Fukushima village on way to becoming ghost town

by David Mcneill

Special To The Japan Times

Sleepy, idyllic and dangerously irradiated, the village of Iitate is preparing to evacuate.

The junior high school is closed, its children bused every day to nearby towns. Tractors sit idle, and weeds poke through rice and cabbage in the fields. Half-empty shelves greet customers at the A-Coop supermarket.

By the end of the month, this mountainous farming village of 7,000 people in Fukushima Prefecture, recently voted one of Japan’s most beautiful places, will join the Ukrainian ghost town of Pripyat on the planet’s short list of nuclear casualties.

“We’ve no idea when we can come back,” said Katsuzo Shoji, who farms rice and cabbage, and keeps a small herd of cattle about 2 km from Iitate’s village office.

Shoji, 75, went from shock to rage and then despair when the government told him he would have to destroy his vegetables, kill his six cows and move with his wife, Fumi, 73, to an apartment, probably in the city of Koriyama about 20 km away.

“We’ve heard five, maybe 10 years, but some say that’s far too optimistic,” he said, crying. “Maybe I’ll be able to come home to die.”

Iitate has been living on borrowed time since the March 11 quake and tsunami knocked out the cooling systems of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, about 40 km away. Though outside the government’s 30-km danger zone set up around the plant, the village’s mountainous topography meant radiation spewing from its crippled reactors lingered, poisoning crops and water.

The young, the wealthy, mothers and pregnant women began leaving for Tokyo or elsewhere. The rest gathered every day in the village office for information and prayed against the inevitable.

Last month, the central government finally ordered the remaining citizens to leave after the International Atomic Energy Agency and other observers warned that safe radiation limits for cesium and other toxins had been exceeded.

“We’ve been told to quit our jobs and move out by the end of the month,” said Miyoko Nakamura, 59, a clerk in the village office. She is near retirement and says she’ll manage. “A lot of people have no idea what to do. They’re just hoping everything will be OK somehow.”

Villagers snort at the initial compensation of ¥1 million offered by Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the ruined Fukushima plant. Farmers will be given another ¥350,000 in moving expenses this month. After that, there are no more concrete promises.

“Money is the biggest question people have,” explained Takashi Hamasaka, an official from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry seconded to the village to assist with the evacuation. “They want the government to pay more.

“If it was just a tsunami or earthquake we would pay, but the nuclear problem was made by Tepco so the situation is so difficult,” he said.

Among the government’s tasks is finding homes for 700 family pets that will be left behind. Thousands of pigs and more than 8,000 of the region’s famous, prized “wagyu” beef cattle, worth up to ¥1 million a head, will be slaughtered if they can’t be relocated.

Apartments in towns outside the irradiated zone must be found for the people, who are being kept alive on supplies shipped into the village office. Bottled water, masks and diapers for bedridden elderly lie in boxes around the hall. Locals arrive in light vans to pick up the supplies and glance at the Geiger counter across the road, which hovers at around 3.15 microsieverts per hour.

Tepco officials, led by Executive Vice President Norio Tsuzumi, came to the village hall more than a week ago to apologize.

Pictures from the visit show the officials, dressed in identical utility suits, bowing deeply before 1,000 mostly stony-faced locals.

“Give us back our beautiful village,” one demanded.

Some say the disaster is too big for any company to manage, even one as powerful as Japan’s largest utility.

“At least they can raise electricity prices,” said Shoji. “What can we do except wait for our homes back?”

Local restaurants have already shut. Many display signs of a smiling cartoon cow, the symbol of Iitate beef. Now the beef is too irradiated to sell.

The lone supermarket, a crucial lifeline to many elderly customers, still operates — at least for now. A notice on the window lists the names of nonprofit organizations willing to look after abandoned pets.

“We’re waiting to see what happens; some older people are not leaving and they need us,” said manager Toshiyuki Matsuda. “They would have to shop 20 km away if we weren’t here.”

A woman in the parking lot outside was bundling her shopping into a small pickup truck.

“I’m old, I’ve been here all my life — where would I go?” she asked. “I’m going to stay and if the supermarket closes I’ll go elsewhere.”

METI official Hamasaka shrugged his shoulders when asked what the government would do about holdouts.

“It’s a good question. We don’t have any power to force them to go.”

Faced with a similar problem closer to the stricken nuclear plant, the government last month turned the 20-km zone around it into a no-go area. Evacuees who return there now face arrest and fines. Hundreds of thousands of farm animals are being slaughtered.

Farmers in the vicinity claim their produce is safe to eat, but that the country has become hysterical about Fukushima’s fallout. Many have heard stories of children evacuated from the village, sometimes hundreds of kilometers away, being bullied, a painful echo of the decades-long discrimination that dogged survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“I’ve heard that other kids shout ‘baikin’ (vermin) at them,” said Shoji’s granddaughter, Hiroko, 22.

Like many in the area, Shoji, whose family has been farming this land since the 1880s, is too old to become embroiled in a protracted legal battle with Tepco or the government.

“All we can do is bow our heads and heed the order,” he said as his wife, granddaughter and eldest son, Hidekatsu, looked sadly on. He has been told that he will be taken care of but fears compensation offers will dwindle once the media spotlight shifts elsewhere.

The bitterest irony of the crisis that has destroyed their lives, he says, is that this rural area, 250 km from Tokyo, sees not a single watt of the electricity produced by the Fukushima plant.

“All the power is sent to the city. We had nothing to do with this problem, but we will have to somehow bear the burden.”