The Buddha of Fukushima's Forbidden Zone: A Photo Essay

This is the story of Naoto Matsumura, Tomioka City, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan–the last man standing in  Fukushima’s Forbidden Zone. He will not leave;  he risks an early death because his defiance of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the government is his life now. He is not crazy and he is not going. He remains there to remind people of the human costs of nuclear accidents. He is the King of The Forbidden Zone; its protector. He is the caretaker or empty houses, a point of contact for those citizen who can’t return. He takes care of the animals, “the sentient beings”, that remain behind because no one else will.  He is the Buddha of the forbidden zone.

Last stop.

For more than nine months, the 20 km zone around the Fukushima power plant has been a forbidden zone, where evacuation is an obligation for everyone, except one man. Since the nuclear accident, Naoto Matsumura refuses to leave his farm. At the age of 52, this farmer is physically in a good shape. In the city of Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, where he currently lives, there is no water and no electricity. “When I wake up in the morning, I take my dogs for a nice walk. I  brushing my teeth. I do this for about twenty minutes. And then I try to think about what to do for the rest of my day”. Matsumura usually eats instant ramen, which are easy to prepare with a bit of boiled water. He drinks mineral water when he manages to find some. In summer, he took showers in the greenhouse, with the water from the river, which he boils with charcoal he finds here and there. The water from the river is radioactive. Before the nuclear accident, Matsumura used to fish at the river. Last summer, he did his laundry there. With a large smile on his face, Matsumura says: “I love fishing. The rivers and the sea here are full of fish, however I cannot eat them, because they contain too much cesium. The rain of cesium particles spread by the crippled Fukushima Number 1 power plant (福島原発第一) after the nuclear meltdown back in March has contaminated them.”

Tomioka is a small town that stands between the Fukushima Number 1 and Number 2 power plants. It used to be a quiet little town on the Pacific coast of Japan, where 16,000 inhabitants lived before March 12. To this day, some elderly people have been coming and leaving, but there is only one citizen who has stayed and lived there continuously. Tomioka was been evacuated on the next day after the tsunami hit. The orders from the authorities were clear and simple: “Take the minimum amount of your possessions and get out.”

The refugees from Fukushima (Tomioka) have abandoned their houses, their belongings, their cars, their pets, but they hoped to come back afterwards. The last people who were resisting the orders like Matsumura, felt they had to give up the fight. TEPCO, the private operator of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, after first denying any meltdowns later revised their statements to acknowledge the core of three reactors had melted down and that  the “problem” might still be actually  solved… after 30 years. Matsumura notes that “TEPCO and the Japanese government have never stopped lying, out of their good will, in order to avoid panic among the population. Such good intentions, of course.”

Despite his white hair and mustache, Matsumura looks like a Hollywood actor. He smokes twenty “Mild Seven” cigarettes a day: “I buy cigarettes when I go out of the forbidden zone from time to time. I like smoking. If I quit smoking now, I may get ill!” He laughs.

Back in June 2011, according to a photographer who entered the forbidden zone to visit Matsmura: “Around his newly built house on the top of a hill in Tomioka, enormous spider nets invaded the vegetation, like everywhere else in the ghost town. Enormous spiders seemed to take advantage of the radioactivity and the evacuation of the zone in order to pullulate”.

Matsumura has been looking after 400 cows, 60 pigs, 30 fowls, 10 dogs, more than hundred cats and an ostrich. The ostrich was the official mascot of TEPCO; they brought it to the town, allegedly. The ostrich was supposed to represent energy efficiency. The ostrich needs very little food to survive and thrive; it’s a very energetic animal. Unfortunately, it also has a tendency to bury its head in the sand when dealing with danger and is not a very bright bird. It makes a fitting symbol for TEPCO and its executives. (There is, however, no past history of ostriches being arrested for criminal negligence resulting in death and/or injury. They’re stupid creatures but not evil.)

“What happened to the animals is that, when the people of Tomioka evacuated in March, everybody  opened the gates and the cages of the animals. They left their animals alone or returned them to nature, and especially the cattle and the pigs have become wild and they are currently living in the wilderness where they are growing”.

 

 

“I have seen animals dying, from diseases or for example, from being tied to ropes”. “When the cattle are still young, we put a rope around their faces. I saw some cows bleeding to death, because, tied to their rope, they grew bigger”.

 

 

Matsumura goes to bed at around 6 PM, and gets up at the rising sun. He has no electricity in his house, and the temperatures go below freezing. When he wakes up, he listens to the silence that surround him. At least he can hear the sound of the living birds, dogs or cats, which are ill or depressed. He does not know if their pain is due to radiation.   Only the cows that have gone wild seem to be flourishing and healthy: “They are gorgeous and fat. They eat a lot of grass,” Matsumura says.

Six cows were born since March. They looked “normal”.

In Tomioka, human time has stopped twice. Once when the tsunami hit, and a second time during the massive evacuation.

A photo reporter who went inside the red zone in April 2011 spoke about his impressions: “While looking at the sea, there was no other noise than the noise of the wind and the waves hitting the rocks”. “Inside the houses, which have become ruins after they were hit by the tsunami, dirt has been accumulating in the living rooms”. “There is a cynical contrast with the town streets, which remained clean despite the lack of care”. “We have to search very closely to discover that, behind those quiet houses, in the back side of the walls, a window has been broken.”

Robbers and thieves have made their ways into the zone. “The ATM in stores were also tempting and easy prey. There were no policemen in the zone. The ATM have been broken up with hammers and looted in order to steal radioactive money, which currently circulates somewhere in Japan.”

“Farms have become death camps. The cattle houses are full of dead animals in the stage of decomposition”.

“The worms and the crows are cleaning the big parts”.

