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Japan after Fukushima: village of nuclear evacuees forced to start over - again

Some 20 miles northeast of Japan's devastated Fukushima nuclear power plant, the small village of Iitate was transformed from one of Fukushima prefecture's poorest to a quaint getaway in the mountains on the mend. Now, residents have been ordered to evacuate.

By Takehiko KambayashiCorrespondent / May 10, 2011

The village of Iitate, Japan, is outside an 8-mile radius of the crisis-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. But it, along with some other municipalities, has been added to the list of areas covered by the government's evacuation directive, due to concerns over high cumulative levels of radiation.

Kyodo News/Newscom

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Iitate, Japan

Miyuki Ichisawa and her husband, Shukoh, started a European-style cafe 20 years ago in this sleepy mountainous village in northeastern Japan. It was a bit of a gamble: Iitate was beautiful, but it was one of the area's poorest villages.

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“We opened the cafe on this land because we wanted more people to visit the village,” Mrs. Ichisawa recalls. Despite the fierce objections of family members and friends, Shukoh, a sixth-generation farmer, quit his civil-service job and decided to run “Agri” while trying to revive his family farm.

To his family's surprise, not only did the cafe draw many customers, but over time, the village began to shift from one of Fukushima Prefecture's poorest to a quaint getaway in the mountains. It was also a champion of the region's organic agriculture. The village's transformation was bolstered by its decision to join Japan's "most beautiful villages" union. Part of a push by Japan to position itself as a leader in the world's urgent quest to live greener, the organization was started in 2005 with seven villages and the goal of preserving the natural environment and sustaining forgotten, struggling villages.

But the Ichisawas' business came to a screeching halt in March – just after Mr. Ichisawa finished planting 1,000 blueberry bushes around their cafe. A magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the region on March 11, triggering the nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, about 20 miles southeast of the village.

While it seemed at first that the town would dodge an order to evacuate, it has now been told that its residents must leave. So the Ichisawas, like so many Japanese who have confronted profound uncertainty in the wake of the disaster, are confronting the demand to abandon carefully crafted lives and figure out how to build new ones.

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Mrs. Ichisawa recalls the stress of the days immediately following the double disaster. The earthquake did not cause much damage to the village. But the cafe and other shops were forced to temporarily close as radiation fears prompted some people to leave the village and stopped many from even going outdoors.

“I got so depressed and kept crying for days and did not know where to vent my anger,” she says. Rumors of radioactivity increasing and decreasing were all over the news.

Her hopes were raised when businesses were able to reopen in late March after radiation alerts subsided. But on April 21,Tokyo banned entry into the 20-kilometer exclusion zone from the plant, and the central government told villagers they had to evacuate. The government has already banned the shipment of some vegetables produced in Fukushima Prefecture and nearby regions.

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