima, March 3, 2016.
Sachie Matsumoto talks on the phone inside her temporary house in Minamisoma, Fukushima, March 3, 2016. Her son, a decontamination worker, tried to commit suicide. Her family will soon move to a new home built with savings and compensation money.
Terumi Murakami, a 43-year-old mother of three children and an evacuee from Okuma, 5km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, shows all the daily pills she takes, Iwaki, Japan, March 4, 2016. Murakami said severe depression and isolation pushed her to attempt suicide in this bedroom on April 5, 2015, after taking two month's worth of prescription drugs for depression. She survived after her children found her and called an ambulance. It was also the first day of school for her youngest daughter.
Yuki Mine, a 34-year-old part-time hairdresser and bartender, and other Minamisoma residents enjoy legal gambling in one of the many slot machine arcades, March 6, 2016. Several arcades have opened up in this region due to the high number of decontamination and other workers that have flocked to the town, as well as many residents who have received large amounts of compensation.
Many residents in Minamisoma prefer to eat food from outside of Fukushima, which does not align with what the government wants. Minamisoma, Fukushima, March 8, 2016.
A hose from a fire engine is seen after an incident at a bar in Minamisoma, Fukushima, March 8, 2016.
A birds nest can be seen inside a locker at a Ukedo elementary school, which was damaged by the tsunami, inside the restricted 20km exclusion zone, Namie, March 10, 2016.
Terumi Murakami, a 43-year-old mother of three children and an evacuee from Okuma, about 5km from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, walks through her children's highly contaminated and abandoned Kumano Elementary School grounds in Okuma, Japan, March 4, 2016. The school lies within the 5km exclusion zone around the crippled nuclear power plant.
A car drives down the empty streets of Fukushima City during a snow storm on March 1, 2016. The city is located about 70
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Dominic Nahr
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Confronting Rumors and Isolation Five Years Later in Fukushima

Mar 11, 2016

A sense of normalcy has fallen on Fukushima. It was only five years ago that the devastating March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami killed at least 15,000 people and sent into meltdown the Daiichi nuclear power plant. But, these days, few people mention the toxic levels of radiation in the region.

Highway 6, which runs along the nuclear plant, is once again open to traffic. New houses are springing up. Stores and restaurants are back in business and thousands of workers have flocked to the area, buoyed by the promise of well-remunerated cleaning jobs. To hear photographer Dominic Nahr tell it, it's as if an entire population, led by local and national authorities, had erased from their mind the threat of radiation poisoning.

“On a local Fukushima television channel, a newscaster was on saying, ‘Look at me, I’m next to the nuclear plant and I’m not wearing a protective suit,’” Nahr says. “Everyone is trying to push the message that it’s now safe.”

Nahr first went to Fukushima in 2011, as part of a team of TIME journalists reporting on the tsunami’s aftermath. Over the past five years, he has routinely gone back to the region, sometimes on his own and other times with TIME’s East Asia bureau chief Hannah Beech. For him, there’s no doubt that things have changed in the intervening years. “The second time I went there, in 2012, I had to dressed up as a nuclear worker to sneak into the exclusion zone,” he tells TIME. “Now, it’s really weird. It’s completely opened. They make it seem like it’s normal.”

While it’s still too early to access the final physical toll that radiation has had on the local population, Nahr has borne witness to the pervasive psychological impact, and the way it echoes throughout society. For examples, Nahr says, those who used to live inside the 20-km. exclusive zone have gotten financial compensation that sets them apart from their neighbors. “You’re seeing a lot of expensive cars and big houses," he says. "This is creating a lot of tensions within the community."

Isolation has also taken its toll. Some of the former residents have been relocated in temporary housing building that are generally separated from the rest of the community. One woman Nahr met doesn’t have a car. “All her friends are far away so she doesn’t see them, furthering her feeling of isolation,” he says. “She is a single mother of three, disconnected through a recent divorce from her husband’s family and due to money issues not very close to her own.”

And then, there are the rumors and the fear of what comes next – after five, 10 or 25 years of exposure to residual radiation. “What does it mean for the kids in the long run?” asks Nahr, who adds that mothers worry that the slightly sign of illness in their children is due to radiation. "I’m hanging out with people who feel they are getting sick.” Yet, while some will speak to an outsider like Nahr, most remain silent—just one more way for Fukushima, however deceptively, to maintain its new normal.

Dominic Nahr is a photographer working in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Follow him on Instagram: @dominicnahr

Photo essay edited by Alice Gabriner, TIME‘s International Photo Editor, and Andrew Katz, TIME‘s International Multimedia Editor.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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