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Japan, one year after the tsunami

From 2012: There’s life after the disaster, amid ghost towns, radioactive worms and disaster tourists
"General view of devastated area of Kesennuma town after 1 year. Kesennuma Miyagi Prefecture"
Life in no man’s land
Noriko Hayashi

Last October, beachcombers from Oregon to Alaska began noticing a startling number of bulbous, buoyant objects, as smooth and symmetrical as the seeds of some strange and massive fruit, washing up on their shores. They were black, orange, white, and, in rare cases, bore a foreign script scrawled onto their hard surfaces. The beachcombers knew these to be fishing buoys, likely of Japanese origin. They had seen similar flotsam before, though never in such numbers; in many of these new cases, the sea was tossing them up onto remote beaches in bunches—two black, three white—like clustering atoms.

The arrivals did not surprise Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a retired Seattle engineer and oceanographer; he’d been anticipating this. At 69, Ebbesmeyer’s reputation for unusual flotsam savvy stems from an episode 22 years ago, when he followed 80,000 Nike sneakers spilled into the Pacific during a storm, drifting 3,200 km before washing up, in colourful array, on U.S. beaches. That study had allowed him to unknot some hard mysteries about ocean currents; based on those experiences and a series of complex computer simulations, Ebbesmeyer was expecting the Japanese debris, and asked his network of beachcombers to watch for it.

Little by little, he learned of the buoys—23 in all, from 17 locations stretching from Yachats, Ore., to Kodiak, Alaska. Skepticism on the part of some scientists did not dampen Ebbesmeyer’s enthusiasm for a theory shared by his beachcombing friends—that the buoys were at the forefront of a field of debris swept into the waters off Japan’s northeast on March 11 by a massive tsunami. Those waves, as high as 10 m, were a once-in-a-millennium event triggered by a nine-magnitude seismic upheaval so powerful it knocked Japan’s main island, Honshu, 2.4 m further east into the Pacific. The raw numbers associated with the humanitarian crisis that followed are by now well-known: 20,000 dead or missing, at least 300,000 displaced by earthquake and flooding, 100,000 more forced from an area almost double the size of Toronto by the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years.

For Ebbesmeyer the buoys were harbingers of more to come—houses, boats, human remains. He drew up a five-point plan: “Treat debris as a crash scene”; “call the police, check radioactivity”; “remove debris to safe sites”; search for “mementoes”; “notify loved ones in Japan.” That stew of briny human things, much of it submerged in the currents of the Pacific, was not expected to reach North America until next year or later. And yet here it almost certainly was: the fastest flotsam Ebbesmeyer had ever seen, rocketing 32 km a day over the ocean surface ahead of powerful winds, 7,500 km in seven months.

With the help of Kyodo News, a Japanese news agency, he traced Japanese characters scribbled onto one buoy back to an oyster farm on the coast of Tohoku, the northeast region of Japan. More evidence came in the form of photographs taken in Minamisanriku, 365 km northeast of Tokyo, showing buoys similar to those found in the U.S. A year ago, at the same time that Ebbesmeyer’s buoys, funnelled into the Pacific’s great spiral, had begun their eastbound journey, buoys just like them were hanging, immobile, from weedy, sea-soaked ropes hurled inland and draped over the gutted townscape of Minamisanriku.

And instantly, when Maclean’s presents them with Ebbesmeyer’s photographs, the oyster farmers of Minamisanriku recognize the buoys. With a schoolboy’s enthusiasm, 52-year-old Shigeru Sugawara, chief manager of procurement for the local fishing co-operative, identifies the large black buoys as those used growing oysters.

At 2:46 p.m., on March 11, 2011, Sugawara and his colleague, Katsuhiko Endo, head of the co-operative’s oyster division, were 28 km north of Minamisanriku in the fishing and port city of Kesennuma. A business meeting they were attending had just begun. For five minutes, perhaps more, the earth began to buckle and roll. After it subsided, Sugawara and Endo, fearing for their families, started home. On the way, knowing the tsunami was imminent, they stopped their vehicle and clambered up a mountain. From this vantage they watched as the wave consumed the coast below. “It wasn’t just water,” says Sugawara. “It was houses and cars—a huge, rolling wave.”

Minutes later the men returned to the car and chose a long, inland route toward Minamisanriku. They arrived at 9 p.m. and could see nothing: the lights of their hometown had been extinguished. Only later did they learn their families were safe. But Endo, now 60, had lost his home and everything else.

