Couple sticking it out in near-deserted evacuation zone
Yoshiaki Shoji displays his family tree and other treasures at his home in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, where almost all residents have evacuated. (Ikuro Aiba)
IITATE, Fukushima Prefecture -- Yoshiaki Shoji, 78, and his wife Toshiyo, 75, refuse to budge: It's as simple as that.
Despite the nuclear crisis at the nearby Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the Shojis have no intention of leaving the land that their ancestors occupied for generations.
But they are not the only holdouts in this village that once had upward of 6,000 inhabitants. Several other residents have also refused to leave--despite concerns their health could be at risk from radiation exposure.
The village is situated in an area designated as a planned evacuation zone.
Village authorities have repeatedly encouraged the couple and the others to leave, but to no avail.
"At my age, it would be much better to live in this place until I die (rather than move elsewhere)," Shoji said.
The Shojis live in a traditional farmhouse at an elevated spot some 3 kilometers from the village office. The view from the front of their home where rice paddies once thrived is now a wasteland of weeds.
Almost all of the residents left after the village was designated as a planned evacuation zone on April 22 following the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake that crippled the Fukushima power plant.
Its village office functions were transferred to Fukushima city on June 22. Stores and most local businesses also closed.
Although the planned evacuation zone lies beyond the 20-kilometer radius of the stricken plant, the government called on residents to evacuate, citing accumulated radiation that could exceed 20 millisieverts a year.
The few remaining villagers, and the occasional police car, make the rounds to ensure that all is safe.
Radiation levels at the center of the village currently measure 3 microsieverts per hour.
In the village's southern Nagadoro district, the figure is 14 microsieverts per hour.
Shoji insists the radiation levels around his home are not serious enough to affect his health.
Since the only supermarket in the village suspended business, Shoji has to drive to neighboring Date city for shopping. He picks up a daily newspaper, which is no longer delivered to his home, at a sales outlet in Kawamata town, west of Iitate.
"There is no post office. It is worse than in wartime," Shoji quipped.
Shoji is from one of the oldest families in Iitate.
Showing his family tree going back generations, Shoji chuckles and says, "Whatever may happen, I cannot leave this place."
For many years, Shoji allowed others to work his rice paddies and received a cut of the harvested grain in return. As a result, he has a two-year supply of rice.
"If it runs out, I would be purchasing rice for the first time in my life," he said.
It is Toshiyo's routine every morning to feed some 10 stray cats on the doorstep. The villagers who evacuated were not allowed to take their pets.
"Since radioactivity is invisible, the buzz of cicadas and the beautiful local mountain scenery have not changed," Toshiyo said. "The only thing that is different is people. The fields and animals have been abandoned by the villagers. It is very, very sad."
Nine people from five households remain in Iitate; some because they are determined to stay. The others are waiting to evacuate.
But Iitate is anything but a ghost town. A special nursing home decided to keep operating in the village because it could not move elsewhere. Its 84 staff, who commute from outside the village, care for 108 elderly people, 77 of whom are women. The average age of the residents is 84.7 years. Most of them require constant nursing care. Only about 10 percent can walk unassisted.
Several dozen cars are usually parked at the home's lot. In contrast, there are only five officials, who take turns doing chores at the village office located next door.
The residents of the nursing home could not be transferred to neighboring towns because of the lack of adequate facilities.
"(Even if there had been such a facility) some of the home residents could have suffered from the stress arising from transportation and the change in environment," said Masami Sanpei, 62, director of the facility.
When the facility's staff members explained the situation, all the family members of the residents asked that they be kept at the facility, Sanpei said.
By Yohei Goto
The Asahi Shimbun
18 August 2011