Nearly a year after the meltdown of three nuclear reactors in northeastern Japan, a portion of Fukushima prefecture remains off limits because of high radiation levels. One temporarily evacuated village is facing a unique dilemma, as it partly sits inside the reduced 20-kilometer no-entry zone.
It is an extraordinary meeting of the Kawauchi village assembly. Because of severe damage to the village's municipal hall from the earthquake, the public gathering has been convened at a community center, just inside the restricted zone.
Village leaders explain that next month administrative services will resume in the community.
Displaced Japanese encouraged to return home
Only a few hundred residents have returned, with 110 of them living in the third of the village that is inside the exclusion zone. Mayor Yuukou Endo is pleading for the remaining 2,600 people who called Kawauchi home to come back. "If the exclusion zone shrinks then we will be free to live anywhere in the village. But, for now, I realize that many people feel it is difficult to come back and resettle," he said.
Despite test indications that radiation levels in some places inside the zone are lower than outside of the zone, ordinary vehicles are not permitted beyond the barracade at end of the line in the mountain village of Kawauchi.
That has some in the area questioning the logic of the strict 20-kilometer boundary. One of the local skeptics is a former miso-soup shop operator, Minoru Kubota, who has been hired by the prefectural government to log radiation readings.
"Right now the radioactive level here in Kawauchi averages 0.125 microsieverts," he explained. "In some parts of the restricted zone the readings are lower than that. So what places are off limits should probably be reviewed and reconsidered."
Returnees encounter changes, fear
Yoshiko Watanabe, 69, spent nine months in an evacuation center, where she says the only problems were petty thefts. She came back to her home on the very edge of the no-entry zone to care for her dog. But she finds her old neighborhood a bit too quiet and lonely, because all of the children have left.
"When the school reopens in June, then 30 children should be returning," she stated.
But most of Watanabe's dispersed neighbors, according to a recent village survey, are not planning to come home any time soon, fearing a lack of infrastructure and lingering radiation.
The latter concern is likely to persist as long as there are reminders like this one behind Watanabe's house - an unmanned barrier marking an invisible line beyond which supposedly lies an unacceptable risk from a source no one can see, smell or hear.