The entire world was watching when the devastating Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster hit Fukushima, Japan in 2011. After six nuclear reactors broke down due to an earthquake-triggered tsunami, 160,000 people were forced to evacuate and relocate to emergency shelters outside of the radioactive zone. Many, including the nuclear plant’s own employees, did not understand the severity of the accident and most believed they would be able to return home in a matter of months. However, four years later, the repopulation of Fukushima is still uncertain.
55-year-old Naoto Matsumura, a fifth-generation rice farmer from Fukushima, might be the only person who found a reason important enough to make him stay.
After struggling to find room in emergency shelters, Matsamura thought back to all the animals he’d left behind on his farm back home. A year later, against strict orders from the Japanese government, he made his way back to Fukushima in order to check up on his family’s dogs—fully aware of the risk this endeavour posed. When he got to the farm, Naoto witnessed something he was not ready for.
Naoto Matsumura, 55, is the only person still living in Fukushima’s 12.5-mile exclusion zone. He returned to take care of the animals that were left behind.
Hundreds of abandoned animals—all of them left behind by people who escaped in a hurry—scattered across the town. The sight was unfathomable—starving dogs still tied to posts in backyards, piles of dying cattle, frail chickens trapped in rusted cages. These animals had not eaten or drank enough water in over a year, yet somehow many of them still survived. All remaining animals had been condemned by the government due to contamination, and there were orders for them to be slaughtered and buried. But Matsumura was adamant that “animals and people are equal.” He firmly believed the officials were making an immoral decision and argued that contaminated animals could be beneficial for conducting research on the effects of radioactivity. Since then, the 55-year-old has stayed true to his mission and has been looking after all left-behind animals.
Today, Matsumura takes care of over 50 cows, two ostriches, and feeds the cats, dogs, and hundreds of cattle that have now become feral. He often drives around looking for new strays to take in. He is the only person currently living in Fukushima.
His commitment to these animals is admirable, and I can’t help but agree that Matsumura must fall somewhere on the list of ‘the most selfless human beings of our time’. That kind of isolation will change one’s life completely, and he admits that it was an incredibly difficult adjustment to make. Now, he’s fond of the deep silence and calm that comes from being the only human around for miles.
Matsumura knows that the radiation is harmful, but he “refuses to worry about it.” He has been deemed the most radioactive man in Japan.
In terms of protection, Matsumura makes sure not to eat or drink anything that comes from inside the nuclear exclusion zone, and has food and water imported from outside. A few years back, he got a check-up at the University of Tokyo by researchers interested in reviewing his health. As expected, everyone was in shock at the amount of radiation found housed within his body. Matsumura was deemed “the most radioactive person in Japan.” However, doctors estimate that he won’t actually feel the effects of the radiation for another thirty to forty years. That’s enough to convince him to stay. “By then, I’ll be dead anyways,” he says.
Another reason why he chooses to stay in Fukushima is to serve as a constant reminder to the government and the world that the nuclear disaster is far from being resolved. “The nuclear exclusion zone is being forgotten,” he says, “it’s my job to remind people it’s here. If it’s forgotten, then the nuclear reactors could start up again.”