Naoto Matsumura has been living in the no-go zone around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant since tens of thousands of residents evacuated to flee the high radiation.

He took on the task of feeding and caring for abandoned cattle whose owners were ordered to evacuate after the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the meltdowns at the plant.

“I said I would take care of them, so I can’t back down now,” he said.

Matsumura, 53, is a resident of town of Tomioka, which is inside the 20-km hot zone around the crippled plant in Fukushima Prefecture. He recalled an incident earlier this year that prompted him to embark on the mission of feeding the cattle.

In March, Matsumura spotted a group of people wearing white radiation gear near a barn in the town.

The people, working for the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, were there to slaughter cattle in the barn.

Matsumura could not help but intervene as he saw a tray with around a dozen syringes apparently intended for putting the animals down. “I’ll take care of them, so please don’t kill them,” he shouted.

They eventually left without killing any of the cattle.

Matsumura was unable to sleep that night, he recalled, because of the weight of what he had promised to do.

He has since been feeding and caring for stray cattle — around 50 in his own yard.

Before the nuclear disaster, there were around 3,500 cattle inside the restricted area, according to the Fukushima Prefectural Government.

Many starved to death in the months after the disaster started because their owners were unable to come back and feed them. Hundreds of animals were slaughtered under a government order issued in May last year, with their owners’ consent.

Some animals survived, however, by being released or escaping from their enclosures. They now roam freely on roads, rice paddies and farmland within the exclusion zone.

Matsumura has been trying to gather them into a herd, using a truck to transport them, and to build a ranch on leased rice paddies with the help of a friend, Kazuo Endo, 54, who is in the construction business.

Matsumura has been trying to separate the cattle by sex to control their population, but as some mated while roaming, calves continue to be born, he said.

Weakened cows often do not lactate, so Matsumura gives baby formula to calves every morning. But some do not survive. He burns incense in a Buddhist ritual to console their souls.

“I take the life of an animal only when I eat it,” said Matsumura, who raised livestock before the disaster. “The abandoned cattle have suffered enough. Inflicting more suffering (through slaughter) would be callous.”

While most of the residents of the area are now living elsewhere, Matsumura is one of a handful of people who remain inside the zone.

His home is about 12 km southwest of the Fukushima No. 1 plant. He evacuated after the disaster but returned soon after.

A divorcee, Matsumura lives alone, fishing in a nearby river, growing vegetables and using candles to provide light.

He lives on compensation and sometimes obtains food from people who are allowed to return to their homes temporarily. He buys daily essentials when he occasionally leaves the zone.

Matsumura’s cumulative radiation dose has reached around 4 millisieverts since last October, when he began measuring it. According to the Environment Ministry, people usually receive around 1.4 millisieverts a year naturally.

But he does not wear protective gear or masks.

“I don’t have enough manpower or money. I don’t know how much and how long I can do this,” Matsumura said. “The nuclear power plant took away everything I cherished. Living here and helping the animals survive is my own way of continuing to fight.”

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