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The Rancher Who Refused to Leave: A Fukushima Story

Masami Yoshizawa hauled his radiated cows down to Tokyo, demanding that his animals be studied.
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Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, March 11, 2011

Masami Yoshizawa, who’d driven half an hour up the coast from his ranch in Namie to pick up a few cans of spray paint, climbed out of his truck and headed for the home improvement center’s entrance with a jerky stride that belied his sleepy expression. Eyes half-closed, he seemed to look without seeing. He’d worked with livestock for years—nudging heifers into pens and shoving curious calves away from tractor wheels—and he’d taken on an oblivious, almost animal way of moving. In the Cainz Home store, he took a plastic basket from a stack next to the automatic doors and was wandering an aisle between two tall shelves, a couple cans of spray paint clinking in his carrier, when the quake struck.

The first vibration might’ve been a shiver running down his spine, but soon the towering metal shelves began to sway, tracing wider and wider arcs through the air. A convulsion from deep in the ground seized the building, sending fry pans, plastic buckets, dog food, and bottles of window cleaner crashing to the floor. The store rang with shouts of surprise.

When the tremors stilled he hurried to the front. The clerk in the checkout lane did her best—totaling up the aerosol cans, taking his money, putting his spray paint in a bag—but her hands shook with panic, or maybe because the earth was rumbling again.

A voice came over the PA: “Everyone outside please.”

Masami went for the exit. In the parking lot, waves rippled through the ground. The asphalt swelled without cracking. Above, power lines coiled like snakes. The shaking wasn’t vertical or horizontal but came from all directions at once.

Among the crowd of people who’d run out of Cainz Home, there was one old man who took a portable AM-FM receiver out of his car—there was no cell phone signal—and started tuning it. Gradually, as the convulsions faded, everyone in the lot drifted toward the radio’s staticky crackle.

The announcer was struggling to stay calm: “A large tsunami warning is being issued for coastal Fukushima Prefecture. Please leave coastal areas and evacuate to elevated ground. For the earthquake that occurred at 2:46, strong level-6 tremors are being reported in Shirakawa, Sukagawa, Namie . . . at 3:10 p.m., the forecast is for a three-meter tsunami along the Fukushima coast. Tsunami arrival predictions for Fukushima Prefecture: Iwaki City, Onahama, 3:30 p.m., three-meter waves; Souma City, 3:40 p.m., three-meter waves…”

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It was almost 3:00 p.m. and the highway that led back to Namie and his cattle ranch ran along the coast. Masami’s land was in the hills, away from any waves, but he had no idea if the house or outbuildings were damaged. He couldn’t call Shizue, his sister, who lived with him. He had to get back.

He jumped in his truck, fired up the engine, and whipped out of the parking lot. The road had sunk and cracked in places, and traffic was stacking up. In thirty minutes, a wall of water would crash over the shore and flood the road in three places. The land between the highway and the sea would be inundated, the houses there crushed and washed away. But Masami didn’t know this. As he drove—the gray ocean only a couple kilometers away, a few whitecaps rolling across the otherwise peaceful water—he was thinking only of home.

Yoshizawa Ranch was almost eighty acres in rural Namie. It had started with his father: Masami’s old man had gone to Manchuria during the Second World War as a government-sponsored farm-settler, and, following Japan’s defeat, had somehow survived three years in a Soviet prison camp; he’d returned to Yotsukaido, in Chiba Prefecture, where he started a family and another farm. Masami and his older brother and sister were born there in the Kanto region, near Tokyo, but when real estate grew expensive and the government began dividing the land into smaller parcels—to build freeways and an international airport in Narita—his father, who’d been hoping to buy a bigger plot, sold and moved up north to Namie, in Fukushima. He worked hard to establish a dairy; he was still working the day he was pinned beneath a tractor and killed at the age of sixty-five. Masami’s older brother had taken over the operation, but it wasn’t long before he became involved with a woman who promised him marriage if he gave her a little money and then a little more. By the time Masami intervened—suing his own brother to keep him from selling their family’s acreage—all the heifers had been auctioned off. After his brother left for Kyushu, never to return, Jun Murata, a rancher from nearby Nihonmatsu, had suggested Masami try beef instead of dairy cows. Jun had given Masami forty head and brought him into the M Ranch Company’s operations. It had taken a decade, but by the time the earthquake struck he was responsible for 328 kuro-wagyu, Japanese black cows. Eventually, Masami hoped to have a herd of six hundred.

