03/11/2013 10:26 am ET Updated May 11, 2013

My Old Country Home

Two years ago, an estimated 70,000 Japanese men, women, and children evacuated the land surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, abandoning their homes for the foreseeable future. The meltdown that occurred on March 11, 2011, was the third in a trifecta of catastrophes that day: first the Tohoku earthquake, then a devastating tsunami, and finally the second worst nuclear accident in human history. The cost of the first two events was immediate and massive: more than 20,000 souls dead or missing and thousands more injured; a million buildings collapsed or damaged; entire towns washed away. The toll of the nuclear disaster, however, is of a very different kind. Though they are alive and well, the nuclear refugees of Fukushima face a long, slow, surreal struggle that seems to have only just begun two years after they walked away from their homes and livelihoods.

Last month I visited the countryside village of Yamakiya in Fukushima to film the stories of the families who once called it home, for Son of Saichi, a new documentary in production. Before 2011, Yamakiya was a quiet, agricultural area, dotted with small farms run by multigenerational households. Families of grandparents, great-grandparents, children and grandchildren grew wheat, rice, and vegetables, and raised livestock here.

Today, the once-carefully cultivated land is neglected. Shrubs are overgrown; weeds choke out yards and gardens; and wild boars and monkeys encroach ever nearer to abandoned homes. In recent months, the government's decontamination efforts have begun, and while they've succeeded in reducing the toxicity of some land, their methods have created a new problem: So far, some 8,000 tons of topsoil has been excavated into one-ton bags, and those bags are prominently stacked in a field and along the roadside where a farmer donated land for toxic dirt storage. If this process is going to be used area-wide, eventually about 10% of the land in Yamakiya will be required just to store the bags. And if there is a long-term plan for this contaminated soil, none of the locals seems to know about it. One displaced resident compares the whole operation to the government "building a house that doesn't have a toilet."

Most of Yamakiya's senior citizens are living in a development of temporary housing trailers about 30 miles away. The area houses just under 400 people. At the trailers, it's surprising to see that even though the farmers have been exiled from their land, they continue to grow what they can. Every available inch of land between and around the tightly packed trailers has been cultivated. There are herbs, vegetables, and flowers growing not just on pots covering the ground, but also in vines and on trellises that scale the trailer walls.

Despite the flourishing gardens, the people who live here are struggling to make sense of the way their lives have been disrupted. They can't go home, but most can't move on, either, because their fortunes and careers and family histories are tied together with their land. They've lost their livelihoods because of the contamination. One of the most painful consequences of their new circumstances is the fracturing of families that have always lived from cradle to grave in the same community -- usually in the same home. In this new reality, generations are fundamentally divided: The young have no intention of going back to the contaminated land or of raising their children there. Many of the old are undaunted by the prospect of the radiation; they want little more than to simply go home. And in a break that goes against all tradition, every generation leaves behind the graves of their ancestors and the altars they maintain in their family homes in their honor.

As young people from Yamakiya move on to start new lives in other areas, the temporary trailers house a disproportionately elderly population. There are 100 people over the age of 70 here -- and just two children. In this culture where elders are revered and treasured, being left by children and grandchildren is a heartbreak for those who remain. The loss of daily family interaction compounds the loss of their homes and occupations; and the World Health Organization has suggested that in the long run, anxiety, depression, and other psychological effects of these hardships may take more of a toll on the nuclear refugees than their radiation exposure.

During our filming, an elderly woman begins to sing. It is a traditional children's song of the region, and the lyrics are sadly fitting for the circumstances of this displaced community, telling the story of their shared longing:

I recall my happy childhood in my hometown

Someday, when I have done what I set out to do,

I will return to where I used to have my home.

Lush and green are the mountains of my homeland,

Pure and clear is the water of my old country home.

The Japanese government has estimated that decontamination efforts in Yamakiya should be complete in another two or three years' time, and the residents might be able to go home then -- though there is no guarantee their land will be arable in two years, or ever.

In the meantime, the displaced citizens of Yamakiya are a study in ambiguous loss. They live spartan, simple lives in the limbo of this trailer park -- many lonely, frightened, and adrift. They wait for the day when they might pick up where they left off in March 2011, and return to the place they call home.

Beth Murphy is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and the founder of Boston-basedPrinciple Pictures. She is currently working on a new documentary Son of Saichi about the subjects of this article. The film is Murphy's first to include animation.