Matsumura Naoto San: Standing Up for the Animals Left Behind
Naoto Matsumura is a well-known name among animal advocates worldwide. He is the brave soul who defied Japanese government orders to leave his hometown, Tomioka, after the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant explosion. He stayed on and now cares for the animals left behind.
Recently a friend of mine, Nanci Caron, started a fundraiser to support Matsumura San and his cause. Although she was not a member of any particular animal advocacy group, she asked her friends, family members, and colleagues for “coffee money”. Many gladly gave. In fact, some gave much more. Soon, individuals from all over the globe became aware of the Chip In Fund, and also sent contributions.
As money started piling up, Nanci contacted me, asking how she could be sure of getting the funds to her hero, Matsumura San. Even though he lives far from me, I agreed to try to meet him and directly hand him the donations she collected. So soon I, along with my friend Mayumi, were in for a lively and very interesting afternoon.
Unlike the other reporters, who ventured into the restricted area, Matsumura San, Mayumi, and I met in a restaurant in Koriyama City. Matsumura San was a very direct, open, big-hearted man, not in the least caught up in the complexities of Japanese formal protocol. His stories came right from his heart and were refreshingly honest and genuine.
It seems that Matsumura San was not a farmer before the nuclear disaster, as I had thought. Rather he had been a construction worker for many years until the bottom fell out of that market. Then he cut wires for phone lines and was doing that work when all the changes and problems began. But he had always had a fondness for animals ever since he was a small boy, so the work he is doing now comes naturally to him.
After the nuclear problem started, he and his father, who was living with him, went to relatives to ask if they could move in with them. Those people had small children and were afraid of the effects of radiation, so refused. From there they tried to find shelter in evacuation centers, but by that time those places were all full. So Matsumura San and his father returned home. However, a month later his three brothers came and persuaded the father to leave. But Matsumura San stayed on. At first it was because of the house and having a place to stay. Plus he had promised his neighbors he would feed their animals until they came back. But one day he realized he wanted to live his life with a deeply meaningful purpose. That was when he decided his life’s mission was not only to care for, but also to defend the animals left in Tomioka Town. And a very strong mission and conviction it has indeed become.
He laughingly told us that when people from TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) came into the area, he chased after them and made them sit Japanese style with their legs tucked under them for two hours while he lectured them.
“You guys with your fancy jobs and steady incomes have no idea what the folks from here are going through. We lost everything. Everything! Can you understand that? We lost our homes, our jobs, our fields, our mountains, our water, our air, our schools, our entire town and the surrounding area. We have nothing because of you. All you give us is an apology. Don’t you have any shame?”
Later he kept bugging TEPCO’S main office until they gave some money to the town. Matsumura San wanted them to pay each family individually so that they all might be fairly compensated. But instead they gave the money collectively, which came to about ¥1000 (about $13) per person. A nearby town, Namie, was so furious at TEPCO that if flatly refused the pittance they tried to offer. Such displays of raw negative emotion are very rare in Japan, so carry a very strong, far-reaching message to all.
Matsumura San told us that the government’s plan was to kill all the animals in the restricted zone. In fact, one time police arrived with government officials and held him back as they slaughtered the milk cows. He boldly told them, “Why are you protecting these crooks? You should be protecting the innocent people and animals whose lives they have destroyed. You have your values backwards. Wake up!”
Whenever he talks to government or TEPCO officials his main pitch is, “Why should you kill these animals? They are living things just like you and me. They have just as much right to live as you or I do. I will not let you come near them. I will protect their rights with all my power!”
At first, he said, Tomioka’s town government supported him, but because of the federal government’s pressure, they have stopped. But that only makes him more determined. “I’m a modern-day Samurai. I will not give up this fight. Even if I go to prison, I will not stop. And you know, if I am incarcerated, maybe more people here will know about me and then this impasse will break and something positive will emerge.”
When people left Tomioka, they asked Matsumura San to look after their animals. At first the cats and dogs were afraid or defensive toward him, but with time they came looking for him whining for food. At one point he was caring for 60 dogs. And it took six or seven hours a day to feed all the animals scattered over the town and surrounding areas.
He let the cows loose from the barns in order for them to graze. Now many of them are plump and healthy, but are becoming wild. He is concerned about that and would like to build a large corral where they can be contained, but also get enough to eat.
