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.

Occupy Tokyo: Another Good Excuse to Come Out and Hate on TEPCO

Saturday, October 15th, Occupy Wall Street went global. Around 300 people around Tokyo came out to march in 2 separate locations. Japan Subculture went to check out what was happening at Hibiya Park, where 100 protestors marched through the Roppongi district.

How did Occupy Tokyo come about? The story is another testimony to the efficiency of social networking in organizing demonstrations. According to participants, just a few days prior to the event, “meetup” group members on the forum Occupy Together were testing out interest in Tokyo. Michele from California, one of the first to post on the Tokyo thread, tells about how she and many others decided to participate; “It started off with the post ‘What’s going on in Tokyo? I’m ready if you are’, and picked up from there”. It moved from the forum to Twitter, and then Facebook; and on Saturday about 150 people showed up at Hibiya Park to march in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protests.

While many of the demonstrators carried signs in step with the New York City movement, many were not related to income inequality at all. Several people were out protesting against nuclear power, TEPCO, and the government, and there was also a small cohort carrying signs that said, “Free Tibet”.

All pictures were taken by Said Karlsson. More of his work can be seen at www.saidkarlsson.com.

 

The Procession

 

 

 The Characters

many present were echoing Occupy Wall Street's dissent
"Japanese people - keep your mouth shut til you get slaughtered like sheep? Smash your TV!"
many held signs protesting the Chinese government's treatment of Tibet
a woman in a passing bus contemplates the protest
boys in a passing bus take interest
anti-nuclear signs were among the most numerous
anti-nuclear signs were among the most numerous
Michele, from California, and her son (middle and left) with friend Rohini from Seattle have washed and re-used this towel many times since before the Iraq invasion. It previously read, "War is Wrong"


Protesters Come Out in Record Numbers Against Nuclear Power

A large and diverse crowd, constituting of citizens from all over Japan as well as a large number of foreigners, assembled in Central Tokyo yesterday for the “Goodbye Nuclear Power Plants” rally.

Several anti-nuclear power celebrities, including Nobel laureate and author Kenzaburo Oe, musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, freelance journalist Satoshi Kamata, and author Keiko Ochiai were in attendance. The latter three, according to the Japan Times coverage, participated as architects of the event.

The number in attendance was, predictably, debated; according to an article in Seattle PI, “Police estimated the crowd at 20,000 people, while organizers said there were three times that many people.” The Japan Times also reported the 60,000 estimate.

The reported number of attendees marked a fairly dramatic increase from the supposed turnouts of prior events, including the April 10th protest in Koenji (the first major anti-nuclear protest that was held in Tokyo after the 3/11 earthquake), and the May and June protests – all of which were considerably smaller (though no less passionate).

The photos below were taken by Onnie Koski at the June 11th protest in Shinjuku, which various sources estimated had a turnout of ~10,000 people.

Amy Seaman contributed to this article.

Note: As mentioned above, these photos were taken from the June 11th protest and are posted to give a sense of what the protests have been like up to now. If you have any photos of the most recent protests, submissions are highly welcome.

the police prepare for the event
demonstrators came out with hand-made signs and balloons
people of all ages and nationalities were present
several musicians attending bringing instruments such as trumpets and snare drums
some signs echoed the anger citizens reported when interviewed at the rally - anger that is particularly directed at TEPCO and the government

Of earthquakes, tsunami and the ephemeral

by Orlando Camargo

Those of us living far away from our parents dread the thought. A call in the middle of the night asking you to book a flight – ASAP.

“Dad is not well.” March 2nd.

The next day I got the first possible flight out of Narita to Florida but did not make it in time to say good-bye to my 84-year old Papi. RIP.

Within 9 days I would get another middle-of-the-night call, this time from Tokyo asking me to get the first flight back to Japan.

“Japan is not well”. March 11th.

So starts my March to remember.

After quickly returning to Japan on the 13th of March, and making sure family, clients and work were fine, the decision to volunteer in Ibaraki was a simple one.  27 years ago I first came to Japan to work as a Monbusho  (Ministry of Education) English Fellow, the precursor program to today’s JET program. I was assigned to Ibaraki and lived in what was then a beautiful scenic capital – Mito. After two years helping in Ibaraki schools, I then accepted a government scholarship to attend graduate school at Tsukuba University – also in Ibaraki. So those first five years in Japan rooted me deeply to the Prefecture.

When I was watching the news of the devastation from outside of Japan, the focus was on Miyagi and Fukushima – but I knew that Ibaraki had also been hard hit, especially along the coast, and especially on the northern tip near the Fukushima border.  No one was telling the Ibaraki story. I felt I owed so much to the people of Ibaraki who had given me so much. It wasn’t enough to just send money or make calls. I had to do something.

I was also seeing news of foreigners “fleeing” Japan – the now infamous flyjin. I was amazed upon my return to see Narita airport full of foreigners leaving the country. The only large group of incoming foreigners to catch my attention was the Mongolian emergency rescue team!

Mongolian Rescue Team at Narita

I could not fathom leaving Japan at this time. I had to go up to Ibaraki to help.

I started making calls and seeing how I could help. All the public volunteer announcements were asking for only locals. Apparently the civil servants did not want to worry about housing or feeding volunteers.  “Don’t come unless you can fend for yourself – there are no trains, few buses and long lines for gas,” I was warned. I had prepared for this and had bought plenty of camping gear and goods from the US to both hold me for at least 10 days and to bring on my trip to Northern Ibaraki.

When I arrived to the Kita Ibaraki City Offices looking like a back packer, the head coordinator smiled like he knew me, “So you are Mr. Camargo. We were told you would likely arrive. Welcome”. I had been tweeting and talking to many people in the Prefecture before my departure so apparently news of my possible arrival had already reached them.