Today, Endo is wearing FisherMan Rain Wear, hip waders produced by the Kawashima Trading Co. Ltd. and shipped in by the co-operative. Nothing can be purchased locally. As well as Endo’s livelihood the tsunami wiped out most local businesses—the sole convenience store operates out of a nearby trailer, a noodle shop out of a bus. Until May Endo did nothing. Then he became one of many coastal fishermen to take temporary work clearing away and sorting the debris burying Minamisanriku and other communities. He earned ¥12,000 a day—$145.

Even as he strung up new buoys and seeded the waters in June, he kept his job digging out his town. He has nothing from his earlier life. “I used to love Burberry,” he says. “I had Burberry socks, Burberry belts, Burberry shoes, even Burberry underwear.” He warms himself over the open fire his colleagues have built to burn the packing refuse from their new fishing gear. A thoughtful man, he smiles sheepishly: “I cared about luxury.” Just before New Year’s, the most important holiday in the Japanese calendar, he and his colleagues gathered and, for the first time since the tsunami, ate oysters cultivated in the sea below Minamisanriku. “They were delicious,” he says. “Sweet and soft and tender.”

Swift-sailing, allegedly radioactive buoys aren’t the strangest phenomenon to emerge in Japan post-3/11. Stranger things have happened, and are happening still. Nor do oysters tell the tenderest stories. In the months since the disaster, the region of Tohoku has embraced absurdity along with woe: it has become a realm of runaway ostriches, radioactive worms, and heroic hula girls from Fukushima whose swivelling hips call plaintively to a country the dancers fear has forsaken them. Confusion reigns in the area about what is true, what the government requires, and what it has promised.Meanwhile, virtual ghost towns have mushroomed in the 1,100-sq.-km area most affected by the fallout; too much is destined to remain empty for decades (a 30-km radius around the plant in Chernobyl, the site of the world’s last serious nuclear mishap, remains uninhabitable).

Here guerilla animal activists slip unseen into the barrens, freeing stranded pets, and yakuza—Japan’s organized crime syndicates—identify profitable opportunities managing some of the 24 million tonnes of tsunami trash that once buried the coast. In Sendai, great heaps of garbage are thrown into the firey maws of the city’s incinerators, but in smaller places farther north there is no room between the sea and mountains, and the debris piles high. Last summer in Yamada, 160 km north of Sendai, where a children’s park is now a tower of debris, a pile of wood spontaneously ignited, spewed vile smoke and burned for weeks.

Elsewhere, a fugitive cult member at large for years on suspicion of murder surrenders, attributing his new remorse to the heroism he saw on TV among Tohoku’s survivors. And in Minamisanriku, a luxurious hot spring resort, dressed in marble, rises over the vast wreckage—bathers in colourful, hotel-issued uniforms padding around in slippers after a day spent taking in the devastation. In Kessennuma, tour buses roll past a massive fishing trawler, tossed like a toy into the streets. Tohoku: the soberest of sightseeing excursions.

Farther south, Japan National Route 399 skirts the no-go zone around the irretrievably broken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, winding through farmland recognized in Japan as amongst the country’s most beautiful—scenes fit for fairy tales or the often heart-rending ghost stories of local folklore. Then a dozen white-clad men appear, striding in gas masks and goggles through the fields and into the road. They move from settlement to settlement, scrubbing, scraping, attempting something never tried before: to clean out fallout. That is the startling thing about the nuclear disaster here—that collision between fairy tale and science fiction.

Japan is an ancient place, yet its problems could not be more modern. March 11 hit hard a country already beset by economic doldrums, rudderless politics and bad demographics (its median age—44.5—is the highest in the world). Amid debate over nuclear power prompted by the Daiichi crisis, with most of its reactors mothballed, Japan is scrambling to meet its energy needs. Almost inexplicably, the Yen is soaring, a calamity for exporters. And last June, two million people received welfare benefits here, more than at any time since 1951. Worst off is Tohoku—remote, with a history of privation, seen as a dead end by the young even before the disaster. As recently as 80 years ago, plummeting rice prices had Tohoku farmers selling their daughters into prostitution. Later, when other areas turned to more profitable crops, Tohoku boosted its low yields to become a major rice producer. Later still it became synonymous with low wages, drawing in parts factories that hired seasonal workers and rural women. Finally these hinterlands became Tokyo’s nuclear hub—planners chose the north’s Rokkasho village, where colonists from Manchuria were repatriated post-WWII, and coastal Fukushima, a poor, thinly peopled highland dubbed “Fukushima’s Tibet.”

The southernmost of Tohoku’s prefectures, Fukushima literally means “Lucky Island”; it is neither of these things. The tsunami halted cooling systems at the Daiichi plant, causing fuel meltdowns, hydrogen explosions and a fog of radiation to spread up, then northwest, funnelled by the winds and mountain passes over farmland and villages. The government moved to evacuate an area within 20 km of the plant, then urged residents within 30 km to leave too. Concern grew, here and abroad, that neither the government nor Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the plant’s operator, could be trusted about the extent of the challenges.

