Japan

Fukushima Radiation Hits Old Family Farms – And Family Pets

The deadline for evacuation zones will interrupt centuries of farming in the region near the damaged nuclear plant. Some livestock will be sold, others will be slaughtered, adding to the animal death toll in the wake of the March earthquake and tsunami.

This Japanese cow is far from Fukushima. Others aren't so lucky. (tsuda)
This Japanese cow is far from Fukushima. Others aren't so lucky. (tsuda)
Jérôme Fenoglio

KATSURAO - Shouichi Matsumoto's family farm is so old he can't even tell you which generation of the family actually started it. "Look at this building – never cracked by an earthquake. It even resisted the last one," says the 70-year-old farmer, brushing against the beautiful old structure. "It has withstood everything for centuries. But now, we have to leave because of a danger that we could not have even imagined."

Because of high, but still immeasurable levels of radiation reported at the badly damaged Fukushima plant, located 25 km away from Matsumoto's farm, the part of Katsurao town where the Matsumoto family lives is now located in the government's mandatory exclusion area – now labeled "a planned evacuation zone," where inhabitants are being told to vacate the premises by May 31.

Shouichi Matsumoto, his wife Shigeko and their sons will go to a hotel 50 km away from their farm, near a golf course. Contemplating the grass of the course's fairways will not ease the pain of having to abandon their pastoral valley. Shigeko whispers: "We are starting to understand what we have been doing for all these years. We won't be able to do all the things that we love: harvesting rice, making tobacco grow and above all, breeding our cattle."

The family has four cows, and each has a name. They all belong to the same breed, which has made this cattle area reputable across Japan. Shouichi braved the radiation to protect his tiny herd, staying there alone, while unknown quantities of radiation were invading the small valley.

His family and the other people living in the hamlet had no other choice but to take refuge in a distant reception center. At the beginning, he was so afraid that he would ran from the cowshed to his house to stay outside as little as possible. Then, he got used to it, and he took an active role in the hamlet by watching over homes and taking care of herds bred by his neighbors.

Little by little, in April some neighbors began trickling back: first checking on their homes, and then definitively moving back in. They all became obsessed with their cows' health, with fattening them back up after weeks of being neglected – it was an obsession that eventually became stronger than their fear.

Hiroshi Kanno, 41, talks about his cows as if they were part of his family. He affectionately pushes half of his livestock – which numbers 14 cows in total – towards the truck. They will be sold by auction in Motomiya at a session dedicated to animals coming from the areas adjoining the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Kanno's cattle were tested for radiation, but no sign of radioactive contamination was detected. He hopes he will manage to get a reasonable price at auction. At the cattle market in Motomiya, prices are not collapsing, but veteran cattle breeders know their way of life may disappear with their last batch of livestock. Hiroshu Kanno has chosen to not sell all his cows to stave off this possibility. But most others, including Shouichi Matsumoto's stock, will be sent to a common cowshed located out of the contaminated regions.

In the evacuee center, Hiroshi has stayed alongside other cattle breeders from the Katsurao area included in the semicircle evacuated since March 13. They have told him about their terrible dilemma: either they continue to let their cattle die of hunger or they put them down as the Japanese authorities require it now. "However, in this part of the contaminated zone, cows are not more contaminated with radiation than mine, which have lived 5 km away from there," Hiroshi says. "Those delimitations are so stupid."

The 20-km-wide zone is thus doomed to be turned into a huge slaughterhouse for those remaining cattle, pigs and chickens that have not been abandoned. There is also the sad fate of house pets. During brief return journeys organized by the Japanese government, some residents put on heavy anti-radiation suits to return to their houses, often with the sole aim of finding their dog or cat. Often, they find just the corpse.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - tsuda

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