Townspeople in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, used to take pride in a 2.5-km stretch of 300 cherry trees that reached full bloom and created a canopy of blossoms every April in Yonomori Park.
Before the massive quake last year, the town had around 15,000 residents. But now Naoto Matsumura, 52, is the only one left. He decided to stay where he grew up even after the entire town ended up in the exclusion zone set up April 22 because of the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.
On March 11 last year, when the earthquake struck, he was operating a road paving machine at a construction site on the Joban Expressway. After losing contact with the site supervisor, he came home alone by truck on a quake-damaged road.
Matsumura’s home is around 12 km southwest of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. plant that was hit by meltdowns and explosions after the quake and tsunami. The no-go zone bans entry to areas 20 km from the plant.
Matsumura, who is single, had been making a living as a construction worker while helping his parents on their farm.
After the core meltdowns, his parents moved to Shizuoka Prefecture, where his older sister lives. But he decided to stay on, thinking: “Why in the world do I have to leave here on account of Tepco?”
His home is nearly 40 years old. The electricity and water have been cut off and he has to rely on candles at night. When he has to use the toilet, he heads into the woods with a shovel in hand.
In the days right after utilities were cut off, he drank spring water and staved off hunger with canned mackerel he had in stock.
He learned to catch eels and “ayu,” a variety of trout, with a net he got from a fisherman and also to grow asparagus and peas. They were cooked with what little seasoning was left on the shelves at home, using a portable heater.
Matsumura said he was anxious about eating radiation-tainted food, but that his hunger got the better of him.
“Whether you die after eating or die without eating was the question,” he said. “Once I took the plunge and ate some, I no longer cared afterward.”
Village officials came and urged him to evacuate before the no-go zone was set up but he said he has not seen them since. Residents who evacuated have been allowed to make temporary visits since May. Some of them have been kind enough to give him water, food and gasoline on their home visits, he says.
Sometimes he leaves the zone to buy daily necessities. In the summer, he was spotted and stopped by a police officer patrolling the demarcation line who suspected Matsumura might have been involved in some crime.
Matsumura said he raised his voice and said: “What’s wrong with going home? This is the town I came from.” After signing some papers for the police, he comes and goes as he pleases and the officers look the other way.
Unauthorized entry to the zone is punishable by a fine of up to ¥100,000 or detention.
To survive the winter, Matsumura has been relying on a kerosene heater and old-fashioned “kotatsu,” a quilt-covered table set up over a charcoal pit in the floor, to stay warm. His neighbors gave him kerosene and charcoal they left behind, he says.
While he bathed in the nearby river during the summer, in the winter, he warms up water in a wood-fired metallic barrel once a week to take a bath.
Matsumura says he now often sees the carcasses of cattle and other animals in town. He spends six to seven hours a day feeding pets and livestock in his neighborhood with supplies donated by support groups, before going to bed at around 7 p.m.
There is no one else he can talk to in the deserted town.
“I only have a lot of time to think,” he said.
Matsumura has lost nearly 10 kg in the past year. In October, he was given a dosimeter by an official who dropped by his place while visiting for decontamination experiments.
His cumulative dosage was measured at a level of 2.5 millisieverts.
The government’s annual radiation exposure limit is 1 millisievert for ordinary citizens.
It is sad to see his hometown going downhill, but Matsumura said he will not desert it.
“The nuclear power plant took away everything from me, my life and assets,” he says. “Staying on here is my way of putting up a fight so that I won’t forget my anger and grief.”