Watch the new documentary Alone in the Zone, produced by VICE Japan for their YouTube channel.
Interview and photos by Ivan Kovac and Jeffrey Jousan
Article translated from the Japanese by Luke Baker
Today marks the second anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Japan and caused one of the most serious nuclear disasters in world history, when the Fukushima Daiichi power plant started leaking radiation. The surrounding towns were evacuated in a rush, leaving empty homes, silent streets and uncared-for animals. In the small town of Tomioka, however, less than six miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, one man refused to leave: Naoto Matsumura, a 53-year-old fifth-generation rice farmer who is surely the most stubborn man in Japan, if not the world.
“I was born and raised in this town,” he told us. “When I die, it’s going to be in Tomioka.” Naoto’s face is browned by the sun and wrinkled from smiling; his dark eyes peer out from under heavy lids – it’s not the face of someone you’d expect to defy the government by living in an area other people aren’t even allowed to visit, but Naoto wears his iconoclasm lightly.
Because he is being bombarded with as much as 17 times the amount of radiation a normal person is, and because for a while he was eating meat, vegetables and fish that were contaminated by radiation as well, 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.”
Naoto at home. He doesn’t have electricity, so he uses a solar panel to power his PC and mobile phone.
They did tell Naoto not to eat any more locally produced food, so now he drinks spring water that has been checked for contamination and eats relief supplies delivered from the outside. But otherwise, his day-to-day life is mostly unaffected by the invisible, but harmful, particles and waves floating all around him.
“I got used to the radiation. It’s not like I can see it, after all,” he told us. “Other people who come here temporarily stop worrying about it, too… I’m sure if you guys came back here a few more times you’d stop caring. But the needles on the Geiger counters never stop moving, so if you brought one with you then you might still care. That’s why I don’t carry one. Even if I had one, I wouldn’t use it.”
The radiation dosage per hour inside Naoto’s house, as measured by the Geiger counter we brought with us, is two microsieverts per hour, and outside our reader spiked to seven microsieverts. When we asked Doctor Hiroyuki Koide at the Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute how bad this was for Naoto, he said, “Japanese law states that any location with an hourly dosage exceeding 0.6 microsieverts [per hour] should be designated as a radiation-controlled area and closed off to the general populace. Once inside a radiation-controlled area you can’t drink the water, and you really shouldn’t eat anything. It’s inconceivable to me that a normal person could live there.”
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.”
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 neighbours’ 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.”
Naoto cares for the cattle at his makeshift farm.
Many of the dogs and cats have gone semiferal without any humans around – they’ve taken to hiding in the forest and are no longer a common sight. The cattle are still domestic, however, and live in abandoned rice paddies, penned in by fences Naoto constructed by hand out of pipes. While the dozens of surviving cows are all skin and bones, they’re luckier than the more than 120 cattle who died of starvation inside a barn nearby.
“You can still smell it a bit,” Naoto said as he brought us inside the barn. “All of them died and rotted away, leaving just the bones and horns. There were tons of flies and maggots on the corpses at first. It was so silent in town that the only thing you could hear was the buzzing of the flies. The stench was so horrible back then that if you stayed for more than five minutes, it would stick to you. Now that it’s all bones, it’s easier to look at, but back then it was really gruesome, like a scene out of hell. Over 1,000 cattle died [in Tomioka].”
Starvation isn’t the only thing that has killed the animals – the government has been responsible for deaths as well. 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 euthanise cattle en masse before they starved to death – an order that was given on May 12, 2011.
Naoto gazes down at the skeletons of the cattle that starved to death in the barn.
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.”
The interior of the cattle barn. Similar scenes can be found throughout the uninhabitable expanse of the evacuation zone.
(Left) A dog that survived trapped inside a cattle barn for a year and a half after the nuclear disaster by eating the dead flesh of the starved cattle, and was eventually rescued by Naoto in the summer of 2012. Though most of the dog’s fur had fallen out, he recovered thanks to Naoto’s dedicated care. Naoto named the dog Kiseki (“miracle” in English) because of this. (Right) Kiseki, approximately two months after being rescued. His fur has grown back, and he looks like a dog again.
Naoto taking a smoke break and resting with his ostrich.
In September, Tomioka mayor Katsuya Endou announced that it would be impossible for all residents to return within the next five years, citing the amount of time it would take to decontaminate the town and rebuild its infrastructure. All of the city’s roughly 15,000 residents still live in shelters – except for Naoto and his animals, and they’re not going anywhere.
“Tomioka may be a small town, but it’s rich in nature,” the town’s sole inhabitant said. “You’ve got the rivers, the ocean and the mountains nearby. You can swim in the ocean, fish in the rivers, and go pick wild vegetables in the mountains. Except now we can’t do any of that.”