National Post

Families return to Japan’s nuclear ghost town

- Julian Ryall in Iitate, Fukushima

Even inside Nobuyoshi Ito’s log cabin home, in an idyllic valley in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture, the Geiger counter clipped to his jacket gives off a near-constant crackle. But every time he goes to put another log on the wood burner in a corner of his living room, it intensifie­s into a single, drawn-out cacophony.

The locally felled timber was exposed to the radiation that escaped from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, less than 65 kilometres to the southeast, when three of the plant’s reactors suffered meltdowns after the March 2011 earthquake and the tsunami it unleashed on coastal regions of northeast Japan.

One of only nine people who defied the government’s request to evacuate, Ito now monitors radiation carefully as a warning to the people, including young families, slowly trickling back to repopulate the ghost towns and serene valleys.

“If you look at the numbers, there is only one conclusion; it’s not safe to be here,” he says.

About 6,500 residents fled this community 10 years ago. Since the evacuation order was lifted, about 1,500 have returned.

The town of Iitate now wants to fill its remaining properties, which have been abandoned for years and are slowly decaying. With more than 70 per cent of the residents now of retirement age, the area is desperate for an injection of youth.

Some have already arrived. Among the 150 newcomers are Yuki Hanai and her husband Junichiro, who came to set up a flower farm because of the cheap availabili­ty of land.

“My husband was more worried than I was, but I told him that the mayor and the local government say it is safe and I trust them,” she said.

The Hanais have three children, aged eight, seven and three, and the family has taken up walking in the local hills and along the picturesqu­e rivers at weekends.

“People have driven past us and looked at us as if we were mad, but this is the life we want to lead,” she said.

Last year, the children grew vegetables in the garden of their refurbishe­d home and ate them with their meals, Hanai said, although there have been times when the water from the taps has been murky.

“I must admit that I do always look at the electronic signs that are around the town showing the radiation levels and I get a little worried when the numbers are high, but most of the time they are pretty low so I have nothing to worry about,” she said.

Generous subsidies are on offer to anyone who wants to move to Iitate. Land or a property has to be bought, though prices are low, while the town will pay 200,000 yen ($2,325) to cover moving costs, up to 5 million yen ($58,150) to build a new house, as much as 2 million yen ($23,250) to buy a vacant property or cover a maximum of 20,000 yen ($232) a month in rent for up to two years. In addition, children have free health care until the age of 18.

There is much scientific debate over a level of radiation exposure that is safe for humans. One study by the World Health Organizati­on suggests there is a 70 per cent higher risk of thyroid cancer in girls in areas affected by the fallout from the Fukushima plant.

Ito unclips his Geiger counter and holds it over a plastic bag of wild mushrooms he picked nearby this morning. Once again, the crackling intensifie­s. The valleys, paddy fields and tumbling streams here are still not safe, Ito insists.

“This is not a place where humans should be living,” he says.

 ?? PHILIP FONG / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES ?? Rev. Akira Sato stands outside the former Fukushima First Bible Baptist Church, 10 years after the earthquake.
PHILIP FONG / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES Rev. Akira Sato stands outside the former Fukushima First Bible Baptist Church, 10 years after the earthquake.

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