TOMIOKA, Japan » Vines creep across Tomioka’s empty streets, its prim gardens overgrown with waist-high weeds and meadow flowers. Dead cows rot where they were left to starve in their pens. Chicken coops writhe with maggots, a sickening stench hanging in the air.
This once-thriving community of 16,000 people now has a population of one.
In this nuclear no-man’s land poisoned by radiation from a disaster-battered power plant, rice farmer Naoto Matsumura refuses to leave despite government orders. He says he has thought about the possibility of getting cancer but prefers to stay — with a skinny dog named Aki his constant companion.
Nearly six months after Japan’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, the 53-year-old believes he is the only inhabitant left in this town sandwiched between the doomed Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station to the north and another sprawling nuclear plant to the south.
"If I give up and leave, it’s all over," he told The Associated Press. "It’s my responsibility to stay. And it is my right to be here."
Matsumura is an anomaly in a country where defiance of the government is rare and social consensus counts above everything else. Yet, Matsumura’s quiet civil disobedience speaks loudly of the dilemma facing the more than 100,000 silent "nuclear refugees" who were displaced by the March 11 disaster.
Tokyo was quick to establish evacuation zones around the plant but has been slow to settle the refugees. A government order forbids them from going back to their homes in a half dozen towns around Fukushima Dai-ichi that were declared off-limits after the tsunami-stricken nuclear plant started spewing radioactivity.
"We are already being forgotten," said Matsumura, a leathery but clean-cut man with the sturdy build of a farmer. "The rest of the country has moved on. They don’t want to think about us."
Tomioka’s city hall has been moved to a safer city in Fukushima prefecture, where thousands of its residents live in makeshift shelters. Thousands more have scattered across the country.
The town itself is sealed behind police barriers, which hide the heart of the nuclear no-go zone, an area that is officially too dangerous for human habitation.
Officers are sent into Tomioka each day to search for burglars or violators of the keep-out order. By law, anyone caught inside the zone can be detained and fined.
But authorities mostly turn a blind eye to Matsumura, though he says he has been confronted by the police a few times. If there are other holdouts, they have escaped detection.
"Some people stayed behind, some stayed with me in my house," he said. "But the last one left a few weeks ago. He asked me to take care of his cats."
Tomioka official Tomio Midorikawa, who is in charge of the town’s living and environment division, said the last resident was persuaded to leave in early August — the same time Matsumura claims his neighbor left. He was not aware of Matsumura.
Without electricity or running water, Matsumura fires up a pair of old generators each night and draws his water from a local well. He eats mostly canned foods, or fish that he catches himself in a nearby river. He said that once or twice a month, he makes his way to a city outside the zone in his mini pickup truck to stock up on supplies and gas.
He has taken it upon himself to tend to the town’s abandoned cats and dogs, including the wolflike Aki.
"I’ve gone to Tokyo a couple of times to tell the politicians why I’m here," he said. "I tell them that it was an outrage how the cows were left to die, and how important it is for someone to tend to the family graves. They don’t seem to hear me. They just tell me I shouldn’t be here to begin with."
Matsumura said he did leave once, but the ensuing experience only strengthened his desire to return.
"I drove to a relative’s house thinking I would stay there," he said. "But she wouldn’t let me in the door, she was too afraid I was contaminated. Then I went to an evacuation center, but it was full. That was enough to convince me to come home."
The tsunami disaster left nearly 21,000 people dead or missing and touched off fires, explosions and meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The amount of radioactive cesium released into the environment since has been estimated to be equal to 168 Hiroshimas, making it the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl.
No one — including Matsumura — is suggesting the exclusion zone be lifted altogether. The connection between radiation and cancer or other health problems is well established, and experts agree it could be decades until the nuclear zone is safe. Some point to the example of Chernobyl, which 25 years later is still mostly void of human life.
"The contaminants will be there for decades, centuries, millennia," said Timothy Mousseau, a biologist with the University of South Carolina who has studied Chernobyl for more than a decade and recently returned from a preliminary research trip to Fukushima.
Even so, local authorities are increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress toward resolving the nuclear Diaspora.
Tamotsu Baba, the mayor of Namie, a partially evacuated town near Tomioka, said in an interview it was reasonable at first for Tokyo to establish a geometric ring extending outward from the center of the plant. But he believes data collected since should be used to fine-tune the exclusion area to reflect the actual amounts of contamination.
"We have invested millions in developing a system to measure radiation," he said. "But it is like the whole thing is being decided by someone behind a desk with a 500 yen ($5) compass."
Further fanning the anger among the displaced, compensation from the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that runs the plant, has stalled in a bureaucratic labyrinth.
Before the crisis began, the average annual income in Tomioka was about 3.5 million yen ($35,000).
Matsumura said he has received about 1 million yen ($10,000) in compensation, far less than he would have earned from selling his rice and other produce. TEPCO, reeling financially from the accident, has put off a final decision on further compensation until the plant is stabilized. The money already handed out will be subtracted from the amount it eventually settles on.
Officials say some restrictions may be lifted by the end of the year if the Fukushima reactors are brought to a stable shutdown.
Beyond that, the future remains a mystery.
"There are many tasks ahead before we will be able to return to our town, including decontamination and the rebuilding of our sewage system, roads and infrastructure," Tomioka Mayor Katsuya Endo said in a recent post on the town’s website. "But we must maintain our hope, and gradually move forward."
Matsumura now likens himself to the Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender until decades after the end of World War II.
As a heavy rain began to fall, he walked down an overgrown mountain path to his rice paddy. He pulled up a plant by its roots, twisted it between his fingers then tossed it into an irrigation ditch with a resigned sigh.
There will be no cash crop this year. Or maybe ever again.
"It was strange being alone at first, but I am resolved to stay," he said. "I’m getting used to this life."