Holdout in a nuclear ghost town

Minamisoma coffeehouse owner Hoshi Jyunichu says he is determined to remain in the town he was born in, despite the nuclear threat. "You live where you live," he said. "Home isn't a place you run away from." (John M. Glionna / Los Angeles Times)

Hoshi Jyunichu lives in a nuclear ghost town.

On a recent afternoon, he calmly swept the entrance to his downtown coffeehouse, even though only one solitary soul had crossed the threshold the entire day. His customers, his neighbors, even his family, have all fled, leaving the 46-year-old father of two among Minamisoma's stubborn holdouts.

"I was born here; I don't want to give up this town," he insisted. "And so I'm staying until I can bring my family back here."

Yet no one in Minamisoma, or anywhere else, has the faintest idea when that might possibly happen.

Photos: Japan in crisis

Before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that led to the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant springing radioactive leaks, this coastal town was popular for its annual samurai festival, a scenic destination where the mountains tumble down to meet the sea.

But with the ominous prospect of potentially deadly fallout from the stricken complex just 15 miles to the south, nearly two-thirds of this agricultural city's 71,000 residents have fled, with more following all the time.

Those who remain endure life in a no-man's land, facing growing fear and deprivation. Days after the first toxic leaks, the Japanese government ordered residents within 12 miles of the plant to leave their homes. Last week, it recommended that residents beyond 12 miles and within 18 miles also evacuate, an area that includes portions of Minamisoma.

The rest of the town remains in an area where residents have been advised to remain indoors at all times. With additional heightened radioactivity findings this week, the Japanese government is under pressure to extend the evacuation zone farther.

The safety guidelines have left residents on their own to decide whether to depart or stay behind and face the invisible hand of danger.

About 50,000 people had already departed before the 18-mile evacuation zone was established last week. More abandon their homes with each passing day, looking like the Dust-Bowlers of Steinbeck's novel, their cars and trucks loaded with possessions.

Behind them sit boarded-up businesses and entire housing tracts without a human being in sight. Nowadays, no children ride bicycles here. Most of the people who remain are afraid to venture outside, even briefly. When they do, they cover their faces with masks to protect themselves from the perilous unseen particles.

If anyone smiles in Minamisoma, no one else will see.

Residents fear that Fukushima will become another Chernobyl, the Ukrainian nuclear plant whose breached core in 1986 caused the worst accident in the history of civilian nuclear power, leaving behind a legacy of thyroid and organ cancers.

There are financial worries as well. Many farmers believe their fields of spinach and winter cabbage could be plagued by radioactivity for years to come, threatening family livelihoods that go back generations.

These days, those who stay behind are angry as well as isolated. Residents long ago lost confidence in the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns and operates the Fukushima plant. They suspect the utility has downplayed the radiation crisis. But now, a growing number also feel abandoned by the government in Tokyo, which they say has failed to respond to their calls for aid, advice and information.

"The only news I get is from TV," said Minamisoma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai. "There's no communication with government officials. Any advice about what we should do has been far short of what we need. And that makes me angry."

Each night, Sakurai, 55, sleeps on a couch in his tiny office. A balding bachelor with oversized glasses, he has moved his elderly parents out of town. Now he has no need to return to his home at night.

Sakurai says he is still awaiting word on radioactivity levels in his town. Most days, he eats a cup of instant noodles made with bottled water, and maybe a little rice and bread.