As you can guess I was the only foreigner in our group of volunteers. No one would have cared if I had come from Mars. There was work to do. For the next week I would carry boxes of water, bags of rice and bundles of futon with about 40 other volunteers. We would also travel to either the coast or inland to help clear out debris from damaged homes. We would also visit the community centers and deliver goods.

There is where my March moment would come.

It was when I saw so many elderly alone and unattended.

The shelters have and will get plenty of relief aid. They can always use more money but that too will come. But what I saw in athletic gyms turned community centers were elderly folks sleeping on cardboard boxes near kerosene stoves. Many were alone and disoriented. Yes, they still had their lives, but many had lost their homes and some, even their loved ones.


As I watch my the 27th season of cherry blossoms twitter in the spring outside my Tokyo window, I ask myself, “what do the people in the Ibaraki shelters need most?”

Maybe what they need most is what I could not give my Dad enough of –

…..a warm hand and more time to share the blossoms.

BIO
Orlando Camargo has worked for the Japanese government, for a Wall Street Investment bank and has headed a global public relations company in Tokyo. When he is not volunteering in Ibaraki (http://orlandojpn.posterous.com/) , he can also be spotted around Tokyo’s rustic neighborhoods taking photos (http://www.flickr.com/photos/kurokoshiroko/) in search of the perfect yakitori.

.

Portraits of devastation–uprooted lives in Miyagi

After the earthquake, documentary photographer Max Hodges felt that it was important to document the event to raise awareness of the devastation and needs of thousands of displaced people. He headed up to some hard-hit areas, hitchhiking from city-to-city. These photos were taken on his trip there and capture some of the immense loss and devastation the earthquake caused.

Devastation at Nobiru train station
Nobiru, Japan
Nobiru, Japan
Nobiru, Japan
Small things left behind, Nobiru Japan

Continue reading Portraits of devastation–uprooted lives in Miyagi

The last Japanese man remaining in Kazakhstan: A Kafkian tale of the plight of a Japanese POW in the Soviet Union

Tetsuro Ahiko photographed at his apartment in Aktas, Karaganda, in central Kazakhstan, on Jan. 4, 2011.

Richard Orange, noted foreign correspondent and Ikuru Kuwajima, a photojournalist in Central Asia and long-time contributor to Japan Subculture Research Center, worked to put together this this fascinating piece about one Japanese POW trapped in the Soviet Union after the end of the Second World War. It differs slightly from our usual subject matter but it’s a fascinating story that we hope you’ll enjoy. ●Marina Gorobevskaya  also greatly contributed to this article.

By Richard Orange and Ikuru Kuwajima, photos by Ikuru Kuwajima

Tetsuro Ahiko has his eyes closed now.  The vodka has begun to affect him, and he rocks a little towards the battered cassette player from where the music―a shrill chorus of young girls’ voices―is coming. He starts to sing along under his breath: “Shoulder to shoulder, I walk to school with my brother, thanks to the soldiers… thanks to the soldiers that died for the nation, for the dear nation.” As the last voices die away, the room, in a cramped Soviet flat in a crumbling block in a impoverised town in the middle of the icy, windswept steppes of Kazakhstan, comes back into focus. “I forgot Japanese,” he says. “But I didn’t forget the songs that I listened to in my childhood.”

This cassette of World War II military songs, long since forgotten as part of a shameful past back in Japan, is one of the handful of tokens he keeps of a life that was snatched away from him one day in 1948, when, instead of repatriating him from his military school on Sakhalin Island, Soviet troops put Mr Ahiko on a train to the Gulag work camps. More than 60 years later, Mr Ahiko is still here.

“Now I’m the same as all the people here,” he says. “I’ve got used to it.”

Tetsuro is the last Japanese man still remaining in Kazakhstan out of the hundreds of thousands Stalin shipped to the most desolate parts of the Soviet Union, putting them to work in mines, in construction, and in factories. More than a tenth of them died due to the brutal working conditions.

“I think all the Japanese have gone back apart from me,” he says. “There was one from Lake Balkhash, who went to Japan because his wife was ill, and there was also one in Almaty. I think there are no other Japanese here now.”

Continue reading The last Japanese man remaining in Kazakhstan: A Kafkian tale of the plight of a Japanese POW in the Soviet Union

Is Shibuya Tokyo's new sin city?

Since the tightening of regulations against fuuzoku sex industry businesses in Shinjuku’s Kabuki-cho last year, there have been voices of concern about whether or not the neighborhood will lose its character along with its seedy image.

And it now may have a new competitor. Adult-themed businesses have been sprouting up in the Shibuya area over the past few years as the ever-changing cityscape has begun to take on a pink glow from these:

Two men walk past a "free information center" on Shibuya's Dogenzaka. The sign advertises aroma relaxation, ¥4,000 for 40 minutes.
Two men walk past a "free information center" on Shibuya's Dogenzaka. The sign advertises aroma relaxation, ¥4,000 for 40 minutes.

Once known as the teen-fashion capital of Asia, Shibuya is being slowly overrun by muryo annai-sho, or “information centers” that are the new gateways to adult entertainment.  While the Tokyo Police Metropolitan Police Department has focused its efforts on Shinjuku ward, the Shibuya flesh merchants have taken up residence in this relatively overlooked area–just as they have done in Akihabara and Uguisuidani.  Shibuya, because of its reputation as a teen mecca, also tends to attract a certain type of Japanese man with a fetish for young, and even underage women–so called loli-con or “lolita complex bearing men.”

Continue reading Is Shibuya Tokyo's new sin city?