IITATE, Japan — For four years, an eerie quiet has pervaded the clusters of farmhouses and terraced rice paddies of this mountainous village, emptied of people after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, 25 miles away, spewed radiation over a wide swath of northeastern Japan.
Now, Iitate’s valleys are filled again with the bustle of human activity, as heavy machinery and troops of workers wearing face masks scoop up contaminated soil into black garbage bags.
They are part of a more than $10 billion effort by the central government in Tokyo to clean up fallout from the 2011 accident and allow many of the 80,000 displaced residents of Iitate (pronounced EE-tah-tay) and 10 other evacuated communities around the plant to go home.
Last month, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seemed to take a big step toward that goal by adopting a plan that would permit two-thirds of evacuees to return by March 2017, the sixth anniversary of the disaster.
But while some evacuees have cheered this chance to return, many more have rejected it. Thousands from Iitate and elsewhere have joined lawsuits or organized groups to oppose the plan by the government, which they say is trying to force residents to go back despite radiation levels that are still far above normal.
They accuse Tokyo of repeating a pattern from the early days of the disaster of putting residents at risk by trying to understate the danger from the accident. They say the central government is trying to achieve its own narrow political interests, such as restarting the nation’s powerful nuclear industry, or assuring the world that Tokyo is safe enough to host the Summer Olympics in 2020.
“If the national officials think it is so safe, then they should come and live here,” said Kenichi Hasegawa, a former dairy farmer in Iitate who has organized more than 3,000 fellow evacuees — almost half the village’s pre-disaster population — to oppose the return plan. “The government just wants to proclaim that the nuclear accident is over, and shift attention to the Olympics.”
This grass-roots rebellion of sorts underscores a deep disconnect between victims in Fukushima and the government in Tokyo, a schism that has plagued Japan’s response to one of history’s worst nuclear disasters.
While the government has undertaken a vast and costly cleanup to undo the effects of the accident and allow residents to return, many evacuees reject this course, complaining it was chosen without consulting them.
In fact, polls show a majority do not even want to go back. In a telling move in a country where litigation is relatively rare, more than 10,000 have joined some 20 class-action lawsuits to demand more compensation so they can afford to choose for themselves whether to return, or to build new lives elsewhere.
This has become an increasingly pressing issue for the tens of thousands of evacuees whose lives remain on hold, living in temporary housing and making ends meet with monthly stipends of about $800 per adult from the nuclear plant’s operator.
They have endured this situation since being evacuated from their homes after a huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 knocked out vital cooling systems at three of the Fukushima plant’s nuclear reactors, causing multiple meltdowns that spewed radioactive fallout over the surrounding farming villages and coastal towns.
Within months of the accident, Tokyo was already drawing up plans to clean up an entire countryside polluted by invisible contaminants, something even the central planners of the former Soviet Union could not accomplish around Chernobyl, after the disaster there in 1986.
The Abe government’s new timetable, adopted on June 12, calls for accelerating the pace of this cleanup with a “concentrated decontamination effort” over the next two years.
It also sets for the first time a clear target date for lifting the evacuation orders on most areas around the plant: about 70 percent of the current evacuation zone — the less-contaminated areas color-coded green and yellow on official maps — would be reopened to human habitation by March 2017. (The most contaminated red-colored areas will remain closed indefinitely.)
However, the plan has been met with skepticism, and resistance.
A survey last month by the pronuclear newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun showed that eight of the mayors of the 11 evacuated towns dislike the 2017 return date, though some said they had no choice but to accept it. Other mayors, such as Tamotsu Baba of the town of Namie, have offered alternative proposals that push back the return date, and offer more financial support to those who do not want to return.
One of the biggest complaints about the new return plan is that it is intended to force evacuees to return by cutting off compensation payments. A provision in the new plan calls for ending monthly payments by March 2018 in favor of subsidies to help them return. Many evacuees say cutting off the monthly payments would compel them to return, since many, particularly those over 50 or so, have failed to find new livelihoods since the disaster.
“This is all being done coercively, without listening to the desires of the victims,” said Izutaro Managi, a lawyer who is handling one of the lawsuits, filed on behalf of more than 4,000 people, mostly residents of Fukushima, seeking more compensation.
Central government officials and the local leaders who support the new return plan say those fears are misplaced. They say the plan gives residents the right to freely decide for themselves whether to go back, and will offer unspecified financial support to those who choose not to. They say the goal is to help the region around the plant recover as quickly as possible by allowing evacuees to end dependence on government handouts and regain economic autonomy.
Despite the disagreements, the decontamination effort is now in full swing in the green and yellow evacuation zones.
In Iitate, a small farming community once proclaimed one of the most beautiful villages in Japan before the accident, the narrow valleys are filled with workers scraping off the top two inches of soil, which is then put into black bags that are stacked into man-made hills.
Across the entire evacuation zone, workers have already filled 2.9 million bags, which will be stored for at least the next 30 years at toxic waste sites that the government is building inside the zone.
Even with the massive cleanup, only about one-fifth of the 6,200 displaced residents of Iitate are willing to return, according to a recent head count by village officials.
Most of the families with young children, who are at most risk from the radiation, have already restarted lives elsewhere, and express no intention of going back. But even many older evacuees, who say they do not fear the radiation as much, call it too early to return without the prospect of being able to restart their rice or dairy farms in the contaminated soil.
One of the village’s most vocal opponents of the return plan is Mr. Hasegawa, 62, whose distrust of the central government remains so deep that he visits his former dairy farm once a month to conduct his own measurements of radiation levels using a Geiger counter.
He says his results are consistently higher than those from government monitoring posts, and are not falling anywhere near quickly enough, despite the decontamination efforts, to allow him to restart his dairy farm within two years.
At several points near Mr. Hasegawa’s empty home and barns, government inspectors have tied pink ribbons around hot spots where radioactivity remains particularly high. Inside one of the barns, a white board hangs with the names of his herd of 50 cows before the accident. About two-thirds of the names have red circles around them, meaning those cows were sold off after the accident. However, the other third have been crossed off in red ink, meaning those cows were killed on government orders after abandoned cows at other farms started starving to death.
Nearby stood a small wooden tablet with a handwritten Buddhist prayer for the dead animals.
“Sending us back is just another ploy by officials to avoid taking responsibility for what happened,” said Mr. Hasegawa, who now lives with his aging parents in a cramped, prefabricated apartment an hour from the evacuation zone.
Mr. Hasegawa’s opposition has had a personal cost, ending his lifelong friendship with the mayor of Iitate, Norio Kanno, one of the return plan’s most fervent supporters.
Mr. Kanno is the leading voice of the minority of villagers who feel the fears of radiation are overblown, and who want to return to their ancestral homes as soon as possible. While Mr. Kanno admits that farmers will probably not be allowed to grow food in Iitate for many years to come, he said the village was drawing up plans to help them switch to flowers and other crops not for human consumption.
He said he wanted to lead about 1,000 of the villagers most determined to go back. Once they show that the radiation levels are not so harmful, he said, other residents will follow.
He said a quick return was the only way to save the village, more and more of whose residents either die or move away with each year that passes.
“Our village’s fight is against the threat of radiation, and everyone reacts differently to that,” said Mr. Kanno, 68, also a former dairy farmer. “Let’s let people decide for themselves whether to go back. This is the way to make Japan a model for how to recover from a nuclear accident.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of a dairy farmer who opposes efforts to repopulate areas near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. He is Kenichi Hasegawa, not Kenji. The error was repeated in a picture caption.