Japan's Nuclear Refugees

After the disasters of March 11, tens of thousands were ordered to leave their homes in the vicinity of the damaged nuclear plant, their footprints now frozen in the mud. An exclusive look at the land they reluctantly left behind.

This story appears in the December 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking thing about the town of Namie is that at first glance nothing seems amiss. The blue-green meadows look lush. The gently flowing Takase and Ukedo Rivers glitter in the sun. The 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 Miyagi and Iwate, clocks washed ashore frozen at roughly 3:15 p.m., when the tsunami swallowed towns whole; in the humble fishing town of Namie the clocks go right on ticking.

Namie is one of five 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. They're among more than 70,000 "nuclear refugees" displaced by the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

The de facto demise of Namie began in the chaotic hours after the quake struck on March 11.

Namie is shaped like a bow tie, radiating northwest from Fukushima Daiichi. Guided by news of the unfolding nuclear accident on TV and by local officials, 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 fled smack into the plume of air carrying radioactive debris. They crammed into shelters with little food until the 15th, after another explosion sent them fleeing farther west to the city of Nihonmatsu.

"The forgotten town" was how the July issue of the popular magazine Bungei Shunjudescribed Namie, which never received official orders to evacuate, even as hydrogen explosions at units 1 and 3 spewed toxic particles across the Fukushima 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 occasions to retrieve valuables and check on their homes. The trips are brief—roughly two to three hours—to minimize radiation exposure. Some families plan these forays with military precision, 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 behind their Buddhist memorial tablets. "There's no one else to protect our house," she says.

Namie's town hall has decamped to makeshift offices in Nihonmatsu. Its officials continue to issue birth certificates, keep track of the increasingly far-flung 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 soft rays of dusk cast a warm glow over the downtown landscape, a cool ocean breeze ruffles our suffocating Tyvek suits. For just a moment it is possible to forget that the Geiger counter 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?"