Former residents of Futaba mark their days by mealtimes at the evacuation center dining hall. Rooms where people are staying do not have kitchens or cooking areas, so residents have little choice but to eat what is prepared for them. (Chico Harlan/Washington Post)

The town of Futaba is either a place without people or a group of people without a place. Japan’s nuclear disaster contaminated the town’s 20 square miles, leaving the land uninhabitable, perhaps for decades. The disaster also forced the evacuation of 7,000 people from the town, with many of them still living at an abandoned high school more than 100 miles from home.

For months, those people waited to hear about their chances of returning home. But now that a return to Futaba — on the doorstep of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — seems almost inconceivable, town officials have recently posed a new scenario: They’d like to rebuild Futaba somewhere else.

“What we are trying to do is unprecedented,” said Oosumi Muneshige, a chief assistant to the mayor. “We’re looking for a place where everybody can live together — basically a reconstruction of what we had before.”

The possibility of reestablishing a town on new land, perhaps in a different prefecture (or state), creates a tangle of legal and funding questions that the central government has yet to sort through. But for evacuees, the possibility also reflects a welcome alternative to the purgatory of the past six months.

Japan’s triple disaster — an earthquake, a tsunami, a series of meltdowns at a nuclear facility — left more than 300,000 people homeless, but it’s those from Fukushima, the prefecture that is the site of the plant, who face the most distressing questions about where and how to rebuild. In the earliest days of the crisis, tens of thousands who lived within 12 miles of the oceanside plant fled to the north, west or south. Roughly one in three stayed in safer, inland parts of Fukushima. One in every 12 wound up in Tokyo.

The municipal offices of the eight townships closest to the plant also relocated, opening temporary headquarters in whatever rented space they could find. But Futaba, located along the Fukushima coast, was the only one of those townships to relocate to another prefecture, according to a recent research report on the nuclear emergency’s diaspora. The town now operates on the second floor of a four-story school building in Kazo, with some employees stationed at wooden laboratory desks. Almost 800 Futaba evacuees live at the school, using classrooms for bedrooms.

When Futaba’s people moved to this spot in late March, most held out hope for going home. Then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan visited in mid-May, and evacuees pleaded for information about their chances. “That is the number one question I’ve received from everyone,” Kan said. “Eventually, I should be able to clearly tell you.”

Clarity emerged last month when the government released a report on radiation readings in towns closest to the plant, with levels high enough to leave them off-limits for decades. Some residents were “devastated” by the news, evacuee Kyoko Izawa said. A few argued with their roommates, debating what it meant. For others, like Izawa, 87, it merely confirmed what they had come to fear. If there would someday be a homecoming, she wouldn’t live to see it.

“The government wants to buy land” from those within 12 miles of the plant,” Izawa said. “But I will not sell it. If people can return 50 years from now, I want my grandson to have it.”

Rebuilding permanent lives

Muneshige, the town official, still holds his own hopes that the Futaba residents can return decades from now to their original homes. But until then, he said, Futaba must find new land where residents can rebuild permanent lives. Finding that land could take some time. No prefecture has come forward with an offer. Muneshige predicted that Futaba will still be operating at Kisai High School into 2012.

“A lot of it is unknown,” he said. “But no — we will not dissolve this town. We have to find a place where we can go back to the lives we had before March 11. That is a tremendous undertaking.”

Before March 11, Futaba depended on the nuclear plant. Two of Fukushima Daiichi’s six reactors were within the municipality. The town collected more than $200 million in subsidies, using the money to renovate infrastructure and build public facilities.

Now, the town’s evacuees depend instead on the things that arrive at the school parking lot, unloaded from the backs of trucks. The classrooms where they sleep now have TVs and refrigerators. Every day at 1:30 p.m., a new batch of donations arrives — underwear, instant noodles, origami paper.

More than three dozen job postings are tacked to the wall near the town office, and some evacuees at the school have decided they want to start over alone, tired of waiting for the town to resolve its uncertainty. Others feel conflicted. “It’s stressful living in a group,” said Choji Omoto, 83.

Several weeks ago, Omoto suffered a stroke, which he attributes to stress. Then, last week, a friend took him house-hunting in an area just north of Tokyo. Omoto looked at two apartments. He loved the second one. Rent was $650 a month. The unit had two rooms and no stairs. “It was perfect,” Omoto said. “It had sunshine. A supermarket across the road.”

Only then did he drive back to Kisai High School and tell his neighbors about the possibility. They begged him not to go. You have friends here, they said. You’ll be a transplant if you move.

Omoto spent almost 10 days thinking about the decision, and at one point, he even called his real estate agent and said he didn’t want the apartment. Then he changed his mind once more.

“I couldn’t do this anymore — the waiting,” Omoto said. “I have to live my own life. I have to move on.”

Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.