Fear and gas shortages isolate Japanese farming towns outside evacuation zone

Just because we're close to Fukushima Daiichi doesn't mean we get more radiation, insists one local mayor. Still, Japan has banned the sale of milk and spinach from farms near the power plant.

Erico Waga/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Yukei Tomitsuka, mayor of Funahiki, Japan, is worried about his town's current situation and what the future may bring.

Bedraggled under the steady rain, the string of shops and homes that make up the main street of this nondescript small town is deserted save for the occasional car swishing by. The shutters are down on all the storefronts, and piles of uncollected garbage sit by the roadside.

Funahiki is 25 miles from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, 12 miles outside the Japanese government-decreed evacuation zone. But like scores of other towns and villages too close for comfort to the reactors, it has been effectively cut off from the rest of the country by a lack of gasoline and simple fear. Furthermore, in the wake of news of contaminated food, farming communities like this one in Fukushima prefecture, where a quarter of the workforce depends on agriculture, are deeply concerned about the region's future.

“Delivery drivers won’t come here, the post office is closed because the staff who live outside town are scared to come to work, even a lot of the doctors and nurses have left,” complains the mayor, Yukei Tomitsuka. “We are the victims of prejudice.”

Among the lowest radiation levels

He brandishes the latest report from the two electronic radiation detectors that have been set up in Tamura City, an extensive collection of small towns and farming villages for which Funahiki is the county seat. It shows that radiation levels here were among the lowest in Fukushima prefecture at noon on Monday.

“People think that because we are closer to Daiichi we get more radiation but it’s not true,” Mr. Tomitsuka insists.

Only about 10 percent of Tamura’s 41,000 residents have fled, according to the mayor, but few of those who remain are anywhere to be seen.

“We are all staying at home,” says Yutaka Watanabe, answering a reporter’s knock at his front door. “There is nowhere to go, not much to buy and hardly any gasoline. We are just sitting indoors and watching TV.”

The only activity in town is to be found at the single supermarket that remains open in Tamura, the Funahiki Park, where deputy manager Yoshiharu Matsuzake says business is up by 50 percent in recent days, thanks to the lack of competition.

He is filling his shelves as best he can, dispatching his employees to wholesalers’ warehouses in their own cars, fueled by gas they can find at the supermarket’s own gas station. “That’s the only way we can stay open,” Mr. Matsuzake explains.

Little gas, few deliveries

Matsuzake blames the lack of gasoline, still barely obtainable in this part of Japan nine days after the earthquake and tsunami that tore into the Northeastern coast of the country, for the lack of delivery trucks.

One shopper taking advantage of Matsuzake’s initiative, Masumi Sato, says she is staying put because she has to help her parents take care of their small cattle herd. But a lot of her neighbors have fled. “They were afraid of the nuclear threat,” she says.

The mayor, too, is worried that four reactors at the plant are still not under control: A plume of grey smoke rose from reactor No. 3 on Monday afternoon, underlining the continuing danger.

“Nobody tells me anything” about what is going on at the plant, or the real risks his townspeople are running by remaining in the area, Tomitsuka complains. “I call the Fukushima prefecture and each time somebody tells me something different.

“How can I get real information about the risk?” he asks rhetorically. “Whom can I trust? If the plant explodes it will be too late for us to do anything.”

Farming in Fukushima province

As a precaution, the mayor ordered 3,000 residents of Tamura living between 13 and 20 miles from Daiichi to evacuate last week, although the government is recommending only that people living in that area should stay indoors.

Many of those who left are farmers. “One million chickens and thousands of cattle and pigs will die in the next week if they are not fed,” Tomitsuka worries. “But it is a matter of human safety."

The threat to Tamura and many other farming communities in Fukushima prefecture, where 25 percent of the workforce depends wholly or partly on agriculture, was highlighted over the weekend when the government banned the sale of milk from Fukushima and spinach from neighboring Ibaraki prefecture. Tokyo widened the ban to other nearby prefectures on Monday.

Some milk has been found to contain 17 times the maximum allowable level of radioactive iodine, according to Yoshio Sawada, a senior official in the agriculture department of the Fukushima prefecture, and spinach 7 times the limit. The government says, however, that even consuming normal amounts of both products for a year would expose a person to only the equivalent of one X-ray examination.

That is unlikely to reassure consumers, says Mr. Sawada. “I don’t think that even a solution at the Daiichi plant would be enough to convince the Japanese,” he says. “We have experienced Hiroshima and Nagasaki and we know that nuclear problems linger for a long time.”

"My biggest fear,” he adds, “is that consumers will not buy vegetables from Fukushima even if radiation levels go down to normal because of fear of our bad reputation.”

If that happens, says Tomitsuka, “I cannot imagine what the economic impact would be on my town. It would be massive.”

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