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To build the two barns where he sheltered his cows he’d learned how to weld, pour concrete, run wiring. As with any product of one’s own hands he knew every imperfection of the cowsheds. The house would be fine, he told himself as he sped down the highway—it had been built with steel-reinforced concrete and had a woodstove for heat—no, it was the barns he worried about.

An hour later, the dirt and sweat and shit smell of the cattle greeted him as he pulled in and saw the cowsheds were still standing, though the quake had split the ground in the main pasture, leaving gashes of fresh dirt in the valley’s grassy floor. The power would be out, the electric fences down, though the cows hadn’t realized this. The small shed he’d built for the well pump beside the house had collapsed; the pipe that sent water from the ranch’s elevated cistern to the cows’ watering troughs was busted.

Shit,” he muttered. The herd drank several thousand liters a day. Even more than hay or grain his cows lived on water.

Without electricity, the main well’s pump was offline, and, anyway, fixing it would take time. He decided to try to get the house’s pump running.

He kept a welding torch, oxygen tank, and generator in the back of a light truck just in case, and he hopped in the mud-crusted Mitsubishi and put it in gear. He backed the truck up the slight slope beside the house and hooked the pump up to the generator, but when he got it running the pressure was weak. Only a trickle came from the barn’s spigots. It would take him hours to fill the troughs. By the time he’d finished the daylight had all but faded.

With the cows seen to, Masami went inside. His cell had no signal, but there was a landline in the house. He dialed Murata-san and told his boss about the damage at the ranch, but adding that with the water back on the cows were fine for now.

After hanging up, he asked Shizue for the keys to her car: “I want to watch the news.”

With the power out he couldn’t watch TV in the house, but he could tune in to digital One Seg channels on her Subaru’s navigation system.

In the parked car, he turned the key so that the dashboard monitor flickered on and on NHK he watched footage from Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, a suburb of Sendai about an hour’s drive north. The video had been taken from the air and showed the tsunami like a black tide of broken boards, burning houses, and swept-up boats, a stain spreading across rice fields, blotting out a greenhouse, chasing a car down a road. He noticed the message scrolling across the bottom of the screen: Those within a three-kilometer radius of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant are instructed to evacuate, those within ten kilometers are advised to stay indoors.

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If he stood on the house’s porch and faced the ocean, he could see the plant’s ventilation towers on the horizon. The power station’s name ticking across the bottom of the screen was like a dark cloud he’d long feared appearing on the horizon.

When he first moved to Fukushima TEPCO had already been operating the Daiichi plant in Okuma for six years. Another electric utility wanted to build a new nuclear power station a few kilometers up the coast, on a piece of land that straddled both Namie and Minami-Souma. Locals were fighting the plan and Masami identified with them. Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, he’d come of age during an era of mass demonstrations, as entire swaths of Japan challenged the country’s postwar order. When he was a high school student in Chiba the farmers around Narita had joined forces with New Left groups in Tokyo to fight the construction of an international airport on their land. The riot police’s armored buses passed on the highway in front of his school, while trains packed with protestors from the universities rattled over the tracks behind the baseball field. Seeing the college kids alongside the growers—the former with their glasses and flowing hair, the latter with their jika-tabi work boots and stained undershirts, but all of them wearing hardhats covered in hand-scrawled slogans and standing behind bamboo barricades—had opened his eyes to the possibility of resistance. Later, at Tokyo University of Agriculture, Masami was elected student body president and managed to catch the tail end of the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the American military’s use of Japan’s ports. Never an academic standout, his proudest moments came during the marches, when he got on the megaphone to denounce the government, or the US-Japanese Security Treaty, or war in general.

After graduating and coming to work on his father’s dairy, he’d taken a similar stance toward the nuclear power facilities in the area. Though he wasn’t a member of any political party, he became familiar with the local leftists; a former Japanese Communist Party candidate gave him an enormous speaker, which he mounted on top of a little Honda van. When the government in Minami-Souma began building a garbage-burning facility he drove out and used it to protest the toxic gases it would release. The night after the tsunami, he decided to take a look at the damage to the town for himself.

