While the Japanese government blocked the sale of milk from areas in Japan near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Mrs Mineko Okubo's love of milking the cows has not diminished. Her career in farming begun with only 4 cows in 1967. (Erico Waga/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The clockwork rhythms of Motoo and Mineko Okubo’s dairy farm halted one by one.

A shiny silver truck that collected their milk each day at dawn stopped coming. Then their newspapers didn’t get delivered; the local post office didn’t open and a vet who helped keep their 60 cows healthy disappeared.

For decades, fear of contamination radiating from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had been a nagging but abstract anxiety. In just a few hours, it had become their terrifying reality.

But as neighbors fled and schools, banks, shops, a library and a nearby clinic closed, the Okubos decided to stay. “We couldn’t just throw everything away,” said Mineko Okubo, donning a face-mask as she prepared to go outside — something the government has advised people so close to Fukushima Daiichi not to do — to milk their cows.

Though just outside a mandatory 12-mile mandatory evacuation zone, the Okubos’ farm is only 15 miles from the radiation-belching power station. Anyone living so close, Japanese authorities decreed on March 14, should “stay indoors” to avoid potentially hazardous exposure to the air.

“Stay indoors? What do they mean ‘Stay indoors’?” fumed Motoo Okubo, recalling his dismay at an order that trampled on the habits and duties of a lifetime. “What am I supposed to do about my cows? They’re all outside and I have to feed them.”

Authorities last week revised their position and urged all those still in the “stay indoors” zone to consider “voluntary evacuation.” The reason, they said, was not increased radiation risk but a shortage of food and other supplies.

Though largely unscathed by a gigantic earthquake on March 11 and a tsunami that followed — the Okubos’ only casualty was a shrine in the living room that fell over — they now struggle with a threat they can’t see and barely understand. Invisible isotopes leaking from the six-reactor nuclear complex just down the coast have left the couple and their 40-year-old son Masahiko living in a virtual ghost town.

The danger may or may not be grave, but one thing is certain: Confusing and often contradictory announcements by jittery officials in Tokyo and shifty obfuscation by Tokyo Electric Power Co. executives have already stripped the Okubos of their livelihood, their peace of mind and the fruit of decades of labor.

Confusing data on risks

Of Minami Soma’s pre-quake population of about 70,000, more than 50,000 have left. Once well-lighted, immaculately clean streets are now dark, dirty and mostly empty of traffic except for emergency vehicles and Self-Defense Force trucks and jeeps.

“Nobody wants to come here now,” said Sadayasu Abe, a senior official in the local government. His own house is in the compulsory evacuation zone, so he sleeps in his office, which is slightly farther away from Fukushima Daiichi. He’s sent his wife and children away.

Radiation data released daily by the regional government, however, show just how difficult it is to work out who is and who isn’t at risk. Fukushima City, the regional capital, is much farther from Fukushima Daiichi than Minami Soma but has far higher radiation readings. The level of hazard depends not just on distance but a host of often inscrutable factors such as local topography and wind patterns.

Official Japanese data, said Jan van de Putte, the leader of a radiation monitoring team sent by Greenpeace International, shows “no inconsistencies” but raises “a lot of questions” about where danger lurks. Greenpeace wants mandatory evacuations extended. The U.S. government last month urged its citizens in Japan to stay at least 50 miles away from the plant, four times the distance suggested by Japanese officials.

Although most houses in Minami Soma are now empty and dark, City Hall still blazes with light and bustles with bureaucrats in face masks. The corridors are heaped with emergency supplies. The windows are sealed shut.

Even the local tax office is hard at work: It put off a March 15 deadline for income tax filings “due to the situation” and now processes requests for “disaster victim certificates.” Tax chief Koichi Ishikawa said he’s anxious about radiation but more worried that, with so many residents now gone and so many businesses shut, Minami Soma might never recover from its trauma.

“I wonder if this city can exist in the future,” said Ishikawa.

