Despite Radiation, Some Japanese Villagers Stay Put

Jun 8, 2011

Japan has doubled its estimate for the amount of radiation leaked by the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, but the process of evacuating the zone around the plant has not been smooth.

In some villages where evacuation orders have been issued, Japanese residents have stayed put.

The village of Iitate, about 20 miles from the plant, has radiation levels well above those considered safe. But it appears there are still quite a few people in the village, including one couple busy in their fields.

Salvaging Crops And Livestock

Nisaka Mieko, 77, and her husband are digging chives out of the rich, brown earth, plastic gloves on their hands, masks over their mouths. The oniony smell of ripe chives hovers as they chuck bundles of veggies into their tractor.

They stand to lose $25,000 worth of crops that can't be sold or eaten.

"We're taking these to put them in a place where they won't be rained on. We're waiting until next spring, when we might be able to plant their seeds. Of course it's scary, but we'll lose them if we don't do this, so we might as well do something," Mieko says.

Closer still to the nuclear plant, Sato Takao feeds hay to his cows. He can't leave until he's sold them. They're for Wagyu beef, an expensive delicacy, but he's only getting 70 percent of the market price — even though he says his meat has radiation levels of only 100 becquerels per kilo, a fifth of that judged dangerous.

In late April, he and other residents were given a month to leave. But he thinks he won't be able to wind up his farm until August.

"If you've got 600 cows, it's not that easy to get rid of them," Takao says. "People have been talking up this nuclear disaster and the radiation, so of course I can't sell them for the right price."

A False Sense Of Security

Shinichi Monma, the deputy village chief of Iitate, admits that about 20 percent of the village still hasn't left, but he believes the residents will be gone by the end of June.

"The national government doesn't know what it's like down here. It's hard to move people with children. People have no work when they move; there's nowhere for them to go. I'm not going to force people to leave," Monma says.

The truth is, the longer you spend in this picture-perfect place — complete with a friendly village shop — the easier it is to be lulled into a false sense of security. You can't see the radiation or smell it, people say repeatedly, and it's easy to forget the threat.

But these lush emerald hills and bubbling brooks are poisoned; their radiation levels are twice as high as those requiring evacuation, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Jan van der Putte of Greenpeace says the government needs to act.

"We already asked for this further evacuation on April 11," van der Putte says. "We have been very cautious about calling for evacuation. But still, this further step is absolutely required. And institutes and experts knew this already months ago."

'I'll Miss All Of It'

Jaunty music plays inside the village bookshop, where the shelves are being stacked with new titles. Mihori Takahashi already moved out of the village, but she comes back every day to open the shop.

She says it's her responsibility. She doesn't worry about radiation; she already has two kids and does not plan to have more. But she is in a state of mourning for what she's losing — after all, Iitate village was officially voted one of the most beautiful in Japan.

"I'll miss all of it," Takahashi says. "The village, the little rivers, the mountains, the people, the clouds, the sky, everything."

And for some, leaving this rural idyll with its forests of cedar is more than they can bear.

More than a hundred elderly people at the village's retirement home are being allowed to stay on, so long as they remain inside. That some prefer radiation to resettlement shows the enormity of the government's task.

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