• Kyodo, Staff report

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For Mitsuhide Ikeda, finally being allowed to stay overnight in his own home — after more than a decade living in the next town — had long been on his mind.

“I’m finally back on this land,” Ikeda, 60, said before a photo of his parents, who died during the years spent away from the family’s cattle farm in the town of Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture.

On Dec. 3, the government allowed Okuma residents to stay overnight in parts of the town’s restricted zone for the first time since the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, to prepare for the lifting of the limits next year.

The same concession was made for residents in six towns and villages in the prefecture. Until the concession was offered, they had been allowed to go into the restricted zone for only a few hours at a time.

The government decided to allow the overnight stays after judging that decontamination of the areas had reduced the risk of radiation exposure.

Mitsuhide Ikeda has dinner at his home in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, alongside photographs of his parents. | KYODO
Mitsuhide Ikeda has dinner at his home in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, alongside photographs of his parents. | KYODO

While about 6,000 people lived in Okuma before the nuclear disaster, only a few dozen have applied to stay overnight under the latest program. Residents of the town were forced to evacuate after the 2011 disaster, but some of them returned after restrictions were lifted in April 2019 for parts of the town where radiation levels were lower.

For years since the government first allowed daytime entry to the restricted zone, Ikeda has been commuting from Hiroo — 20 kilometers away — almost every day to take care of his cattle. But having to leave at the end of each day caused him to worry about his animals, especially when the weather was bad.

Ikeda was feeding his cattle at home on March 12, 2011, the day after a tsunami triggered by the massive earthquake hit the northern Tohoku region. From the farm, which is located 6 km away from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, he heard a local broadcast asking all residents to gather at the town hall.

“I thought there would be a soup kitchen or something,” Ikeda recalled. But it turned out to be something completely different — instructions for all residents to evacuate immediately.

Presuming that he would not be able to return home anytime soon, he put out three times as much feed for the 30 or so cows and left the gate open so they would be able to wander out into the fields. Tears streamed down his cheeks.

Mitsuhide Ikeda's home in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture | KYODO
Mitsuhide Ikeda’s home in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture | KYODO

Until Ikeda settled in Hiroo at the end of 2011, he moved from one place to another in the prefecture. His cattle had run away, forcing him to look for them during the monthly visits he was able to make back to the farm. It was not an easy task, with the cows having gone feral and becoming aggressive around humans.

Ikeda knew that because the cows had been exposed to radioactive fallout, it wouldn’t be possible to sell them on the market. But he couldn’t put them down.

“The cows didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.

Cattle that died from natural causes were sent to researchers studying the effects of exposure to radioactive fallout, making him think that choosing not to put them down had been the right decision.

Ikeda still takes care of 18 cows, commuting back and forth between the farm and his evacuation lodgings in Hiroo.

“If the cattle shipping ban were to be lifted in the future, I hope to buy new cows and breed them,” he said.

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