Fukushima: Residents of Evacuation Zone Make Last Runs Home

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Wasabi peas. It’s not the first thing one might think of salvaging from the wreck of a slightly irradiated house, but then again, they hadn’t been opened. Reiko Nakashima deposits the snacks on the bed of a mini truck next to plastic bags crammed full of clothes and other miscellany she’s spent the morning picking from the mud of her home. It’s the first time she’s been back since March 11, when the tsunami burst through the ground floor, sending tatami mats floating through the living room. Her husband Koichi explains why he’s packed up a wooden kotatsu, a low table covered by a heavy blanket that families sit around in cold weather. “My father used to sit here, my mother used to sit here,” he says, pointing to the assigned spots on each side of the square table. “I sat here, and my wife sat here.”

The Nakashimas are not breaking the law by returning to their house just inside the 12-mile (20-km) voluntary exclusion zone around the Fukushima nuclear power plant. At least not yet. Though it’s Reiko’s first time back, Koichi has returned six times before. Like many residents who evacuated in the first moments of the disaster, he has brushed aside warnings about radiation levels to see what little from his former life he might save. The elderly couple came today for one last round because Koichi had heard that restrictions on entering the evacuation zone might be tightening, and they didn’t know when – or if – they’ll be able to come back again.

He’d heard correctly. On Wednesday, the government acknowledged it was considering plans to introduce a legally binding ban on entering the 12-mile evacuation zone. The current evacuation zone is strongly encouraged and enforced by a few strategic roadblocks, but technically voluntary. The 70 to 80,000 people living inside the 12-mile radius of the plant were told to leave the region weeks ago, but dozens of households — possibly more than 100 — have remained. As the crippled plant has somewhat stabilized and radiation levels have dropped, more and more people who did leave are coming back for their valuables or pets. People have returned to look for family members lost in the tsunami, and journalists and individuals wanting to help out have been traveling into the zone, raising residents’ concerns over theft and scientists’ worries that the increased movement could complicate the task of decontamination once the plant shuts down and that process begins.

Yesterday, according to the daily Asahi Shimbun, the government began distributing pamphlets around the region asking people not to go back inside the zone. At one shelter in Minami Soma, where part of the town is inside the 12-mile zone, some residents have been leaving in the middle of the night to go in and get their things since access got tighter earlier this week. Miki Takano, a social worker at the shelter, says she went to her house inside the evacuation zone three times when it was less restricted ‘I was very, very nervous,” she says. Nevertheless, she thinks that it should be up to evacuees to decide if they want to take the risk to go home. “People should be able to go back in,” she says. “It’s their own responsibility.”

A government official told NHK earlier this week that one person from each family would be allowed to join official bus trips into the evacuation zone and have one to two hours to gather what they need. However a city employee working in the disaster response unit in Fukushima City, the capital of the prefecture, said he had not heard any formal plans to this effect.

On Wednesday, vehicles waved past the official roadblocks – large trucks and Special Defense Force vehicles – composed the majority of cars seen by TIME on the otherwise very empty roads inside the 12-mile zone. Along one stretch, a man in a white protective suit and rubber boots had stopped his Subaru in the middle of the highway to pet two stray dogs. “I can’t take them, I don’t have enough room,” Keiji Ishioka explained. He has already been sheltering abandoned pets in his home in Tokyo – he now has six ferrets – but he took a day off work to drive in and see if he could do anything else. A fluffy dog that wandered up to him earlier stared out from a pet carrier in the car’s trunk. “Everyone’s helping the people,” Ishioka said. “No one’s helping the animals.” He emptied a can of dog food onto the side of the road. The two strays polished it off in record time and looked up for more.

With the exception of the odd dog, cat, or urban do-gooder, the neighborhoods inside the evacuation zone are desolate. Rubble from the earthquake lies where it fell in the streets. A few businesses show signs of looting, with broken windows and cleared-out shelves. A few functional traffic lights direct traffic to nowhere; the cherry blossoms bloom for no one.

For those still able to steal some time at their abandoned homes, the decision over what to take and what to leave is overwhelming, and arbitrary. A hanger full of years’ worth of neck ties stays, but the wasabi peas go. “She has half my liver,” Koichi says, gesturing to his wife. Because of this, and because they don’t really understand how radiation exposure might effect them, the Nakashimas do not plan to come back and live here. Koichi wanders through the house that his father built 35 years ago, opening the decorative shoji screens in one room to show how they let in the light, and explaining how the paving stones on the front stoop were imported from Belgium. In the front yard, he points to a set of stone stools around a table situated in the once-manicured  garden. “We just got that,” he says. “We only got to drink beer there once or twice.”