Hence the skepticism around claims the Daiichi is now in stable, “cold shutdown.” In Sendai, 60 km away, where life goes on much as it did before, the residents have time to reflect upon their radioactive neighbour. Frequent aftershocks keep many wondering what awful alchemy the next jolt will bring at the plant. Then there’s the question of the food: radioactive cesium, a likely cancer agent, has turned up in Japanese beef, baby formula and rice. Some area farmers hawk their crops at markets, their displays festooned with exhortations to ganbaro and support local goods. (The verb “ganbaru” has no English equivalent—it means roughly: fight or persevere.) Much of this food does not sell, and other stores now specialize in faraway produce. “If it’s not from at least 500 km away, we won’t buy it,” says Terry Greenberg, a retired Canadian diplomat who lives part-time in Sendai, his wife’s hometown. “You know the 100-mile diet? We’re on a 10,000-mile diet.”

The real problem, though, is south of here, nearer to the Daiichi plant. Last April, when the television news said authorities might move to evacuate the village of Iitate, 35 km from the plant, due to radiation, Mieko Okubo’s father-in-law Humio asked her if it was really true they would have to leave. Humio was 102 years old and was Iitate’s eldest resident. For his 99th birthday party, it seemed as though the whole village had turned out to celebrate. He had been born in this house, raised his family here and had, not far away, farmed the fields he’d inherited from his family. Now, though advanced in age, he still enjoyed the sake brewed in nearby Nihonmatsu and visiting with friends.

“Do we really have to go?” he asked again. “If they say so, I guess we do,” said Mieko, who is 54 and whose husband, Kazuo, was undergoing cancer treatment in nearby Minamisoma. “I think I lived too long,” Humio told her then. “If I’d died much earlier, like my wife, I wouldn’t have to see this.” At 5 a.m. the next day, Mieko awoke just as she always did and made breakfast for her father and for herself. It was when the soap opera she watched each morning came to an end that she realized she hadn’t seen him. She saw Humio sitting up on the tatami in his room, in the alcove near the chest his wife had brought long ago as part of her dowry. “What are you doing sitting here?” she asked, but when she touched him she knew that he was dead. He had hung himself by the drawstring of the pouch he used to store his medicines. It was April 12, 2011.

Police came and noted he had folded his futon and donned the clothes he wore each day. “He didn’t want to die in a strange place,” says Mieko, who now lives in temporary housing in Minamisoma, one of 260,840 across the Tohoku region who continue to do so 12 months after the earthquake. When newspapers reported Humio’s death, they said he hung himself after his family abandoned him. Those reports were wrong, and Mieko is angry above all because she believes they obscured an important truth about Humio’s suicide: it was a protest. This is what it looks like when towns die.

Straddling the no-go zone, the town of Namie’s radiation levels are amongst the highest in Fukushima, with some neighbourhoods exceeding even places inside the 20-km no-go zone surrounding the Daiichi plant. Stop the car in the middle of the road, leave the doors open; no traffic is hampered. The public clocks still turn over, the only hint of human routine. The rest is post-apocalyptic stillness. On the high street, amid the barber polls that do not spin and the extinguished vending machines, the sounds of rustling grass and birdsong have taken over, replacing the public announcements that regulate small-town Japanese life. Roadkill is left out on the asphalt: the crows, big as terriers, will deal with it.

Not far from the police barricade blocking passage further east, in Namie’s Tsushima district, an elementary school presides over a generously apportioned recreation yard. There, stacked in strange pyramids, as inert and impassive as death, hundreds of massive black sandbags sit, swollen with radioactive leaves and topsoil scraped from the regions around the plant. Finding a home for such stuff, part of local decontamination efforts, is no easy task.

Radiation levels at a nearby junior high have measured 11 microsieverts per hour, a terrifying reading. A sievert is the unit of measurement used in Japan for the effect of radiation on the human body. The general public is cautioned not to exceed a yearly dose of 1,000 microsieverts, a limit one could reach standing outside Tsushima junior high in a mere 90 hours. According to a survey released by the Fukushima government last month, 58 per cent of the prefecture’s two million people likely received such exposures in the first four months of the Daiichi crisis.

