Last Wednesday marked the fourth anniversary of March 11, 2011, a day that changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese people as their island nation was struck by a massively destructive earthquake and tsunami, followed by the dangerous meltdown of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Thousands of citizens evacuated the area after the government established a 12.5-mile exclusion zone around the nuclear plant due to concerns over radiation exposure. Fifth-generation farmer Naoto Matsumura was one of the many residents of Tomioka who left the town. He headed south with his parents, but after being turned away at his aunt's door for fear of radiation contamination, and after finding refugee camps to be overly crowded with little resources to spare, Matsumura decided to return home to Tomioka to check on his family farm's animals.
What he found was a desolate nuclear wasteland devoid of any signs of life–all except for the animals. As people had fled the town, many had left behind pets and livestock like dogs, cats, cows, ducks, a pony, and even ostriches. Matsumura told VICE, “Our dogs didn't get fed for the first few days. When I did eventually feed them, the neighbors' 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.”
Since then, the 55-year-old former construction company worker has spent his days caring for the animals of Tomioka, earning himself the nickname “guardian of Fukushima's animals.” As the sole resident of the town, Matsumura leads a solitary life without electricity (he uses solar panels, instead), running water, or human company. His food comes mostly in cans imported from outside the exclusion zone, and he relies on donations to support himself and the animals. He's aware of the dangers of prolonged radiation exposure, but says he doesn't worry about it because he figures he'll be close to dying a natural death by the time the effects of the radiation start to take hold in 30 years.
In the meantime, all he can do is his best to keep his community alive as the last remaining citizen in the town, in spite of Japanese officials' insistence that he evacuate the area. “We have all been abandoned by the government,” he told filmmaker Mayu Nakamura. “So the animals and I are staying here.” When he's not feeding his semi-feral companions, Matsumura is making sure his voice is heard by speaking to local and foreign media about the state of affairs in the exclusion zone, including reporting on heartbreaking instances like the mass starvation of livestock or the death of cattle at the hands of the government.
Above: Photo by Colors Magazine