He told his sister he was going out and bumped down the driveway in her little Subaru. There wasn’t any power in the town either, and without streetlights the cluster of houses and shops was the same pitch color as the surrounding forest. The few sources of light stood out all the more for the pre-industrial dark, and, as he drove, Masami drifted toward their glow. In front of the fire station, the local officials had put up a huge, white tent and ringed it with floodlights; firemen bustled between stacks of rescue equipment in their navy uniforms. The police station and town office were also lit up and busy with armies of officials. Other than these sights, in the car’s headlights Masami saw cracked walls, broken flowerpots, fissures in the asphalt—but nothing so terrible as what he’d seen in the news.

By the time he got home it was late. In the dark, the ranch was different; the cattle were quiet in their sheds, the pastures were fields of silence. Still, it wasn’t until he walked into the house that he noticed the distant thudding. He stood in front of the window, facing the ocean and the plant, looking past his own reflection for the source of the sound. He spotted a red dot hovering in the air above the coast: a helicopter.

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The realization that whatever was wrong with the plant was serious twisted through him. Though he’d never believed the claims about the power station’s safety, he’d also never conceived what danger would look and feel like. Unlike the havoc he’d seen on the news, it was right out there, just below that tiny, crimson point of light.

March 12

Like most ranchers, Masami was an early riser. The sun hadn’t been up long but he was already outside getting ready to feed. The nicotine from his morning cigarette and the crisp air were sweeping the last cobwebs of sleep from his mind when three police vans pulled into the driveway, the lights on their roofs flashing, sirens muted. He was sure they would ask him to evacuate.

I can’t go,” he would say. “I have my cows.”

As he walked toward where the policemen had parked on his driveway, a middle-aged officer approached Masami.

« Konnichwa »he said, bowing. “We’re with the Fukushima Police Communications Division. We—we’d like to set up a relay antenna on a corner of your property, if you don’t mind. Our helicopter is filming the plant.” The ranch was elevated, clear of trees and tall buildings, had sight lines all the way to the ocean. “We need to send the footage on to the main office, so they can monitor the situation.”

In general, Masami distrusted authority, but face-to-face with the officer there wasn’t any reason not to cooperate. More than anything, he was glad they weren’t there to force him off his land.

Yes, that’s fine,” he said.

As the officer turned and went back to his colleagues they were already unpacking a generator, a foldout table, and several rolls of cables that were plugged into a dish-shaped antenna, which they pointed toward the plant.

Around the same time Masami was talking to the officer, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was coming up from Tokyo in a Self-Defense Forces helicopter. At 7:11 a.m., Masami wouldn’t notice the slight change in the sound of the rotor-blades as Japan’s head of state flew over the stricken plant. Only later, when he heard about it on the news, would he realize how thoroughly the country’s attention had been drawn to his corner of the world.

But that morning, if he ignored the police, it might’ve been any late-winter day. He used the claw attachment on his tractor to carry one of the 300-kilogram bales from a stack by the driveway to the nearby barn. With a shovel he pushed the dried grass into the feed troughs on either side, and the cattle jostled for position. Soon the barn was loud with their chewing and lows. His sister came outside wrapped in a coat.

What did they want?” she asked, glancing at the police.

He repeated the explanation the officer had given him. “Something strange is happening at the plant.”

Though he hid it well, he felt the same worry he’d heard in his sister’s voice. Without power, information about the plant was hard to come by. Even when he managed to catch a glimpse of the One Seg channels in his sister’s car, the news reports were vague and contradictory. As a rancher, he was tied to the land. He couldn’t simply flee. Murata-san certainly didn’t expect him to abandon the ranch.

Rather than sit with this feeling, he decided to go take a look at the shore, to see if he couldn’t get a better look than he had the night before. He drove down route 114, which cut through the center of Namie, heading for the town’s Ukedo district.