Down the road from here, posted in the window of a home overlooking a rock garden peopled with Buddhist statuary, a series of open letters to TEPCO is written with exquisite penmanship: “I am accepting applications from people interested in experiencing a radioactive tour,” one reads. “First 100 people gratis.” A tendency to black humour and skepticism may be a by-product of meltdown. Kawauchi, about a third of which lies in the exclusion zone, remains largely empty despite Mayor Yuko Endo’s controversial announcement that he will reopen schools, offices and public facilities in April. The mayor made the move ahead of a reclassification of the no-go area the government is expected to unveil in April, which will likely relax restrictions in place since last year covering the 20-km exclusion zone and a constellation of nearby villages. It was in national forests near Kawauchi that scientists last fall found earthworms with worryingly high levels of radioactive cesium—some 40 times higher than the new government-prescribed safe limit for food. Worms are food for many animals, and the concern is that radioactive material will accumulate up the food chain.

Kimiko Watanabe, a 68-year-old hairdresser who is holed up in temporary housing in Koriyama, likely won’t take Mayor Endo up on his offer. She has run her shop for 44 years and is here today to cut the hair of a good customer, a 79-year-old woman who doesn’t give her name but whose eye tooth is solid gold; she must go to the hospital for surgery soon, and one must look nice for the doctor. Bowlegged, stooped, Watanabe’s customer is one of those elderly stalwarts who never fled.

For her part, Watanabe comes home every week or so, and tracks the radiation with the same concern and attention she once reserved for the weather. Today it is 0.17 microsieverts per hour—relatively low, but still. The mayor could well be returning to Kawauchi alone. “At first we were forced to evacuate,” says Watanabe. Now there is no supermarket here, no people, no cars, no lights and at night it is dark. Meanwhile, all the young people are gone. “It’s scary,” says Watanabe’s customer, her hair rolled into tight curls. Do the police patrol? You won’t see them after dark, they say. As for food, someone comes from Iwaki or Koriyama maybe three times a week hawking vegetables. Watanabe shakes her head and attends to the kettle on the samovar, which has begun to whistle: “Some bigwig is here today—Minister Somebody—giving a speech,” she says. “Probably what he’s saying is just what he says on television. I wonder if he’d still come if we were closer to the plant.” She makes no effort to hide her disdain.

(As it turns out, the man in question is Goshi Hosono, who, as environment minister, is in charge of the nuclear crisis; he is here encouraging Kawauchi residents to listen to the mayor and return.)

People won’t heed Mayor Endo. “The nuclear problem is still unstable, and people here want to keep their temporary housing units so they have a place to escape,” says Watanabe (perhaps as many as 62,610 from the area remain in these units). “People also worry that if they come back they won’t get compensation payments any longer.” Watanabe is suspicious of Maclean’s until she learns the reporter is Canadian. She received an emergency kit that included a wonderful blanket during evacuation from a Canadian NGO. “I want to say thank you to Canadians!” she says. She does not permit the reporter to leave without a sembe rice snack.

Fukushima prefectural police began enforcing the no-entry ban 20 km around the Daiichi plant in late April, on the orders of the central government. Officers set up barricades on roads leading in and largely left security measures at that. Why do more? Authorities had permitted evacuees brief trips home in the days leading up to the ban, and few wanted more exposure to the area than that. Not the Japanese press, which has a reputation for timidity. Even during the first months of the crisis, when entering the no-go zone remained legal, the country’s top editors took the position their journalists should keep out, nor would they pay for material gathered there by freelancers. Japanese magazines, meanwhile, as well as members of the foreign press, did cross into the forbidden territories, capturing moments of eerie beauty.

Getting inside has grown increasingly difficult since, as authorities seal entry points to prevent robbery: all over the deserted landscape, bank windows are shattered, ATMs smashed, the pharmacies robbed of drugs. Police now fastidiously guard the barricades—they scurry furiously when journalists approach—and patrol the areas both inside and out, delivering reinforcements in paddy wagons as slow and lumbering as huge blue bumblebees.

But nothing has prevented the most dedicated of animal-rescue activists from penetrating the exclusion zone. These groups use what they call “guerilla” tactics to save pets and livestock left to die of starvation—an ends-justify-the-means philosophy that’s unusual in law-abiding Japan. Provoking un-Japanese behaviour within Japan has been another consequence of 3/11.

One group of 10 to 15 rescuers, called the Hoshi Family after Hiroshi, 56, and Leo Hoshi, 33, the Tokyo-based father-and-son duo that leads it, has applied impressive commitment to the problem of spiriting stranded animals to safety. They are unfussy: dogs, cats, cattle, even a dozen ostriches trapped on a farm three kilometres from the plant (when 10 ostriches fled a nearby ranch, search parties tracked down the birds, known for their vicious kicks). For a time they entered only at night, on forested mountain roads, wearing night-vision goggles and white suits to ward off radiation. When confronted with police barricades too heavy to lift, they scattered countless small metal rods on the roads, jerked the barriers up with long, spoon-like levers, and rolled them clear, as though over ball bearings.

