They used to raise premium beef cattle in Iitate. But a year after Japan’s nuclear disaster it is an irradiated ghost town and those who used to call it home have no idea when they will be able to return.
Around 6,000 people fled this once idyllic farming community on the northeast coast, leaving behind houses and shops that were once the focus of village life.
Post boxes and vending machines are sealed off. The shelves of the grocery store are empty and the lanes that used to echo to the sound of lowing cattle or the rattle of tractors are deserted.
Occasionally, the snow-covered stillness is punctured by the barking of a stray dog or the patrol of a police car sent to prevent looting.
Only a small number of people remain, including 100 residents of a nursing home, too old to move and looked after by staff who commute daily into the village.
Iitate lies just beyond the official no-man’s land declared around Fukushima Daiichi after it began spewing radiation in the aftermath of the tsunami last March.
But the leaking reactors’ toxic isotopes have not been confined to the 20-kilometre (12-mile) exclusion zone, and Iitate was evacuated when scientists found it was heavily polluted.
Administrative functions have been moved to a small town 20 kilometres away, while villagers have been scattered, many to newly built prefabricated housing.
“I know I will die here,” Hatsui Akaishisawa, an 80-year-old rice farmer told AFP as she dried a wet carpet outside her temporary home in Matsukawa, central Fukushima, the biggest refugee housing complex for Iitate villagers.
“Of course, I want to go back home, but it does not mean anything if I can’t continue farming,” she said. “I’m giving it up now.”
The cattle that were raised in the village for famed “Iitate brand” marbled beef have all gone, sold off at steep discounts, or slaughtered because the once-prized meat was virtually unsellable.
“Even if we can return home, we won’t raise cows anymore,” said Masako Kobayashi, a 79-year-old cattle farmer. “We can’t grow even a single stalk of of straw to feed them because of the radiation.”
Tokyo says it plans to redefine the Fukushima evacuation zone by late March to take account of the fact that contamination levels vary widely even over small areas.
This could mean that Iitate will be broken into several different categories, with some places declared safe immediately, others requiring decontamination work and some parts being out of bounds.
Iitate mayor Norio Kanno said the village was “still a ghost town” in a speech he delivered last month when he was invited to a music festival in New York.
Kanno has pledged that all villagers will be able to go home, but many are sceptical.
“The future of Iitate is not rosy but thorny,” said Shigeru Hanai, a 50-year-old barber, who had returned temporarily to his shop in Iitate.
“Even if we are told, ‘You may go home,’ how could I do business without customers?” Hanai asked.
Masami Sanpei, manager of the nursing home that has become the centre of human activity in Iitate, said he wanted to keep the facility up and running, not just for its ageing residents, but so it can provide jobs for younger people when restrictions are lifted.
“The road to recovery is quite tough,” said Sanpei, who commutes by car every day, along with 70 fellow care givers.
“Some people say the village only appears to be dead, but it really is,” he said.
In December, prime minister Yoshihiko Noda said the country finally had control of Fukushima’s leaking reactors, declaring them to be “in a state of cold shutdown”.
But the disaster-weary public is only too aware that the crisis is far from over, with some parts of the no-go zone uninhabitable for decades and decommissioning of the reactors expected to take 40 years.
The task of restoring towns and villages even in lightly contaminated zones is complicated, with high costs and the logistical issues of where to put the soil that has to be removed.
But not everyone believes Iitate is a lost cause.
Mihori Takahashi, 30, says she understands why people of her generation are shunning the contaminated village, particularly those with concerns about their children’s health.
“But I am determined to return to Iitate with my husband, no matter what,” said Takahashi, an employee at a grocery store that opened in January inside the Matsukawa temporary housing complex.
“Some elderly villagers say they want to return to die there,” she said. But I want to go back to live there.”-By Shingo Ito