Early that morning, the evacuation zone had been expanded to everyone living within ten kilometers of the plant. Fire patrol trucks had driven around announcing the news, and loudspeakers mounted on telephone and electric poles throughout Namie had relayed the message. As he drove toward the coast the roads were clogged with Self-Defense Forces troop transports, police cruisers, buses, and cars piled with belongings.

After he passed the small downtown, the traffic thinned. Before the tsunami Ukedo had been about 350 houses collected around a fishing port, but when Masami arrived at the coast he saw the district had been decimated.

He could still pick out shapes that resembled houses among the field of debris. The keel of a fishing trawler lay propped against the local fishing cooperative building; a blue-hulled skiff had been thrown into the structure’s second floor and lay upside down on a balcony. Cars were scattered everywhere, their metal crumpled and wrinkled like clothes just out of a washing machine. But no matter how recognizable the shapes, the waves had destroyed any difference between the piles of rubble. The twisted beams were the same as the overturned refrigerators; even the dead bodies buried among the wreckage were just so much more debris. To Masami it seemed like end of the world.

To the south, above a hilly elbow of the coast, he could see the ventilation stacks and transmission towers of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The power lines stretched into the distance, eventually meeting up with the cables that ran above Masami’s property, and led all the way down to Tokyo.

The towers were no longer sending electricity to the capital, a problem that TEPCO and the Kan administration were trying to deal with by asking citizens to conserve electricity. In the hours since the prime minister’s visit that morning, the situation in Unit 1 had gotten worse—the reactor was cut off from power, the tsunami had flooded the backup batteries, and now the water level inside the core was low enough to expose the nuclear fuel. Without water, the fuel rods would grow hotter and hotter until they triggered a full meltdown.

In Okuma, Fukushima Daiichi’s superintendent, Masao Yoshida, was in the plant’s emergency response center, just fourteen kilometers from Masami’s ranch—closer to the situation than either the government officials or his corporate bosses. While fission had stopped in each reactor after the quake, the fuel was still incredibly hot. The rods in Unit 1 were melting, the zirconium alloy that coated the uranium reacting with the water to produce dangerous amounts of hydrogen. The fuel needed to be cooled to keep it from decomposing further and dropping into the bottom of the reactor, where it could burn right through the steel core. But the hydrogen pressure in the vessel was so high even fire trucks couldn’t pump water in. Both Naoto Kan and TEPCO had agreed on the need to vent the reactor, and the prime minister had demanded the venting take place when he flew up. But Masao was the one who had to carry out the procedure, and with no electricity the vents had to be opened manually. His workers would have to venture outside in radiation suits, go into the dark, cramped spaces of the buildings, and operate unfamiliar equipment by hand. It was going to take time.

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As he drove, Masami was aware of none of this. The night before, in the hours after the tsunami, Kan’s Cabinet Secretary had said, “There is no radiation leak, nor will there be a leak,” and TEPCO itself had put out a couple of blandly reassuring press releases. But just that morning the evacuation zone had been expanded, and Masami was anxious. If there was a leak what would happen to his cows?

Back at the ranch, as soon as Masami went in the house, a whiff of miso hit him. He found his sister in the kitchen: On a portable gas burner she was simmering a big pot of hoto soup, and he watched as she stirred the steaming broth, thick with udon noodles, leeks, and thin slices of pork.

For the policemen,” she said, looking up at him. “It’s cold out.”

While he could be single-minded to the point of neglect, his sister was expansive in the care she paid to the people around her. Once the food was ready, he helped her carry the meal outside. He took chopsticks, a ladle, and a stack of bowls, and she brought the big pot.

While he could be single-minded to the point of neglect, his sister was expansive in the care she paid to the people around her. Once the food was ready, he helped her carry the meal outside. He took chopsticks, a ladle, and a stack of bowls, and she brought the big pot.

The men were surprised, and the lead officer accepted the pot, thanking Masami and his sister: “Gochisousama desu.”

Later, as the afternoon’s chill deepened, Masami muscled a woodstove of his own making into the bucket of a front-end loader and drove over to where the police vans were. He caught the eye of the officer he’d spoken to before, saying, “You’ll be cold, out here since the morning. You going to be here a couple more days?”

But the policeman said: “Headquarters has just ordered us to withdraw—finally. Sorry, we have to go.”