Early last fall, police moved aggressively to prevent even these ingenious methods, patrolling 24 hours and beefing up their numbers. Activists turned to enlisting evacuees and posing as their relatives during authorized visits home.

One ally is Junko, a woman in her 50s who desperately misses the 23 cats she left behind in her town near the plant. (For obvious reasons, she has asked Maclean’s not to publish her real name.) Junko returns home once a month, sometimes more, leaving pet food and retrieving articles of clothing. Once, Junko salvaged a collection of stuffed animals, carefully laundering them.

Some days ago, radiation levels in Junko’s town measured 15 microsieverts per hour, an extraordinarily high reading, equivalent to one chest X-ray every three hours. Junko, a former nurse, must wear a white radiation suit, lending a certain aesthetic drama to the trips. “The government is so strict—they’re baka,” she says, using an unkind Japanese word. “I just wear that because they told me to. I’m not worried about the radiation.”

Until recently, she says, evacuees who found even their own pets were not permitted to leave with them, and police look askance at the loads of pet food she drives inside. Junko found four of her cats mummified in her home; the rest are missing. “I want people outside Japan to know what’s happening,” she says. Accordingly, she has helped both activists and journalists enter the no-go zone. Police have caught her more than once. “They always make me write a letter of apology,” she says, a punitive measure so standard that police stations often keep samples on file as models.

Inside, Junko’s wooden home, with its tatami mats, sliding doors and paper windows, is like a dream of old Japan. The tombs of her parents, an important part of Japanese spiritual life, remain inside too, forbidden. Since June she has lived with her husband in Koriyama, two hours from her hometown, in one of the 40,000 cramped, prefabricated temporary housing units the government has built in Fukushima. Like many refugees living here, Junko doesn’t speak to her neighbours—they are from everywhere and she doesn’t know them. Most of her furniture came via donation. Not much is left of her old life. Refugees moved into the units expecting to live in them two years; now they’re girding for more. “I believe I’ll go home,” says Junko, “but many of my neighbours think we won’t.”

Junko lived near the Daiichi plant for much of her life. “I never thought about it,” she says. “I just assumed it was safe.” When the quake struck she was bathing in a hot spring in the town of Okuma, where the plant is partially located. When she returned home authorities ordered the townsfolk to evacuate to a local school, where hundreds spent the night. The next day, Junko saw a wave of panic sweep the gym but received no explanation for what had happened. “There was no electricity, no TV, no phone, no way of knowing,” she says. “Then I remembered I forgot to feed my cats.” She rushed home and put the food out. Then firefighters arrived telling her to leave the area immediately. They did not say why. Junko set out by car for a relative’s home in Koriyama. They switched on the television. “That was when I heard about the hydrogen explosion,” she says. It had taken place during her evacuation at the middle school just a few kilometres from the plant. Late last year, town hall officials sent Junko a letter suggesting she look into her radiation levels. She has yet to do so.

If it weren’t so frightening it would be funny. Nobuo Matsumoto, a 60-year-old farmer in deserted Katsurao village, just outside the exclusion zone, is discussing how much of the mountain behind his farmhouse authorities say they’re committed to decontaminating: 20 m. He wants the whole mountain—we’d call it a foothill in Canada—scrubbed. How do you clean a mountain? “What I heard is, those men in white suits come and collect the fallen leaves,” he says. (Other reports suggest the cleanup, which is to cost tens of billions of dollars, may require clear-cutting and other drastic measures; still more reports suggest nothing will help.) “We don’t even know exactly how they’re decontaminating these villages,” adds Matsumoto. “They’re just testing. But unless they clean the whole mountain, it won’t be safe.”

Matsumoto is sitting alongside three colleagues in a little hut hastily erected at a Katsurao junction, one of many outposts manned by farmers who can no longer live in their villages or put their fields to use due to contamination. The prefectural government pays them, in part out of concern robbers will plunder the empty dwellings: signs outside the village feature cartoon robbers with five-o’clock shadows shouldering bags of loot, and warn thieves of round-the-clock police and civilian patrols. The next outpost, in Miharu, is 25 km away.

Inside their prefab booth the farmers, who have arrived here this morning from temporary housing in Koriyama and elsewhere, murmur licence plate numbers to each other and record the comings and goings in logbooks. The work isn’t that hard: after the snows of January the average number of vehicles they saw each day dropped from 150 to almost half that. Officially, all the villagers have “new addresses,” a government euphemism for nuclear exile. Unofficially, four or five homes remain occupied, largely by elderly people with pets; one couple who ran a breeding business before the crisis feel they cannot leave their animals.

