Poisoned Fields The Painful Evacuation of a Japanese Village

Contamination levels in the Japanese mountain village of Iitate are higher than in some parts of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Its evacuation has been a painful process for residents -- and many are more afraid of resettlement than they are of radiation.

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Why on earth didn't she notice anything? It's a question that preoccupies Mieko Okubo. Why didn't she see the signs?

If she had only been more attentive, perhaps Fumio, her father-in-law, would still be alive today. He would be sitting with her at the table, gazing out at his rice fields through the open terrace door, just as he had done for years.

"Do we have to leave Iitate?" Fumio asked on April 11, when Japan's NHK television network reported that their village was probably going to be evacuated.

"If they say so on TV," she had replied off-handedly.

"Do we really have to go?" Fumio had asked again, and his daughter-in-law had thought nothing of it.

Mieko Okubo has short black hair and thin, petite hands. The ashtray in front of her is filled with at least a dozen cigarette butts, long and thin. "How on earth could I have failed to recognize how important that question was to him?" she wonders today.

She blames herself for not having noticed the little things: how he would sit there all day long, all hunched over and not bolt upright the way he usually did; that she didn't stop short when he didn't touch his chicken or mixed vegetables at dinner; and that she didn't react when he stopped responding to her questions.

'Why Does a 102-Year-Old Have to Suffer?'

The next morning Mieko got up at 5 a.m. to make breakfast, as usual. When she hadn't heard anything from her father-in-law by 8 a.m., she called out: "Breakfast is ready."

Then she opened the door to his room. She saw the tatami mat on the floor, laid out elaborately as if it were a special day. Then she saw her father-in-law. Fumio Okubo had hanged himself in his room. He was 102.

Okubo had spent his entire life in Iitate. The woman he had married at 17 died 80 years later. He made his first trip to the capital Tokyo, 250 kilometers (156 miles) away with a senior citizens' group. What would have been gained by evacuating such an old man?

Shortly after his death, Mieko Okubo cursed TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the company that killed her father-in-law. Now she weeps quietly, and asks: "Why does even a 102-year-old man have to suffer?"

In the days following the explosions inside the Fukushima reactors, the wind carried radiation clouds in a northwesterly direction, all the way into the mountains surrounding Iitate, about 40 kilometers away from the plant. The people working in the fields at the time knew nothing about the dangers in the sky. No one had warned them.

Later on, the authorities measured radiation levels of up to 45 microsievert per hour in Iitate. This is several times the level that led to the evacuation of Chernobyl. No expert today questions the decision to evacuate the village.

Lost Sense of Security

Iitate is surrounded by forests of fir and Japanese cedar, the mountains rise up to 1,000 meters (3,280 feet). In the summer, hikers pitch their tents alongside the clear waters of a mountain lake. For generations, the people in the region have worked hard to wrest a living from the land. For the farmers and craftsmen of Iitate, the loss cannot be measured in microsievert. The residents of Iitate are losing their home, and a sense of security that they will never regain.

In an overcrowded room on the ground floor of the town hall, a team headed by disaster relief manager Shuichi Sato is trying to organize the moves of local residents. "On April 22, the government in Tokyo announced that the people of Iitate were to evacuate within a month. But they said nothing about how this is supposed to work," Sato complains.

He and his team members spend much of their time searching for apartments. Before the Fukushima disaster, there were just under 7,000 people living in Iitate; there are now about 3,000 left. And because the victims of the earthquake and tsunami, in addition to residents of other parts of the restricted zone have already received emergency housing, there are almost no apartments available anymore in the entire region.

Pregnant women and families with small children were evacuated on a Sunday two weeks ago, followed by families with children in middle school. Sato hopes that all families with children will soon have left. The remaining residents are expected to have left their houses by the end of June. Sato, who lacks the legal clout to force them to leave, says: "We're hoping they cooperate."

From One Meeting to the Next

A police line dangles in front of the entrances to the schools. The community center is closed. The only supermarket in town is still open, although some of the shelves are empty. A few construction workers are widening part of a village street, though soon it will no longer be used. A real estate broker's price sign is still posted in front of a newly built gray single-family home: 8 million yen (€70,000, or $100,000).

"These people were born here. It's their home," says Sato. "And we can't even say when they'll be able to return." He is wearing light-colored overalls and ID cards attached to blue strings dangle from his neck. He rushes from one meeting to the next, and yet he makes time to attend the farewell ceremonies being held throughout the village.

Prior to the disaster, Iitate had faced the same fate as many Japanese villages: Its youth had left for the cities, leaving the old people behind. In response, the town organized neighborhood festivals, developed the local beef into a nationally recognized brand and created more jobs for young people.

Iitate was recently admitted to an association of Japan's most beautiful villages. The town's motto is "Madei," or "Being Mindful," and its symbol shows two hands carrying a heart. Local residents don't lock their doors at night.

Now the nuclear crisis has cut deep creases into the friendly face of Iitate's mayor, Norio Kanno. His hair is disheveled and his overalls are covered with oil. When Kanno is asked to name his most difficult decision since the crisis began, he says: "Every day since then has been the most difficult one. After all, I'm responsible for everyone in the village."

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