Cut off by rings on a map

When the Okubos first moved here to Japan’s northeastern coast from Tokyo in 1967 they embarked on what seemed a rural idyll. They built a house at the end of a tranquil country lane dotted with plum trees, bought four cows and started a family.

Shortly after the birth of Masahiko, their first child, a sinister but still remote cloud settled over a majestic landscape bounded by the Pacific Ocean on one side and cedar-covered mountains on the other: Tokyo Electric opened a nuclear power station just six miles down the coast from the southern end of Minami Soma.

Tokyo Electric and government officials “kept saying, ‘It’s safe. It’s safe,’ but from the start I was concerned,” recalled Mineko Okubo. The plant was built to generate electricity for the Japanese capital, and she “wondered why, if it was so safe, they didn’t build it in the suburbs of Tokyo.”

Today, she knows why. Although many in Tokyo, more than 150 miles from Fukushima Daiichi, fret about radiation, their life goes on much as before while Minami Soma withers away.

Minami Soma’s misery began with the tsunami, which killed at least 327 locals and left 1,147 people missing, but much of its current desolation is due to a seemingly harmless map broadcast repeatedly by Japanese television: It features a series of concentric circles around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, each one a marker for a different level of potential radiation danger.

“Everybody could see we were on the map,” said Motoo Okubo. Truck drivers and even relief workers balked at visiting. A golf-club maker, a leather goods manufacturer and a big electronics company all pulled staff.

The mayor of Minami Soma, his domain largely cut off from the rest of Japan, made a desperate video appeal and had it posted on the Web: “We are left isolated,” said Katsunobu Sakurai. “Residents are being forced into starvation. ... I beg you to help us.”

Food has now begun to trickle in and fuel tanker drivers who had refused to enter town now sometimes come in to make deliveries.

As alarm spread in the early days after the disaster, a car with a loudspeaker appeared outside the Okubos’ farm announcing an urgent meeting at the Ishigami No. 1 Elementary School. Mineko Okubo went along and returned home with disturbing news: Buses would be leaving early the next morning to take residents to safety hundreds of miles away.

Why, the family wondered, were buses needed if all they had to do was stay indoors. “We had a family meeting to decide what to do,” said Motoo Okubo. He argued against abandoning their animals. His 66-year-old wife agreed.

Routine made futile

Seeking comfort in familiar routines, the couple, helped by their son, milk their cows twice a day just as before. Mineko Okubo wears a face-mask, but not her husband or son.

The exercise is laborious, and futile: Nobody will touch their milk now. The collection truck hasn’t been round since March 13. The family drinks a few glasses a day and offers hot milk to rare visitors, who decline their hospitality.

The rest gurgles down a drain outside the cowshed.

The waste is relieved by a small, grim consolation: starved of feed because the farm no longer gets the supplies it needs, the Okubos’ cows produce only half as much milk a day as they did before.

The farm, which made a million yen profit last year, now earns nothing — and devours the Okubo’s energy and remaining resources.

Their herd of 35 wagyu — cows for Japanese beef — still needs to be fed, but can’t be sold because of a ban on possibly contaminated animals going to market. Each cow used to be worth over $7,000 at livestock market in Sendai, a big city to the north, but “they are now worthless,” said Motoo Okubo.

Killing the cows would save money on feed but, he said, that is not an option: “Where would we bury them all?” Rigid Japanese rules require that each dead cow be inspected for disease and then sent for cremation in a distant city. Trucks that used to cart away dead animals no longer visit Minami Soma.

Fearful that drinking tap water may be hazardous, the Okubos now rely on water drawn from a well, which they hope is deep enough to avoid contamination, a concern that jumped sharply Saturday when the government announced that highly radioactive water is leaking from Fukushima-Daiichi.

With only themselves and old habits for solace, the Okubos get up at dawn to tend to their animals, just as they’ve done since 1967, defying a danger they can’t see when they venture outside. Three cows have given birth. And, so far at least, the Okubos are healthy: a recent radiation screening declared them clean.

“Our whole life is outside looking after cows,” said Mineko Okubo. “I will do that until I die.”