Matsumura didn't want to leave neighborhood's animals behind to die
Weeks into the evacuation, most of the cows starved to death
Matsumura recalls seeing a cow, perhaps afraid of death, kicking its calf away
Seeing the cow and her calf dead and other scenes like it makes him furious
In the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear plant, one man’s quiet defiance echoes through the contaminated, empty streets of Tomioka, Japan.
Tomioka, 10 miles (16 kilometers) away from the disaster, is inside the 12.4 mile (20-kilometer) radius of the government-mandated evacuation zone. But that hasn’t stopped Naoto Matsumura, 52, a life-long resident and fifth generation farmer, from refusing to heed the mandatory evacuation since the nuclear meltdown.
“I’m full of rage,” says Matsumura. “That’s why I’m still here. I refuse to leave and let go of this anger and grief. I weep when I see my hometown. The government and the people in Tokyo don’t know what’s really happening here.”
His defiance began with a simple desire to feed the animals on his farm. The government evacuated 78,000 residents around the exploding plant without a plan to rescue pets and valuable livestock.
As Matsumura began to feed his own animals, the neighborhood’s desperate cats and dogs started showing up. He started to feed them too and decided he couldn’t leave them behind to die. When Matsumura ran out of food, he slipped out of the exclusion zone and bought dog and cat food and then snuck back into town.
Weeks turned into months and now nearly a year. Conditions are growing worse by the day, says Matsumura.
Read more about Fukushima’s abandoned animals
Weeks into the evacuation, most of the cows starved to death, tied up in pens without any food. Maggots and flies covered their bodies, and a putrid smell came from most of the barns. But one of the worst scenes Matsumura remembers happened at a neighbor’s farm. He found a cow and her calf alive. The cow was so thin from hunger it was just skin and bones, says Matsumura. The calf was crying, trying to approach its mother for milk. The mother kicked the calf, perhaps afraid of death, if it fed the calf, Matsumura recalled. The calf kept trying to approach for milk, but the mother kept kicking it away. The calf, dazed and hungry, stumbled away. It crawled into a corner, crying. The calf was sucking on straw as if it were the mother’s teat, says Matsumura.
He went back the next day and found the cow and her calf dead.
Repeatedly seeing scenes like this, Matsumura said, made him furious. He began doing interviews with foreign correspondents, saying the Japanese press wasn’t covering the heartbreak in the exclusion zone.
Read about the exclusion zone-turned ghost town
“The government and Tepco are not doing anything at all,” says Matsumura. “We’re the victims. The government and Tepco, they’re the perpetrators but they don’t treat us as victims. They pretend they’re doing something, but they don’t do anything inside the 20 km zone. I ask the lawmakers to help but they keep saying that’s the 20 km zone. But something needs to be done now. They are hopeless.”
Matsumura wants the cleanup of the contamination to speed up. There are a few signs that the work has begun in Tomioka, with contaminated soil sitting under blue tarps in a neighborhood park. But at this pace, Matsumura said, he’ll never live to see Tomioka’s people return.
Matsumura hopes as the one year anniversary of this nuclear disaster approaches, the international community will remember the risks of nuclear energy.
“You see what can happen. U.S., Russia, Japan – this is the third nuclear accident, the third time something we created ended up hurting us. This is the third time, but we haven’t learned our lesson yet.”
Matsumura lives without electricity and gets water from a nearby well. He slips out of the exclusion zone only for food and then returns to feed any animals he can.
He’s been tested for radiation contamination, and results show his body is “completely contaminated,” he says. But he’ll stay, he pledges, as the sole citizen of Tomioka to keep tabs on the government. “We have to decontaminate this area or else this town will die. I will stay to make sure it’s done. I want to die in my hometown.”