With a Month to Leave, a Japanese Village Weighs Options

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IITATEMURA — Spring got off to a something of a false start this year in Iitatemura. On Tuesday afternoon in the farming village in Fukushima prefecture, cherry blossom petals fell to the ground with flurries of snow. Roadside bursts of daffodils hung heavy under white slush, and fields of rice, flowers and strawberries, dusted in white, were empty.

That last part, to be fair, wasn’t the weather’s fault. On April 12, the local farmers’ association held a meeting and decided to put a hold on all new planting. It was the eighth time they had met to measure levels of cesium since the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant started sending radioactive material their way. “The farmers decided that we couldn’t continue to plant for the safety of our country,” says Shoji Masatada, the manager of the local branch of Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA). He calls it a “moral” decision; unlike other agricultural towns in the region, the farmers of Iitatemura have not been ordered to stop. They have, however, been ordered to pack. This agricultural hamlet of 5000 people, on the national tourist board’s list of Japan’s most beautiful villages, was one of the five communities outside the original 12-mile (20 km) evacuation zone informed by Tokyo that they may have to leave their homes within a month because high levels of radiation had been detected in their area. When exactly they need to leave – and for how long – are details that Iitatemura’s residents and city officials are still trying to discern.

“We don’t know anything for sure,” says Kazuki Imai, who works for the village government’s emergency preparedness department. He says Tokyo has not given them any signals what kind of funds will be available for the relocation, or even when they will make a final decision on whether the move is necessary. “People are angry at the mayor, at the country, at the whole situation. All we know is what we see on television.”

That can’t be reassuring. The latest images to emerge from the nearby plant show a hot, steamy room inside reactor 2, captured by robots, that promises to be yet another arduous environment for the workers who will eventually have to go in and start clearing it. And that’s the reactor that has low enough radiation levels to make entry plausible; information gathered by robots at reactors 1 and 3 over the weekend indicated that radiation levels were still too high for humans to work. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has announced a plan to have the power plant in cold shut down in nine months, but the government acknowledges that the timetable will depend entirely on how things go from here. On Tuesday, engineers began pumping 10,000 tons of radioactive water from a turbine into on-site storage to create a safer environment for workers to proceed. After that, there are another 57,500 tons of contaminated water to go.

(See TIME’s full coverage of the Japan quake.)

People here in Iitatemura, 22 miles away from the plant, never thought any of this was going to be their problem. In a corner shop on the village’s main drag, Katsuyoshi Hanai sweeps up wisps of black hair from the floor of his salon. With a television droning in the corner and a customer reading the paper while her perm sets, this 43-year-old family business is one of the last bastions of activity in what’s quickly becoming a ghost town. Hanai’s son has already evacuated, and by the end of the month, Hanai and his wife will also go, leaving the business and their apartment upstairs. “The country guaranteed it wouldn’t go over the 12-mile [20 km] area if there was an accident,” Hanai says. Though TEPCO has announced that households forced to evacuate will receive payments of one million yen ($12,000), Hanai says he hasn’t personally heard anything about it. His wife, giving a haircut behind him, chimes in. “We don’t know anything,” she says, waving her comb around in an exasperated gesture. “Our whole life is here… The government says, ‘Just leave,’ but they’re not even paying for us to go.”

As the village’s impromptu evacuation committee tries to figure out where it can rent space for residents, it’s also looking into what can be done about the village’s 2000 cows. Farmers are understandably reluctant to leave their primary source of income to starve to death. The city has been trying to work out a plan to move the livestock, but hasn’t come up with one. Up a snow-covered hill overlooking the deserted fields, 62-year-old Takeshi Yamada buries his pitchfork into a bale of pungent hay in his old barn. He, too, has been looking for some open land where he can relocate the 28 cows that watch him hungrily from their stalls. So far, nothing has panned out, and it’s unclear whether the cost of moving the cattle will even be worth it. If not, Yamada says, “I guess we’ll have to kill them. But we’re trying to save them.”

(See pictures of a 4-year-old tsunami survivor.)

Yamada and the other cattle farmers in the village want TEPCO to cover their losses. Apart from the $12,000 evacuation compensation, the utility has not outlined any plan to cover the widspread loss of livelihood stemming from the plant’s woes. The government has said it would pay farmers, small businesses and fishermen affected by the crisis, but not how much, or when. And even with a dose of cash, the long-term prospects for agricultural villages like this one are difficult. Even when atmospheric radiation drops back down to levels safe enough for people to move back, the half-life of cesium, one of the radioactive materials detected here, is 30 years. Before farmers are able to go back to planting food here, the government must complete a massive decontamination of the soil. “We don’t know when it’s going to go back normal – or if it ever is,” says Masatada of JA.

Yamada, for one, is not in any rush to leave the land he’s been working on since he was 15. The face mask he’s wearing under a baseball cap is an effort to block allergins – not radioactive materials – and he jokes that he’ll die of something else before any radiation poisoning could hurt him. But, he adds as his laugh subsides, “It’s different for young people.” His 28-year-old son has already left the farm for the nearby city of Yamagata with his wife and two kids. “I don’t think my grandchildren will be able to come back here for two or three years.” He pauses, leaning on his pitchfork, and his moment of seriousness is gone. “Be careful,” he says, pointing outside the barn door at the weather with a tone of mock warning. “Radioactive snow.”

With reporting by Tai Dirkse