Lonely Fukushima resident cares for those unable to evacuate: animals

Today's 7.4 earthquake near Fukushima, Japan has done more than rattle the earth. For many residents, it has also brought back memories of the tragic events of March 11, 2011, when a massive tsunami led to one of the worst nuclear disasters in history as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant went into meltdown. Thankfully, reports thus far tell us that a similar scenario won't be repeating itself with this current tremor. But if it did, would there be anyone on hand to witness it? Anyone left to evacuate? Hasn't the entire area around the plant been declared a no-go zone because of the radioactivity?

Well, in addition to the clean-up crews still working on securing and disassembling the plant, a man dubbed "the last man in Fukushima" is keeping quietly busy. Fifth generation rice farmer Naoto Matsumura is one of a handful of people still living in the 20 kilometer exclusion radius known as the "Death Zone." The reason he has chosen to expose himself to the radiation from the ill-fated reactor is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

Naoto-San comes from the village of Tomioka, about six miles from the nuclear plant. Along with 78,000 other residents of the area, he evacuated to safety following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. But after some days, he returned to check on his farm's animals. While there, he noticed that the livestock and pets of nearby farms had been abandoned in the heat of the crisis. With entry into the area forbidden due to the risk of radiation, their fate looked bleak.

There were cats, ducks, pigs, cows, a pony, and even ostriches, some wandering the empty streets. Others had been left tied-up as their owners scrambled to safety.

"We had dogs here, too," Naoto-San said. "When I was feeding the dogs, I could see the dead cattle. But a mother and a calf were still alive. Both skin and bones. They hadn't had food or water for a month. The calf was so hungry, it kept trying to nurse from its mother. But the mother knew she didn't have any milk to give, so she kicked it away. But the calf returned, and it got kicked again... after three kicks, the calf got the message. There was some rope hanging from the wall of the pen. The end of the rope must have looked like a teat, because it went over and tried to nurse from it. I couldn't bear to watch. They both died a few days later."

Naoto-San made a decision. Although he could not possibly save all of the abandoned animals — too many were already in a state of irreversible decline — he would try and care for all that he could. He began by making rounds through his neighborhood, delivering cat and dog food smuggled in from outside of the exclusion zone.

"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."

Over five years later, Naoto-San continues to feed the animals and himself with donations that he receives from all over the world. He has no electricity and eats by candlelight.

"At first, I was worried about getting cancer or leukemia in five or 10 years. Now I don't worry," Naoto-San said with a cheeky smile. "I got a check-up at the University of Tokyo. They had this thing that looked like a cremator. I lay down on it. They shut the door... 18 minutes later, they opened the door and I was let out. The doctor was staring at me, so I asked him how it was. He said I had the highest radiation level in Japan, but that I wouldn't get sick for 30 or 40 years. I'll be dead by then anyway," he laughed.

A few years after taking up his work as caretaker of Fukushima's abandoned animals, Naoto-San met a woman while travelling as an anti-nuclear activist and together they had a son. Naoto-San wants to live as an example for his son, but does not know if he will ever be able to live with him and his mother. Without the care that Naoto-San provides, the animals of Fukushima would die. He is unable to stand by and watch that happen.

If you’d like to see pictures of his work in Fukushima take a look at this slideshow:

 

A video posted by Shinjiro Ono (@marutaro) on

The world is full of animal lovers, but few would be prepared to go to such lengths and to sacrifice so much to ensure their survival. Naoto-San is indeed a shining example, not only for his young son, but also in reminding us all to be better caretakers of this delicate planet and the creatures who live on it. Even those in the "Death Zone."

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