The untold human suffering and property damage left in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan has been well-documented, but there’s another population that suffered greatly that few have discussed – the animals left behind in the radioactive exclusion zone.
One man, however, hasn’t forgotten – 55-year-old Naoto Matsumura, a former construction worker who lives in the zone to care for its four-legged survivors.
He is known as the ‘guardian of Fukushima’s animals’ because of the work he does to feed the animals left behind by people in their rush to evacuate the government’s 12.5-mile exclusion zone.
Japan Earthquake Causes Explosion
“The next day, I heard the explosion at the plant,” he said. “I didn’t need anyone to tell me what had happened because the ‘boom’ was huge.” Living with his mother and father and a couple of locals in the house, they heard more explosions.
Finally, they decided to head south. “I knocked on the door of my aunt’s house in Iwaki, but she wouldn’t let any of us in because she said we were contaminated.”
“So we went to a nearby shelter, but they wouldn’t let us stay there either, so we went home,” he says. In April, Mr Matsumura’s mother was taken ill so the rest of the family went to stay with relatives outside the original 18-mile recommended exclusion zone.
Returning for his own animals
Naoto isn’t a normal person, of course. He initially fled south with his parents during the nuclear disaster, but he ended up leaving them in Iwaki and returning to Tomioka. His reason for doing so wasn’t a sentimental love for home or a middle-aged man’s refusal to change, however. It was simple: he couldn’t abandon the animals on his family farm.
“I was scared at first because I knew the radiation had spread everywhere,” he said of his initial days back home. “The next thought in my head was that if I stayed too long, I’d end up with cancer or leukemia. But, the longer I was with the animals, the more I came to see that we were all still healthy and that we would be OK.”
Caring for animals left behind by others
He also freed many animals that had been left chained up by their owners. Matsumura now cares for the cattle, pigs, cats, dogs, and even ostriches that are now ownerless, a responsibility he took on partly by accident. “Our dogs didn’t get fed for the first few days. When I did eventually feed them, the neighbors’ dogs started going crazy. I went over to check on them and found that they were all still tied up. Everyone in town left thinking they would be back home in a week or so, I guess. From then on, I fed all the cats and dogs every day. They couldn’t stand the wait, so they’d all gather around barking up a storm as soon as they heard my truck. Everywhere I went there was always barking. Like, ‘we’re thirsty’ or, ‘we don’t have any food.’ So I just kept making the rounds.”
Bombarded by 17 times the normal level of radiation
He is aware of the radiation he is subject to on a daily basis, but says that he “refuses to worry about it.” He does take steps, however, by only eating food imported into the zone. For a while he was eating meat, vegetables, and fish that were contaminated by radiation, so some researchers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency wanted to run some tests on him. “When I went down and let them look me over, they told me I was the ‘champion,’” he said, meaning he had the highest level of radiation exposure in Japan. “But they also told me that I wouldn’t get sick for 30 or 40 years. I’ll most likely be dead by then anyway, so I couldn’t care less.”
Government ordered euthanization of cattle
After the evacuation, it was decided by officials that, seeing that it was impossible to care for livestock in the evacuated zone, there was no other option than to euthanize cattle en masse before they starved to death—an order that was given on May 12, 2011.
Understandably, this decision upset Naoto. “If they were going to be used for meat it wouldn’t bother me,” he said. “That’s just the way life is. But why just slaughter them all and bury them? Animals and humans are the same. I wonder if they could kill people just as indiscreetly… In my book it would be better to adopt a wait-and-see approach because it could provide good experimental data for comparison with humans. If the animals survive, then maybe there’s nothing to worry about. But if the animals start giving birth to deformed young a few generations down the line, then things could get crazy. If that happens, they should never let anyone come back here.”
After a year, Mr Matsumura appears to prefer the company of his animals to humans.
“I don’t get bored,” he says.”I am used to it, and anyway, there are lots of animals here so I’m never really alone.”