Shocked, Masami watched the communication officers pack up the generator, the cables and antenna, their desk, and load them back in the vans. The cop whom he’d talked to thanked him again before getting in one of the vehicles. The lights on the roofs of the three vans were flashing red as they crept down the driveway and disappeared.

Occupied with his work, Masami hadn’t heard the explosion—hadn’t felt the ground move as the Unit 1 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi went up in a plume of white smoke. Later, he’d see it on TV. Footage from an NHK camera far from the plant showed the muted blast; the plume seemed like that from a smoke bomb lit next to a model of the building. But when he saw a close-up of the structure—the steel frame still intact but the concrete walls smashed out like the glass from a car window—he understood that whatever had been contained in the core was now in the air all around him.

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At the plant, Superintendent Masao had mistaken the blast for another earthquake. Only when he saw the TV broadcast did he realize there’d been an explosion, though he didn’t understand what had caused it. In the moment, Masao’s staff didn’t stop to debate the reason behind the detonation, and instead everyone turned their attention to the Unit 2 and 3 reactors, where water levels were low. The explosion had damaged the cables his employees had been laying to restore power to Units 1 and 2, and the hoses they’d been preparing to pump seawater into the cores. TEPCO was calling what had happened in Unit 1—what was now going on in Units 2 and 3—“fuel pellet melt,” avoiding the word meltdown, though that’s exactly what it was.

At the Ranch, the cops’ departure had unsettled Masami. Though he’d heard there’d been an explosion he didn’t know what that meant for him, and he decided to see what the farmers at the local dairy collective were thinking. Yoshizawa Ranch had been a dairy for years, and he was familiar with the kumai’s meeting hall, just five minutes up the road. In the meeting room he found a handful of farmers gathered around the television. The power was back on there.

What are we going to do?” one of the men was asking.

Another answered, “Koko mo dame da ne.” This place is done for.

Without power the dairymen couldn’t milk their heifers. If nothing changed their cows would dry up. Those who were making do with gas generators still faced customers afraid to buy milk from the area. They might as well toss their production.

Masami listened to the farmers and took the opportunity to charge his cell phone. Then, a few minutes before 6:30, Naoto Kan appeared on the broadcast. As the prime minister walked to a podium a map of the tsunami damage flashed red, yellow, and green in the corner of the TV. He wore a blue jumpsuit instead of his standard suit and tie and spoke slowly as, off-screen, camera shutters clicked like cicadas:

. . . We are putting the safety of local people first and taking the appropriate precautions. With regards to the Unit 1 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi, I’ve been listening to the latest update from my cabinet secretary and, because of present circumstances, following the evacuation of residents within ten kilometers of the plant, I am now ordering the evacuation of residents within twenty kilometers of Fukushima Daiichi.”

The extended zone fell over his ranch—his cattle, his land, the house. All of it lay within the red semi-circle being drawn on maps of Japan the world over. It was worse than he’d ever imagined. Yet, even as he heard the words Masami knew he wouldn’t flee. He would stay. He would outlast this.

March 14

The thought of his cows’ empty stomachs was what got Masami moving in the small hours. Even when his body was stiff it got him out of bed. With the woodstove it was warm in the house, though it’d been days since he’d had a hot shower.

The day before, he’d gone to see Murata-san at the M Ranch Company’s main office in Nihonmatsu. Masami had no plans to leave, but the cattle didn’t belong to him alone, and they needed to talk over what was to be done with the herd.

There weren’t a lot of options. They could try to ship the beef cows to one of M Ranch’s customers, and Jun could distribute the younger heifers among his ranches outside the evacuation zone. But the mature cattle hadn’t been slated for sale for a few months and were still lean from the winter. Moving them was a big operation, and that was if they could find anyone willing to buy cows from the evacuated area in the first place. Murata was dealing with these decisions in several iterations: Out of the seven ranches in his company, four were within twenty kilometers of the plant; of the M Ranch’s 1,200 or so cows, more than a third were on these properties. With each animal liable to ask $13,000 at market, he had roughly $6.5 million of stock at risk.

Sono uchi nan toka ni naru,” Murata had said. Something will happen before long.

