20110608 Residents leave Japan‘s “most beautiful” village amid crisis

Iitate, Japan (dpa) – Miyuki Ichisawa and her husband, Shukoh,
decided to take a big chance 20 years ago, by opening a stylish cafe
in this sleepy mountainous village in Fukushima, north-eastern Japan.

   “We opened the cafe on this land because we wanted more people to
visit the village,” Miyuki said.

   Despite the fierce objections of family members and friends,
Shukoh, a sixth-generation farmer, quit his civil service job and
decided to start cafe Agri, whose name is derived from the word

   Agri soon started to draw customers. The couple travelled to
Germany and Austria on several occasions to study cakes and other
aspects of running a cafe. Shukoh also visited Africa and South
America to search for quality coffee beans. The cafe has become one
of the most popular in the region.

   Iitate village, with a population of 6,150, is one of the poorest
municipalities in the region, but its residents like the Ichisawas
are proud of its beauty and peaceful setting.

   The village decided in 2010 to join Japan‘s “most beautiful
villages” union, a non-profit organization that started in 2005 with
seven villages. The group aims to preserve the natural environment
and sustain forgotten, struggling villages.

   The Ichisawas‘ business came to a screeching halt on March 11,
just after Shukoh planted 1,000 blueberry bushes around the cafe. A
magnitude-9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami struck the region,
triggering the nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi power
plant, about 32 kilometres south-east of the village.

   The quake did not cause much damage to Iitate. But while the
village was located outside the original no-go zone around the
Fukushima plant, the cafe and other shops were forced to close
temporarily as radiation fears prompted some people to leave the
village and stopped many from even going out. Reports of
radioactivity increasing and decreasing were all over the news.

   “I got so depressed, kept crying for days and didn‘t know where to
vent my anger,” Miyuki said.

   After radiation alerts subsided, they were able to resume business
in late March, but a month later, the government told villagers to
leave the area due to continued high levels of radiation and the
exclusion zone was expanded.

   Iitate Mayor Norio Kanno travelled to Tokyo just before that
announcement to discuss the crisis with Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Kanno told the premier that the evacuation of the entire village
would create an enormous problem and requested assistance for
villagers, since most of them would lose their jobs and livestock,
and be unable to make a living, village officials said.

   Kanno said the village has borne the brunt of the nuclear fallout
at the plant, which was constructed in such a rural region to serve
the greater Tokyo area.

   The mayor, who was once a dairy farmer, also criticized the
government for promoting nuclear energy when the plant was built,
without properly warning about the downsides of the facility and for
failing to put more effort into the development of alternative energy

   Political leaders have said they would compensate villagers, but
locals said they don‘t trust the government, which had repeatedly
stressed the safety of the plant.

   Kanno said residents love their land and are proud of their slow
lifestyle and pastoral environment. He was also disappointed the
crisis forced them to leave the village.

   “It has become known as a contaminated village,” the mayor said,
shaking his head.

   Miyuki Ichisawa said that while she still feels sad, she is more
confident about relocating her cafe. At least, the decision has been
made, she said.

   “Wherever we go, we will manage. But we still hope to come back
some day,” she said.

   Nearly 80 per cent of the residents had evacuated the village as
of the end of May. The Ichisawas have moved to Fukushima city and
plan to open a branch of the Agri cafe there on July 1.