Snack food is scattered on the side tables—Japanese crackers, rice cakes, vending-machine coffee. When a tofu salesman from the next village turns up, three of the monitors rush out to buy some. Outside, cats huddle near dishes of food. Does Matsumoto worry about the radiation? Levels here range between 0.8 and 1.7 microsieverts per hour; constant exposure at the upper end of that range would put him at his yearly limit for radiation in eight months or so. “If I worried I wouldn’t be here,” he says.

Before 3/11 Matsumoto cultivated rice, cucumber, broccoli. After the Daiichi meltdown, he says, “We were told not to farm, even though we wanted to.” Government officials told farmers they likely won’t be able to put their fields to use for 20 or 30 years, he says. Miyuki Shoji, a 52-year-old woman peering over a logbook through the window, raises her voice: “We’re not allowed here! Of course we can’t cultivate!”

The debate over what’s preventing them from growing crops—contamination or their refugee status—is academic. The fields are fallow. “There’s been no explanation—there isn’t even a plan,” says Matsumoto. Central government officials told Katsurao residents they will decontaminate the village this year and next, he adds. In the meantime he’s willing to suspend judgment. “I’ll wait to see what happens these two years,” he says. Like his fellow monitors, Matsumoto wears a blue baseball cap identifying him as a member of this civilian security detail, and a fluorescent vest over a pale blue uniform. His broad face is the picture of openness. He lights a cigarette, flicking the ash into a coffee can.

Told that similarly vague statements by the government would prompt Canadians to protest, he smiles: “People in this village are really calm. The Japanese are very calm.”

His colleagues are less so. “But where do we direct our anger?” asks Shoji. Residents here are taking their concerns to the village hall, but the village hall does little, she complains. The mayor of neighbouring Iitate is getting more done, she adds (an opinion not shared by the residents of Iitate). “The village hall says, ‘Please wait two years, you may be able to come back in two years,’ ” Shoji says. “Is that really going to happen? Can I really come back?” Shoji has a 16-year-old son and a 12-month-old granddaughter and does not want them growing up in a radiation zone. “Even if the government said come back, come back, perhaps the older people would return—to die in their own home,” Shoji says. “But the young will never come back. Never.”

She bows her head; it is nearly impossible to tell that she has lost control of her emotions. “In 10 years maybe the youngest person in Katsurao will be 60 years old,” Matsumoto, continuing for her, says. “In 20 years, 70.” “Maybe in 40 years,” Shoji adds, “this village won’t work anymore.” It is a classically Japanese way of saying Katsurao will cease to exist. “It was so beautiful here before,” says Shoji. Matsumoto smiles sardonically. “Maybe we’re not even supposed to be here anymore—and nobody’s told us.”

Keigo Sakamoto, 56, has named two puppies born here since March 11 Atom and Uranium, a sly joke. Sakamoto is one of a handful of holdouts who continue to defy authorities by remaining, a year into meltdown, within the police barricades. His property, on the outskirts of the town of Naraha, sprawls across an official grey area on the lip of the 20-km exclusion zone. It is not an easy place to reach—or to leave.

When Sakamoto travels to a nearby town for provisions he must seek the permission of authorities to use a road that cuts through the exclusion zone. Unauthorized visitors must drive up a narrow mountain road, the snow piled high on each side, and stop at an abandoned farmhouse. From there they must continue on foot—clamber over police barricades, then hike for two hours over a snow-covered pass strewn with fallen trees and deserted but for deer and wild boar. Along the way, small mountain farms and fallow fields dot the scene. A clock set in driftwood still ticks 20 minutes slow and, nearby, in a pond with a skin of ice, koi swim beneath the translucent surface. Only the “Keep Out” signs disrupt the idyll.

On the far side of the mountain, past wood-fired kilns dug into the earth and an ancient country Buddhist temple, a trio of cows spies the interlopers and darts, in one fluid movement, into a grove of trees; happily, the bulls stirring and lowing as the strangers pass remain penned in their stalls, the rings in their noses. The road by the abandoned home, with its great roof of thatch, is smeared with dung. Beyond, along the empty road, absolute stillness.

Then, an amorphous cacophony of sound. Howling dogs, roosters crowing, goats rutting—it is all these things, and soon the voices grow distinct. The dogs, their noses pointed at the visitors, are tied to stakes, and their domains extend to the length of each rope. “There are perhaps 20 dogs here,” says Sakamoto. “I cannot count them.” Still, when he tells visitors he keeps 800 animals, you believe him. Guinea pigs, rabbits, geese, ducklings—they are everywhere one looks. He is alone, he says, but for the animals and for God.