On Monday, in the early light, Masami started up the generator that powered the well pump and was relieved to find none of the pipes had frozen. A cold front had moved in overnight, and it felt like it might snow.

At the emergency response center at Fukushima Daiichi, Superintendent Yoshida was also feeling worn. His workers were strung out from sleeping in hallways and conference rooms with a single blanket each, wearing the same clothes for days, rationing water, and eating two meals a day—crackers and boxes of vegetable juice in the morning, rice and curry or canned food at night. In the smoking room, Masao passed out cigarettes to support his team.

After the explosion of Unit 1, their attention had turned to reactors 2 and 3. Though they’d hooked a fire engine to Unit 3 and were pumping seawater into the core, the instruments in the control room didn’t show the water level rising. The day before they’d vented the containment three times, and they tried again that morning, but the pressure kept climbing. On top of this, while reactor 4 had been offline for maintenance when the tsunami hit, the temperature was now rising in its spent fuel pool, a tank that stored used uranium rods as they cooled. The fuel under the water in the Unit 4 building had been removed from the reactor months before, but it was still incredibly hot. If the water boiled off the fuel would be exposed. Masao needed to find a way to get water into that pool.

At 11:00 a.m., on the ranch, Masami was in his cowshed finishing the morning feed. The scrape of a shovel on concrete, the cows chewing hay, the slurp of their long, gray tongues on the salt blocks—and then all sound shattered by a clap of thunder, like a firework detonating above the barn.

He knew where the sound had come from and hustled over to the house. A pillar of smoke was rising from the plant. His phone buzzed in his pocket. When he answered it was Murata-san.

There was just an explosion.”

I know. I heard it,” Masami said. “Dou shiyou?” What are we going to do?

But there was no answer for his question. He almost thought he could feel the radiation washing over him, and, of course, his cattle were being bathed in the same particles.

At the plant, Masao Yoshida was scrambling—he didn’t even understand what’d happened. The Self-Defense Forces’ Nuclear Biological Chemical Weapon Unit had just arrived in three vehicles when the blast ripped through the plant—gray dust surrounded the soldiers like a fog as they tried to gain their bearings, chunks of concrete came in showers, and four of the men retreated, limping and clutching their injuries. The fire engine Masao’s team had been using to pump seawater into the reactor was damaged and several TEPCO employees were hurt. The Unit 3 building was a smashed, smoking, skeletal ruin. Unlike Unit 1, the upper half of the structure had collapsed in. The blast had been felt as far as forty kilometers away.

At his ranch, Masami watched the rounded blast cloud floating up, the gray smoke trailing beneath, the plume moving across the sky like an enormous jellyfish—seemingly slow, and yet fast for something of its size. He began to realize that this wouldn’t be a temporary evacuation. There were no stopgap measures that could save his herd. The hope that had held his world together faded with the same sickening speed as the haze of the explosion.

March 17

There was no food left in the house. He had used up his diesel running the generator and without fuel he couldn’t pump water for his cows. The gas stations nearby were all closed. Following discussions two days before, his sister had fled, while Masami stayed behind. This was his home after all. Now, he was truly alone.

He’d returned to the ranch a day ago. After entering Namie he ran into a police checkpoint on highway 114, the road back to his ranch. The police had blocked the inbound lane with a blue van, and an electronic message on the roof read, Entry Prohibited. The cops were waving cars through the outbound lane, but when he pulled up the officers motioned him to a stop with their orange-and-white traffic batons.

He rolled down his window as a man in a blue uniform and white helmet came around the front. The cop was young and polite, and after Masami explained that his property lay a few kilometers down the road, the boy calmly said, “I see you’re trying to get through, but I’m stopping you. I know the lives of your cattle are important, but men’s lives are important too.”

I’ll take responsibility for myself,” Masami said. “If I leave them they’ll die.”

After a moment’s hesitation the police waved him through.

He eased the truck back into gear and rolled into Tsushima. Passing through the district he saw Self-Defense Force tents and clutches of refugees huddled around fires. It was like the scene behind the frontlines of a war.

