The Japanese region hit by the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl has a new backer.

“I’m now the biggest institutional investor in Fukushima,” says Curtis Freeze, New Yorker, hedge fund head and former missionary.

The 53-year-old, who oversees $352 million as chief investment officer of Prospect Asset Management Inc., has taken big stakes in two of the prefecture’s three banks, diverting much of his fund’s assets into the bets. His goal is to get the lenders to do more to revive the battered economy -- including by investing in solar.

Freeze, it turns out, has history with Fukushima. Some 34 years ago he lived there, spending his days riding a bicycle around its streets trying to spread the Mormon faith. That began a love affair with Japan that saw him start his own hedge fund, help pioneer real estate investment trusts and rescue an ailing developer. Now he’s seeking to make Fukushima’s lenders more profitable and deliver a return to his investors.

“I have a feeling for the people of Fukushima, but I hadn’t found a way to get involved until now,” Freeze said in a phone interview from his home in Hawaii, where he spends half his time. “Part of it is frustration that nobody else is doing it.”

Five years on from the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns, more than 97,000 people remain evacuated from their homes in Fukushima, while about 18,300 still live in temporary housing. The prefecture has lost about 6 percent of its population since the disaster, and economic output in real terms is roughly where it was in 2008. Surveys have shown that few inhabitants plan to return to ghost towns such as Tomioka near the crippled nuclear plant.

“Northern Japan has been written off,” Freeze said. “Because Fukushima after Hokkaido has seen the biggest decline in population, the megabanks have no interest,” he said. “It’s kind of a microcosm of what Japan’s going through. There’s a lot of money in Fukushima, but they haven’t found a place to put the money to work.”

Compensation to Fukushima residents and businesses has often ended up in deposits, which have surged since the disaster. The problem, according to Freeze, is that banks are using some of this cash to buy government or corporate debt, or participate in syndicated loans led by the nation’s three largest banks.

Not Sustainable

“They’re lending a significant amount of money at less than the cost of money. That’s not sustainable,” he said. “They’re going to have to find better ways to do something with the money.”