Photo Gallery: The Future Ghost Town of Iitate

Foto: David Guttenfelder/ AP

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.

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."

Deciding to Stay

As mayor, Kanno has worked hard to convince young people to stay in Iitate. Now he is furious with the government in Tokyo. "They say: As long as people are protected from the radiation, have a roof over their heads and enough food to eat, everything is just great." But the people in Iitate feel connected, he says, to their houses and to the village they call home. "TEPCO is responsible for their loss," says the mayor.

The Japanese government is apparently anxious to prevent such anger from reaching public ears. During the interview, an employee from the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) suddenly appears. Kanno falls silent in the middle of a sentence, and then he is led away by the man from METI.

But METI cannot silence everyone in Iitate. Kayoko and Hideyoshi Hasegawa, for example, earned their living as dairy farmers. The meadows glisten in the fog at half past five in the morning, as Hideyoshi rolls hay into a large ball, places it on a wheelbarrow and distributes it to his 24 cows. The animals are emaciated, now that they haven't been fed concentrated feed for a while.

Hideyoshi's wife carefully washes each cow's udder with a fresh rag and hot water, and then she attaches the milking machine. When the cows have been milked, she simply opens the tap and allows the fresh milk to flow into the drain. "The cows use their own bodies to produce this milk," she says, with tears in her eyes. "And then we throw everything away."

With toxic radiation lurking in the barn and on their pastures, the Hasegawas are not permitted to sell the milk. Now they hope that they will at least be able to find someone to slaughter their cows. "Then someone will kill them for us. Killing and burying them ourselves would be too much for us," says Kayoko.

Little Reason to Hope

One of their daughters found a two-room apartment for the couple in the city of Fukushima. Hideyoshi Hasegawa plans to visit the farm once a week to look after things. He hopes that the family will be able to return after two years, although he has little reason to hope. The cesium 137 on the farm's fields has a half-life of 30 years.

Hideyoshi Hasegawa's father planted a bonsai garden on the family farm, complete with a pond for koi carp. The 84-year-old climbs onto a folding ladder to prune the next tree. "I won't leave this place," he says, "not even if they threaten to kill me."

He intends to follow the lead of the 107 residents of the Iitate retirement home. The mayor managed to secure permission for them to stay. He argued that the elderly hardly ever go outside, that they are well protected from the radiation inside the building and that forcibly removing them from their accustomed surroundings would sicken them immediately. The nurses and workers at the home plan to commute to what will become a ghost town. For anyone else who chooses to stay, the driver of a milk truck will continue to bring the bare necessities to the village once a week.

The retirement home was built in accordance with "Madei," at a cost of more than €20 million. It is heated with wood pellets, which is supposedly good for the environment and the future.

Twenty-nine-year-old Yukie Niigawa saw a future for her children in Iitate. She is holding her infant, Kurumi, on her arm. The girl was born on March 17, six days after the earthquake. Niigawa is still here with her four children because she is still recovering from the delivery. Brightly colored children's Crocs are lined up next to Niigawa's Hello Kitty sandals at the entrance to her apartment.

Losing a Home

The radiation level is even high in her living room: two microsievert per hour, higher than in many parts of the restricted zone. The needle on the Geiger counter quickly rises to eight microsievert outside. Niigawa only lets her children go outside for an hour a day now -- and only with boots, hats and breathing masks. She is a single mother.

After searching online, Niigawa found a small house for her family in the city of Fukushima. The government will pay the radiation refugee's rent.

But what will she do there? Until now, Niigawa made a living by leasing the family's rice fields to local farmers. Some paid in yen while others paid in rice. But nowadays, when the single mother has put her children to bed at night, she often lies awake and wonders how she will feed her children. She has already packed one box with the children's birth certificates and their photo album. It also contains the wooden plaque commemorating her own father, who died in January. "We don't know if we'll ever return," she says.

Twenty years after Chernobyl, the United Nations published a comprehensive report on the health of those resettled from the restricted zone there. According to the report, the people were traumatized by the loss of their homes and the fear of radiation damage. Believing that they are doomed to die, many drink and smoke excessively.

Workers with the aid organization Heart Rescue are taking a break in the parking lot at the town hall, wearing white protective overalls and breathing masks. Worried about the people who are staying behind in the evacuation zone alone, they roam the empty villages and question everyone they can find. They ask them about anxiety, crying fits, alcohol and thoughts of suicide.

Iitate Is Waiting

Many people exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome, says Bansho Miura. "Especially the young farmers. They don't know where they'll go from here." Some, he says, had converted their farms to organic farming, but now they will probably never sell organic products again.

Mieko Okubo, the woman who lost her father-in-law, is just trying to keep going. She tries to fight back remorse. More cigarette butts have accumulated in the ashtray. She had wanted to quit smoking, she says. "Now I'll probably never do it," she adds.

Her husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last October. When the tsunami arrived, she was visiting him in a hospital on the coast. She saw the wave coming, and she says that there are no words to describe what she saw next.

After that, her husband was transferred to the hospital in Niigata, a four-drive from Iitate. As a result, she doesn't visit him as often as before.

Every time she walks into the hospital now, she flicks a switch inside her head. Her husband knows nothing about the evacuation of his village and the death of his father. She doesn't want to make his last days even worse.

Instead, she talks about things that no longer exist. Her husband still believes that Iitate is waiting for him.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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