He saw cars turning in to the middle school, and he could imagine the overflowing parking lot, the crowded gym, the rectangles of cardboard on the basketball court heaped with winter blankets, shoes in the aisles. On TV, he’d seen the miserable evacuees, who had nothing but what they’d been able to grab from their homes as they fled, and now could only count on a bowl of rice from the authorities each morning. The temperatures were still dipping down near freezing at night, and the walls in those old schools buildings were thin. Shizue had been against evacuating to Tsushima. She’d kept saying she didn’t want to go to one of those gyms. “I just don’t want wind up in a taikukan.”

After arriving at the ranch he’d fed and watered the herd. He kept hearing explosions echoing out of the plant. There were reports that TEPCO might pull its people out, and the Kan administration was getting more involved by the hour. On top of all this, earlier in the day Murata had called with bad news.

Torihiki ha kotowareta.” The customer they’d hoped to send the cattle to had refused to take the delivery. “It’s all over now.”

That’s it then.”

Later that day, from the second floor of the house, he watched the twin-rotor helicopters circling the plant through an old pair of binoculars he had once used to look at the stars and track satellites across the sky. Standing on the balcony, he saw them bailing water from the ocean in enormous buckets, and dumping it over the reactor buildings. They were trying to replenish the spent fuel pool in Unit 4, but the wind caught most of the water, turning it into curtains of mist that blew away from the building.

In their dedication, the Self-Defense Forces reminded Masami of the kamikaze pilots who’d sacrificed themselves for the country during the War. The TEPCO engineers might abandon their posts, but the Self-Defense Forces wouldn’t flee. They would all die there. He was sure of it.

Still, no matter what the troops did they couldn’t save his animals, and even if he kept his cows alive no one would buy them. It had been nearly a week since the disaster had started, though he had no idea what he or his cattle had been exposed to. The government had a system called SPEEDI that assessed the spread of radioactive releases, but the system relied on the plant’s measuring equipment, which was still offline. If SPEEDI couldn’t predict how much radiation was being released then it could at least calculate what direction the plume was moving. But claiming that the partial reports would only cause confusion, the government hadn’t released them, and so the evacuees from Namie who’d gone to Tsushima didn’t know they were fleeing into the worst of the radiation. Like Masami, they could only guess at the winds and the ions in the air. The land he’d fought for, had toiled so hard make a profit on, was now just eighty acres of the disaster zone.

There was nothing left for him there.

That afternoon, for the first time, it dawned on him that he would leave. He might never see the ranch again. He decided he would go to TEPCO’s head office. He’d seen it on TV: a boxy, gray building in downtown Tokyo with an enormous, orange antenna jutting out of it. He’d take the speaker car and find someone, make them listen.

There wasn’t enough gas in the van’s tank, so he went around the ranch siphoning fuel from the other vehicles into a washbasin and funneled it into the Honda. Before he left, he took the spray paint he’d bought on the day of the earthquake and, in giant letters, big enough for the Self-Defense Forces to see from the air, on the waste silo and the bucket of his biggest tractor he wrote, kesshi kyumei, danketu! Unite, save lives or die trying!

When he arrived in Tokyo, making himself heard would prove harder than he had expected. He would spend days sleeping in his car, denouncing the authorities, causing a disturbance in front of TEPCO’s headquarters until the police came to restrain him. When a representative from the company did finally agree to speak to him, his story would bring the man to tears, but it wouldn’t change anything. Not really.

In the coming years, as he became more and more involved in the anti-nuclear movement—hauling his radiated cows down to Tokyo or to prefectural capitals, demanding compensation and that his animals be studied, giving speeches and leading marches of leftists, continuing to live on the ranch even when the government barricaded the roads and caught him coming or going and tried to make him promise not to return, watching his neighbors’ animals starve to death until their hides and bones were scattered across the land like deflated balloons—he would hold the memory of the days after the quake to himself, a precious energy that perpetually burned inside him.

But as he flew down the Tohoku Expressway his future was still uncertain. He knew nothing of what was to come. He drove toward Tokyo and his heart beat like the flashing light of the countless police cars and fire trucks that passed him, heading the other direction.

https://catapult.co/stories/the-rancher-who-refused-to-leave-a-fukushima-story

 

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June 24, 2017 - Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , ,

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