New zones for a largely deserted village near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant took effect on July 17, the first step in allowing residents to start returning home in 2014.
For some of those who left Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, the three new zones, based on annual radiation levels, have raised hopes that reconstruction work can begin and that their lives can once again take on a sense of normalcy.
But when Masahiro Takahashi, 50, looked at the gate blocking entry to the Nagadoro district of the village, all he could feel was anger and despair.
“I will try to bear this sad feeling caused by my hometown being blockaded by telling myself that it is needed to prevent radiation exposure,” Takahashi said. “But I just can’t take it because it is inconsistent with the government’s past decisions.”
About a month after the onset of the nuclear accident on March 11, 2011, all of Iitate, located about 40 kilometers from the stricken plant, was designated a planned evacuation zone. Nearly all of the roughly 6,200 villagers left Iitate, and the village office was moved to Fukushima city.
On July 17, four of Iitate’s 20 districts, each with an annual radiation level of less than 20 millisieverts, were designated zones being prepared for the lifting of the evacuation order. Fifteen districts became no-residence zones, with annual radiation levels between 20 and 50 millisieverts.
With those changes, entry to areas in these two zones for business and rebuilding purposes became easier.
However, the Nagadoro district was designated a difficult-to-return zone, with an annual radiation level exceeding 50 millisieverts. Residents will not be allowed to return to the area for at least five years.
Takahashi, who was born in Nagadoro and lived with seven other family members, including his parents, in the district, has seen his life torn apart by the nuclear accident.
Soon after the disaster struck, the family fled to Kanagawa Prefecture, but they returned to the village and lived there amid high radiation levels before the evacuation orders came. One of the family members was an elementary school child.
Even after the family evacuated again, they entered Nagadoro on several occasions.
“(Authorities recognized Nagadoro) as so dangerous that it needs to be barricaded. So what were they doing in the 16 months after the accident?” Takahashi said.
After Iitate was designated a planned evacuation zone, the family was forced to separate. Takahashi now lives in a rented house for evacuees in the city of Fukushima with his wife and two of their children.
Like many other villagers, Takahashi made a living through a regular job and farming. Before the nuclear crisis, he envisioned a slow life in the village with his grandchildren. Now, he has no idea what he will do.
“A peaceful life depended on fields and mountains,” he said. “The land will never be returned to what it was, even after decontamination work. I can’t establish a life plan.”
Although Iitate is outside the 20-km no-entry zone around the nuclear plant, large amounts of radioactive substances fell on the village due to the wind direction and geographical features.
Tomiko Watanabe, 58, also evacuated from Iitate but never gave up hopes of returning and rebuilding the village. She said the new zones for Iitate have fueled her optimism.
She had run a business that grew the village’s own varieties of pumpkins and potatoes and sold seeds and processed products.
After evacuating to Fukushima city, she found women from the village and established a group that now produces and sells Japanese pickles, rice cakes and bean snacks.
The group buys ingredients from outside Iitate, but it still uses production methods that were developed in the village.
Some people outside Fukushima Prefecture are making bulk purchases of her group’s products in a show of support, she said.
The group now produces 20 items.
Watanabe said the group members check the ingredients and finished products for radiation using stricter standards than those of the central government.
“What I am afraid of most is a loss of motivation,” she said. “The restoration of our village will not be easy, but things will come to an end if we give up.”
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