The property is at the foot of a mountain across the valley, and his ramshackle home stands on cleared land that gently rises up to cherry trees that in early spring erupt into white blossoms. “For one week the petals fall like snow,” he says. But the land is littered with garbage and, higgledy-piggledy under blue tarps, mountainous heaps of dog food. In the coops scattered around the land and stacked upon his porch cluck many varieties of chickens—the Araucanas lay blue eggs. Sakamoto has not been able to sell these or any eggs, once his primary source of income, since the nuclear accident. Animal groups from around the world send him donations of dog food.

The earth here is a mixture of mud and animal waste. Sakamoto’s hands are dark with grime, but guests must not decline his offer of lunch—nabe, a one-pot dish of daikon, carrot and fish cake, cooked over an open fire. The wisps of white beard from his chin, his white moustache and the towel he has tied about his head lend him an elfin quality. Foxes live nearby, as do Japanese raccoon dogs—the tricksters of folklore here—and the dogs, all of them shiba inu-beagle mixes, are driven mad by their proximity.

It’s hard to believe this is so near to the heart of meltdown. Wasabi, a plant that grows only in the purest of water, dances vivid green in the creek of snow melt adjacent to his house. He does not drink the water here and sources all his food in Iwaki, to the south. As nonchalantly as a man checking which way the wind is blowing, Sakamoto raises his dosimeter, a small instrument measuring radiation: it is 0.93 microsieverts per hour. He checks again seconds later—it is 0.26.

Before the earthquake on March 11, Sakamoto noticed his animals grow strangely alert. There was no such warning the following day, when he first became aware there might be a problem at the nearby Daiichi plant. “I heard the announcement once,” he says. “The man started to make the announcement a second time but then he stopped mid-sentence. I heard people in the background. They were saying—‘Flee! Flee!’ I had no idea what was happening.”

Later, the police urged him to evacuate. “They said, ‘If you don’t leave, that’s the end,’ ” says Sakamoto in his idiosyncratic way. “But I didn’t know what the end meant. Japanese is an ambiguous language—the end could mean something deep, or it could mean something literal—really THE END.” Sakamoto chose to wait and see exactly what the police meant by the end. “Now I don’t believe the police,” he says. “It’s now 344 days after March 11,” he says. “I count every day I live after March 11 on this calendar. I write the temperature inside the house and my own temperature. I also measure the radiation next to my bed—sometimes twice a day. Sometimes I forget.” The radiation inside is typically half that outside.

Why does he stay? “It’s really simple,” he says. “If I leave here the animals die. If I leave it means there’s no meaning to why I was living here all these years.” Sakamoto is sitting on a milk crate by an open fire. He reaches behind him and pulls a dog’s skull from a special place. “This is Tanekichi,” he says. “He was a very excellent care dog.” He holds the skull in his black, grimy hands. It is his Yorick.

Sakamoto grew up in Kumamoto City, on the southern island of Kyushu, 80 km from where the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb in Nagasaki. He is proud that his ancestors were among those in Kyushu who persecuted Christian converts in the 17th century but that he himself is Christian. Indeed, there is a strong sense of the missionary about him, and Sakamoto found his vocation in social work. In the city of Kobe, west of Osaka, he rose to become director of the YMCA and managed a suicide hotline. Later, in Omiya, a commercial hub in Greater Tokyo, he worked with the disabled, making particular use of animal-assisted therapy. He moved to Naraha 11 years ago, after a program he established on his own for the disabled suddenly fell apart. He brought with him Tanekichi, one of that program’s care dogs. “I’d done everything I wanted to do,” Sakamoto says. “I’d been working to help people. Now I wanted to live with animals who needed my help. I wanted to move to the country before I got old.” He was 45. Two days after he moved into the ramshackle farmhouse here, a fire burnt it down; you can still see the char among the cherry trees where the old place stood.

Now at his front gate, he has erected his own barricade. “Do not enter here without alerting me due to the presence of animals that may prove dangerous,” reads the sign he’s posted there. “This property is outside the 20-km excluson zone.”

He is disdainful of the police. “They have a notion I’m inside the exclusion zone,” he says. “Town hall says it isn’t.” He opens an official map indicating that his property hugs the border of the no-go zone. He doesn’t expect the police to know any better. “They are from everywhere—Osaka, Ibaraki, Yamagata,” he says. “Sometimes they ask me—‘Hey, where’s our barricade?’ They make a barricade, I make a barricade.”

