FUKUSHIMA, JAPAN - For 72-year-old Mr Nobuyoshi Ito, home is an isolated village with only 40 other residents. Once considered among the most beautiful villages in Japan, Iitate is today a shell of its former self before a nuclear disaster five years ago.
Most of the homes, left behind by around 6,000 residents, are empty. Farmers have been replaced with masked workers tasked with filling up black bags of contaminated soil. Only parts of the village, about an hour’s drive inland from the crippled Fukushima No 1 power plant, have been deemed safe for visitors, and they cannot stay overnight.
But that has not stopped Mr Ito, a former IT engineer-turned-farmer, from returning and staying in open defiance to study the effects of the radioactive plume that hit after the nuclear plant on the east coast of the main island Honshu was destroyed by a tsunami.
“When the government asked us to evacuate ... I asked if there would be criminal charges if I continued to live here,” he said. “They said no.”
“I am a test subject, making use of the environment,” added Mr Ito, now a lobbyist opposing nuclear energy. He carries a hand-held meter to record the radiation he is exposed to daily, at his own expense.
Readings in Iitate now can range between 1.1 and 1.9 microsieverts per hour, according to government monitoring posts, which is more than 10 times those in places such as Tokyo, 250km south, where readings are around the globally accepted norm of 0.1 microsieverts per hour. This translates to a benchmark for safe radiation absorption of 1 millisievert (1,000 microsieverts) per year, although the International Atomic Energy Agency and others say anything up to 20 millisieverts per year poses no immediate danger to human health.
Mr Ito spends most of his time in the village but once a month drives three hours to Niigata prefecture on the west coast where some of his grandchildren live.
But many others from Iitate have had to evacuate to cramped temporary housing – smaller than a one-room flat in Singapore.
It is a bitter pill to swallow, said Mr Ito. “For older people like me, a slight exposure to radiation is all right, compared to the stress of living in temporary housing,” he said.
On the wall in his office is a 2011 calendar, which he has not taken down because “the female model is cute”. But it is a sombre reminder of the lives that were lost or upended at 2.46pm local time on March 11 when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a 10m wall of water that ravaged the northeastern coast of Japan and caused meltdowns in three reactors at the Fukushima plant. It was the world’s worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
Some 16,000 people died, most by drowning, 2,500 are still missing, and another 100,000 evacuees have not returned home. About 60 per cent of them still live within Fukushima prefecture. After the disaster, residents within a 20km radius of the No. 1 nuclear plant were evacuated, and some areas 30km away such as Iitate were cleared because of high radiation levels.
The health consequences of the leaking radiation are still unclear but more than 300,000 people aged below 18 have been screened for thyroid cancer. About 150 have tested positive, although some attribute this to more rigorous testing rather than the direct impact of radiation.
Last October, Japan confirmed the first case of radiation-linked cancer for a former Fukushima nuclear plant worker. Among evacuees, factors like stress, poor diet and a lack of exercise have also taken a toll.
Japan is halfway through a 10-year reconstruction master plan. Some 26.3 trillion yen (S$319 billion) has been budgeted since 2011 and another 6.5 trillion yen was approved this month to speed up the construction of public housing for evacuees, and for other projects such as medical care and infrastructure.
Japan Ministry of Environment official Hitoshi Aoki said the government expects to lift evacuation orders by March next year in all but three areas – Namie, Futaba and Ookuma – where decontamination efforts have been suspended because of high air dose radiation. It has not yet been decided when these areas, which are closer to the plant, will be cleaned up.
The cleanup process involves removing topsoil, since cesium – a radioactive byproduct of the Fukushima meltdown – falls to the ground when it rains or snows, said Mr Aoki.
The disaster forced all of Japan’s dozens of reactors offline in the face of public worries over safety but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said this month that Japan “cannot do without nuclear power”.
This has split public opinion and most of the country’s reactors remain shut down.
Iitate village is expected to be one of the areas to reopen next March.
But contamination, and a general mistrust of the Government for not being upfront or transparent about the extent of the nuclear disaster in the immediate aftermath, are among reasons former Iitate residents like Mr Hideji Suzuki, 78, are reluctant to return home.
Once a farmer, he now lives with his wife in temporary housing quarters an hour by car from their old house.
“We can’t go back to Iitate anymore, even if we want to,” he said.
Residents like him will not be able to return to their former lifestyles and jobs in the mountains - which cannot be decontaminated easily - even if they moved back.
The disaster has accelerated a demographic shift away from affected cities within Fukushima prefecture.
Minamisoma city, 30km north of the plant where lower radiation levels have allowed evacuated residents to return, has seen “rapid aging”, said city official Mr Tokio Hayama. Offices have reopened but the working population - over the age of 15 and below 65 - has yet to recover.
“We need to dispel the fear of radiation, which has become a major factor that prevents their return,” said Mr Hayama.
The disaster has also split families, like Mr Yasuhiro Abe’s. The 52-year-old moved his wife and 14-year-old daughter to Kyoto, concerned about their health in the wake of the nuclear fallout.
But he stayed behind in Fukushima City – 90km from the power plant and unaffected by the exclusion order – to continue running a movie theatre he has worked at for almost 30 years.
“As far as possible, we want to raise our child in a place with lower radiation levels,” he said. “When she comes of age, she can choose whether to come back.”
Former residents have been slow to return to the seaside town of Naraha also, which was the first within the exclusion zone to have the evacuation order lifted in September last year. Many families have already rebuilt their lives elsewhere and in the six months since, only 976 of the town’s 7,700 original inhabitants have come home – mostly the elderly.
Former residents like Ms Shinoda Tomoko, 78, have chosen to move out - and move on with their lives. She now lives 60km south of the Fukushima plant in Iwaki city with her children and grandchildren who have new jobs and are attending new schools.
But retiree Tomiko Igari, 69, intends to buck the trend. On one of her regular trips back to Naraha, she said she will return in October this year, after the lease on the flat where she now lives runs out.
Her home is just across the road from a vast field that is still full of black bags with contaminated soil.
“My only hope is that when I come home, all of that will be gone,” she said. “It’s really an ugly reminder of the accident.”