Image: Naoto Matsumura
Hiro Komae  /  AP
In this Aug. 19 photo, Naoto Matsumura's dog Aki runs to meet him while he checks on his rice paddy in Tomioka town, Fukushima, northeastern Japan.
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updated 8/31/2011 3:02:31 PM ET 2011-08-31T19:02:31

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.

Story: Areas around Fukushima may remain off-limits for decades

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."

Story: Japan's prime minister Naoto Kan resigns amid public dismay

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.

We hardly knew you: Why Japan's PMs don't last long

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."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Japan: Tsunami clean-up

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  1. In a series of photos, parts of Japan hit by the earthquake and tsunami are shown shortly after the disaster, then after nearly three months of cleanup efforts. In this combo, in the first picture, taken March 11, 2011, tsunami waves surge over a residential area in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan. Then on June 3, 2011, power shovels are at work on reconstruction in the same area. On Saturday, June 11, 2011, Japan marks three months since the earthquake and tsunami. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. March 13, 2011: Destroyed houses and debris fill a parking lot of a shopping center in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture, northeastern Japan, two days after the disaster.
    June 3, 2011: Houses and debris are cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. March 14, 2011: Tsunami survivors walk with plastic containers and kettles to carry drinking water through a street blocked by a fallen tank and other debris in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan
    June 3, 2011: Only one damaged house, center, stands along the same street. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. April 6, 2011: A sightseeing boat sits on a building in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture, northeastern Japan.
    June 3, 2011: The same area with the boat gone. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. March 19, 2011: Vehicles park on the ground of a junior high school serving a refugee center in Rikuzentakata, Iwata prefecture, northeastern Japan.
    June 3, 2011: The same area with temporary houses set up for survivors. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. March 13, 2011: A group of firefighters head for a rescue operation in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan.
    June 6, 2011: A truck goes by the same road lined with electric poles. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. March 16, 2011: Buildings are surrounded by debris in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan.
    June 3, 2011: The debris is almost cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. March 12, 2011: A ship swept away by tsunami lies among other debris in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan.
    June 4, 2011: A man on a bicycle pedals past a pedestrian on the same road. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. March 18, 2011: Fire engines park among the debris as a search for missing people goes on in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture, northeastern Japan.
    June 6, 2011: The debris is almost cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. March 20, 2011: A damaged house stands in a flooded residential area in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The sun shines over the same area. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. March 12, 2011: A sea coast is filled with destroyed houses and debris at Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The same area with the houses and debris cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. March 13, 2011: A burned pickup truck lies among debris swept away by tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: Marguerites are in bloom along a cleared street corner in the same area. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. March 13, 2011: Debris is piled up by damaged buildings in Ofunato, Iwate prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: Several houses have been demolished. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. March 12, 2011: Two-car trains lie in ruin after being swept away by tsunami at Shinchi station, Fukushima Prefecture, with only its railway bridge section left standing.
    June 3, 2011: A truck is parked near the bridge. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. March 24, 2011: People walk along Prefectural Highway 30 sandwiched by floodwaters in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 4, 2011: In the same area, an earth mover goes on with reconstruction work. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. March 23, 2011: Damaged houses stand amid debris swept away by tsunami in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: Debris is almost cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. March 13, 2011: A tsunami-beached ship lies among debris in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The ship remained there with little cleaned around it. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. March 12, 2011: Damaged cars are submerged in flooded residential area with other debris swept away by tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: A car goes by debris in the cleared street. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. March 18, 2011: An overturned car sits on the rooftop of a damaged building in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011:The car still stays in the same position on the building while its surrounding area is almost cleaned up. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. March 14, 2011: A shinto torii, or gateway, leading to Kozuchi shrine stands among the debris in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The debris nearly all cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. March 24, 2011: Ships swept away by tsunami are piled up each other on the ground in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The ships stay in the same position in the area almost unchanged. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. March 14, 2011: Rescue workers search for tsunami survivors amid debris in a residential area in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The ships stay in the same position in the area almost unchanged. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. March 12, 2011: A ship swept away by tsunami sits amid debris-covered residential area in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The ships stay in the same position in the area getting cleaned up. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. March 15, 2011:A a ship swept away by tsunami sits amid debris-covered residential area in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The ship stays in the same position in the area almost cleaned up. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. March 12, 2011: Residents wait for rescuers on the balcony of the debris-dangling house in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: The debris almost cleared. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. March 15, 2011: Ddebris from houses swept away by tsunami are left untouched in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.
    June 3, 2011: Some buildings stand in the same area almost cleaned up. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. March 24, 2011: A TV antenna leans near a stone statue of the guardian deity of children sitting among the debris in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture.
    June 4, 2011: The debris cleared and the statue wearing a new red cap. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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