On the map the southern Fukushima city of Iwaki looks far removed from the fallout area 45 km north of here. Yet there are razed neighbourhoods here, and subtler signs, too, something nearby is amiss: Iwaki hosts many of the workers cleaning the Daiichi plant, billeted at ryokans and hotels. Many are older men, and each day they travel north to Naraha’s J-Village, a sports facility inside the no-go zone used as a staging ground for the workers heading in and out of the plant. When night falls, Iwaki, a hot-spring town, is a carnival of men, the workers unwinding over drinks at izakayas or sitting at free outdoor hot springs, their shoes off, their hands and feet soaking in the warm, sulfurous water.

Those hot, subterranean springs account for another Iwaki idiosyncrasy, of older vintage. Bypass the rice fields and follow the incongruous palm trees to that monstrous complex, a bit faded by the Japanese sun in summer, called Spa Resort Hawaiians—an indoor tropical wonderland that for 45 years has given Tohoku a magical door into Honolulu. At night, in the resort’s most popular attraction, local women dance the hula here.

Entering the complex from the cold of February is to step into the steamy humidity of the Pacific south. Under the resort’s vast arch the atmosphere is thick, festooned by red orchids and green; here and there, sentinel-like and wary, wooden totems stand, solemn as on Easter Island. Ryuichi Sagi, 50, manager of the resort’s pool complex, emerges from this soup in a black suit with generous flaps over the pockets. Intense, his hair combed slickly down over close-cropped sides, he has been with Hawaiians for 27 years. But why Hawaii? Sagi reaches for an unexpected prologue: “My company, Joban Kosan Co., Ltd.,” he says, “was originally a coal company.”

Indeed, during WWII the Joban Mine here grew to become Japan’s largest mine of any kind. In those days the region’s hot springs, with temperatures hovering around 60° C, proved a headache for miners. But as Japan turned increasingly to oil imports for its energy needs, Joban Kosan’s future as a monolithic coal concern grew uncertain. Yutaka Nakamura, then vice-president of Joban Coal Mine Co., noted at the time that Hawaii had become Japan’s No. 1 tourism destination, and set about transforming the nuisance hot springs under his obsolescent coal bed into a park with a Hawaiian theme. Joban Hawaiian Center, as it was then called, opened in 1966. “We didn’t have to cut any employees,” says Sagi. “Those workers who once dug for coal became waiters or musicians in the band. Their children became hula dancers. Of course, they hesitated at first, because they had to show a lot of skin.”

The gamble worked. Three years ago Spa Resort Hawaiians announced it had welcomed 50 million visitors since 1966, an economic boon to the region—contributing ¥1.7 trillion, over $21 billion, to the area in its first 40 years. The story of the resort and its success later inspired a 2006 film, Hula Girls.

When last year’s earthquake caused windows and lights to crash to the floor here, 600 guests camped out for two days, dining on buffets set out by staff. Hawaiians later closed—not due to the earthquake, there had been no structural damage, but because of the PR challenges associated with the nuclear disaster 60 km north. Then powerful aftershocks in April left cracks in the pools and twisted metal support beams in the dome-shaped ceiling, stalling its plans to reopen. Meanwhile, 28 hula dancers with the resort, 80 per cent of whom are Fukushima-born, mounted a national tour of evacuation centres and other venues, stopping even in Korea to rotate their hips. The performances no doubt cheered up victims, but they were as much to promote Fukushima to a country still seized by panic over the Daiichi threat. “People now associate Fukushima with people exposed to radiation,” dancer Ayumi Sudo told a reporter last April in Tokyo, where the troupe swayed in the service of farm produce from Iwaki. “We have felt like dancing naked to show that we are not contaminated.”

Hawaiians reopened on Feb. 8, an event touted by the Japanese press as a glimmer of hope for the whole region. Even still, the number of visitors at Hawaiians is down 20 per cent from this time last year. Sagi uses an old Japanese expression to describe the problem—“the rumour that caused a disaster,” a phrase the Tokyo media embraced in the aftermath of the tsunami to describe foreign perceptions of Japan. “I think anxiety over the Fukushima Daiichi plant is the main reason,” Sagi says of the slip in numbers. “We’ll bring them back within three years.”

This evening, the Hawaiians resort is packed for the nightly hula show. Families gather in matching Hawaiian-patterned cotton spa gear and snack on Japanese food dressed up as Hawaiian grub (the loco moco tastes suspiciously like Japanese hamburger, with a hint of sake). Then, to the strains of Hawaiian music, the dancers shuffle on stage; they yawp triumphantly at each other, and well-built men in loin cloths juggle flaming torches. The hula girls sway expertly, their studied, high-precision gyrations deployed against a background of joyous Japanese lyrics. They have danced all year and remain unbowed.

With files from Noriko Hayashi