To erase the smell of the mass graves, more time will be required. However, all the cows that escaped are not out of danger. On a farm, Matsumura saw a young cow that was suffering. She was not in good shape. A rope attached to its face was blocking its jaw. After seven months, the calf had become a cow. “The skull that was growing fast was trapped within the rope. The skin and the muscle were cut vividly by the furrow created by the rope. The animal could not drink, nor eat.”

The cow was trying to get rid of its rope with its foot leg but without success. When Matsumura approached the cow in order to cut the rope, the cow escaped. Like many cows before her, she was going to starve to death.

Some gates have never been opened.

 

In this human desert, the air seems so pure, that one could forget the radioactive contamination that cannot be measured without a Geiger counter. Matsumura lives in his dangerous solitude like a king, and the forbidden zone is his kingdom. He treats the animals that live in there like his friends. He is a benevolent king.

Mr. Matsumura found two dogs caught in wild pig traps in the mountains. He set them free but couldn't save their legs.

 

Mr. Matsumura thinks the dog got caught in the wild boar trap while going on a stroll where he used to go with his master. The right paw was lost.

When he sees a cat or a dog, he stops, he strokes them and offers them a share of pet food crackers. For him, the  massively abandonment of the cattle to  a long and painful death in their cages, in their barns, was a hideous crime. In spring 2011, he heard that the veterinary services of the Fukushima prefecture were going to launch a campaign to kill the surviving cattle and other animals. Metallic wire fences had been prepared all over the forbidden zone in order to trap them in order to inject disinfectant in their veins, not poison, which would cause them to die a painful death. Matsumura was angry: “This massacre made no sense at all. They are living beings. I want to tell the whole world that they are not only going to kill the cattle, all the animals in the forbidden zone will be killed in secret!” In May 2011, there were about 2000 living cows. Three moths ago, there were 400 of them. As for the cats and dogs, we are not really sure about the numbers anymore.

Matsumura spends his days feeding the animals. Every morning, he goes from houses to houses in order to feed the cats and dogs that stayed in town, then he goes to feed the his pigs and wild pigs.

Matsumura also used to own 32 beehives, but he has only 3 left. Radioactivity seems to have decimated his bees. One day in June, Matsumura made an unexpected encounter in Okuma, a neighborhood in Tomioka. He does not like to go there because the level of radiation is very high, one of the highest spots in the forbidden zone. In Okuma, the corpses have been abandoned because they were too radioactive to be given back to their families. In the middle of the street, there was an ostrich. She was the only survivor of the local farm, which used to keep thirty other ostriches. That ostrich is very popular among the policemen who started to patrol inside the forbidden zone around August 2011.

“They gave her a name: Boss”.

Matsumura tried to attract the bird with dog food and put a rope around her neck so that he could keep her with him to enjoy her company. But she escaped. “Boss” seemed in very good shape after seven months of freedom. The policemen wearing anti-radiation suits used to take photographs of themselves next to her. Matsumura spends his days without a Geiger counter. He does not calculate the doses of radioactivity he absorbs on a daily basis in the food, in the air and in the soil. The whole world had been touched by the dignity of the Japanese people during the successive disasters that hit the country. For Matsumura, when asked to speak on the subject of TEPCO,  the operator of the power plant, he thinks they did not act with excessive moderation, but with apathy and indifference.

“The citizens of Fukushima protest very little. TEPCO took their houses, their land, the air and the water, and they accept it! No one was angry. Before the construction of the nuclear power plant, TEPCO said: ‘Problems will never occur, never’. Everyone has been cheated. I went myself to the headquarters of TEPCO in Tokyo to ask them for explanations. The only things that the leaders have been able to tell me is ‘sumimasen’ (we’re sorry). And the Japanese government has repeatedly announced during three months, that the radioactivity is not dangerous!”

Matsumura has been living without a Geiger counter, however recently, JAXA, the equivalent of the NASA in Japan has discretely given him a dosimeter.

JAXA has analyzed some sample of land and food taken from the zone. “Around Tomioka, the levels of radioactivity in the soil are superior to Chernobyl,” he was told. Matsumura likes the mushrooms in the forest. However he knows that those he took in the forest are highly contaminated. Despite his weariness, Matsumura is conscious of the risks he is taking. However, his sense of humor has not left him; it may outlast the radioactivity.

“There are good sides to this tragedy. The telephone is free, and I do not need to pay my electricity bills. Life has become cheaper.”

At some point, Matsumura has accepted to take a whole body counter check of the situation inside his body (internal exposure). The doctors exclaimed: “You are a champion of radiation!” Matsumura does not wish to comment any further on this subject. When he speaks about his family, he speaks very freely:  “My father is 80 years old, my grandmother lived until she was hundred years old, so I had the hope to live at least until I get to my eighties. With the radioactivity, I think I will live until my sixties, at best”.

“Tomioka, for me, is the most beautiful place in the world, there is the ocean, the mountains and the forest. Nothing will make me leave this soil, on which my family has been living on for five generations”.

Update:

Dear readers and supporters of Mr. Matsumura,

If you live in Japan and if you wish to support Mr. Naoto Matsumura in his struggle to keep the animals alive, please feel free to use his Japanese Bank account. With Japan Subculture we will soon fix a pay pal system to collect donations from abroad. Mr. Naoto Matsumura is currently fighting to either convince the Japanese government not to kill these pet animals, or at least to keep the internal organs and to provide them to international scientific labs or universities in order to study them and collect useful data.

This is Mr. Naoto Matsumura’s private bank account:

東邦銀行 安積支店 普通 NO636789 松村直登
Toho Ginko (bank), Asaka Shiten (branch), No 636789 , Matsumura Naoto

Mr. Naoto Matsumura takes care of his friend. *All photos were provided courtesy of Naoto Matsumura.