National Geographic : 2011 Dec
• Perhaps the most heartbreaking thing about the town of Namie is that at rst glance nothing seems amiss. e blue-green meadows look lush. The gently owing Takase and Ukedo Riv- ers glitter in the sun. e barbershop, train station, and fried-pork restaurant seem ready for business, a universe apart from the havoc and wholesale destruction visited on towns farther up the coast. In the states of Mi- yagi and Iwate, clocks washed ashore frozen at roughly 3:15 p.m., when the tsunami swallowed towns whole; in the humble shing town of Na- mie the clocks go right on ticking. Namie is one of ve towns, two cities, and two villages that lie partially or wholly within a 12.4- mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant---designated by the government as a no-go zone. Like all the towns in the nuclear exclusion zone, it essentially no longer exists. Of its 21,000 residents, 7,500 have scattered across Japan. Another 13,500 live in temporary housing in the Fukushima region. ey're among more than 70,000 "nuclear refugees" displaced by the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. e de facto demise of Namie began in the chaotic hours a er the quake struck on March 11. Namie is shaped like a bow tie, radiating north- west from Fukushima Daiichi. Guided by news of the unfolding nuclear accident on TV and by local o cials, townsfolk drove to the highlands, the center of the bow. Heading for the hills is a lifesaving instinct for Japanese conditioned by centuries of tsunamis, but in this case it turned out to be a terrible strategy. Residents ed smack into the plume of air carrying radioactive debris. ey crammed into shelters with little food until the 15th, a er another explosion sent them ee- ing farther west to the city of Nihonmatsu. " e forgotten town" was how the July issue of the popular magazine Bungei Shunju described Namie, which never received o cial orders to evacuate, even as hydrogen explosions at units 1 and 3 spewed toxic particles across the Fuku- shima area. "We weren't forgotten," says Naka Shimizu, the mayor's aide. "We were ignored." Swathed in white protective masks and suits, residents are bused into the zone on rare occa- sions to retrieve valuables and check on their homes. e trips are brief---roughly two to three hours---to minimize radiation exposure. Some families plan these forays with military preci- sion, but Junko and Yukichi Shimizu, who shared their home with their son's family, including a two-year-old grandson, are plainly overwhelmed as they move slowly about their spacious home. On July 26 I spent half an hour with the couple during a day of driving and walking through the forlorn town. Yukichi, 62, dejectedly tapes windows as he looks at his beloved garden, now gone to seed. Junko, 59, dusts the family's Buddhist altar and gathers the few small items they're permitted to bring out of the zone: photos, Chinese herbal medicines, her daughter's kimono. She leaves be- hind their Buddhist memorial tablets. " ere's no one else to protect our house," she says. Namie's town hall has decamped to makeshi o ces in Nihonmatsu. Its o cials continue to issue birth certi cates, keep track of the increas- ingly far- ung inhabitants, and consult experts about the radioactive cesium that has rendered Namie's 86 square miles uninhabitable. Many residents had held out hope they might return once Fukushima Daiichi is stabilized, but prospects are grim. While Tepco, operator of the crippled plant, hopes the complex will be brought under control by the New Year, residents will not be allowed back in the foreseeable future, and the government is mulling plans to buy their homes. As the so rays of dusk cast a warm glow over the downtown landscape, a cool ocean breeze ru es our su ocating Tyvek suits. For just a mo- ment it is possible to forget that the Geiger coun- ter hit a level about 600 times normal, a few miles down Route 6. Yukichi Shimizu, who used to farm rice and work in construction, is plaintive as he surveys his lovely but lifeless hometown. "Could it really be that unsafe to live here?" j BY LUCILLE CRAFT Lucille Cra covers Japan for NPR, PBS, and CBS. Tokyo-based Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder took these pictures between May 26 and July 26. He is featured in e Moment, page 150.