Even though Matsumura San lives a rather isolated life, he does have contact with people. In February he was in Yokohama, where he held a photo exhibition of Tomioka’s animals and where he presented his case. He got much needed attention and donations from that. Of course, he would like to do more of that sort of thing.
There are animal groups that appear from time to time to get the cats and dogs. He feels uncomfortable with that because he is not sure what they do with those animals. Once a famous politician came with one of these group’s members and took some of the animals. Later they gave them away. The real owners were very upset and angry when they found out about that. They had entrusted their animals to the care of Matsumura San until they were given the OK to return to their homes.
“If those groups really want to help, the best way would be to donate money. I rely on donations for everything now. And so I would really appreciate that sort of assistance. I am sure these people mean well, but it is important that we talk and work with each other.”
Another person he is in touch with is a professor in Kyushu who is connected with JAXA, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. He and that gentleman have devised a way to help clean up some of the radioactive waste on the land. Their plan is to take the dung from the contaminated cattle and add particular bacteria to it. Those bacteria should break down the dung in such a way that the radioactive part will become condensed. From there it can be more easily discarded. Somehow in that way, they postulate, gradually the land and grasses will become less contaminated, even clean. If things are left as they are now, however, the contamination will simply cycle round and round from grass to cows to ground, and back to grass again. They want to break that cycle.
The government is now working to clear away the top levels of the soil in large open areas. The purpose is to make the area safe again. In other words, as poorly as the government has behaved, there are hopeful signs that it is working towards life, not death. The work they are doing to clear large tracks of land is fine for those kinds of places, but implementing that in smaller areas is problematic. But Matsumura San’s idea would be suitable in those smaller places. So Matsumura San is hoping this process will be used soon. And he is hopeful that it will be. 6000 proposals were given to the government about how to deal with this problem. Out of them 25 were selected. One of them was Matsumura San’s.
“So, I am hopeful,” he said with a smile. “If this works, then people will come back. It will bring jobs. It will bring my town back to life. Of course, I don’t expect families with kids to come back. But I am pretty sure old folks will. I mean, their homes are waiting for them.”
But he went on to say that the roofs of many of the houses had been damaged by the earthquake, so water was leaking into them. When he contacted TEPCO about this problem, they sent people to put blue tarps over the roofs, but even so, much water still seeps in.
Matsumura San’s own house is also leaking, especially in the kitchen. “I repair things as best as I can,” he said, “But I have to use buckets to catch the dripping when it rains or snows.”
To live he gets water from a local spring. People gave him their food when they left and permission to eat the vegetables in their gardens. But now he relies on what he can get in town and boil on his kerosene heater. Occasionally Tomioka Town people drift in to check on things and bring him food. Once he was so hungry he went to a restaurant and ordered almost everything on the menu. But eating so much at once made him sick, so he does not do that anymore. “I lost 10 kilos this past year. At first it was tough. But now I am OK.”
He went on to say, “I love candle light. I have a LED lantern, but it is too bright and harsh. So I only use that outside. Candle light sooths and makes me feel safe and relaxed. I enjoy my nights with a candle and sake. That settles me and prepares me for the following day.”
I asked him what kept him motivated. He gave a wry smile and said, “My anger. My frustration. TEPCO’s and the government’s behavior infuriate me to this day. But also love. I really love the animals. I often feel lonely, but when I see their faces, my heart overflows with love. Then I am not lonely anymore. And when I see their babies, so cute, so adorable, I feel great hope. I know that no matter what stupid things people do, life will go on.”
Before we parted ways, Mayumi and I gave this brave, strong-willed man the letters, gifts and money from admiring donors. Among them were frogs from the 500 Frogs Project.
Mayumi translated the messages one by one.
Matsumura San’s heart was so pure that his reactions were immediate and untainted. He would burst into laughter, nod thoughtfully, or weep over what someone had said.
We took the interview further than that, however. Mayumi had brought her computer, so showed him Nanci’s site about the donations he was receiving.
Then we called and talked directly to her. It was lovely sitting in a restaurant in Fukushima thanking Nanci for her kindness, as she thanked Matsumura San for his great work, and Mayumi and me for being bridges to make all this happen.
“How can we help you further,” Nanci asked.
“Please tell the international community I need their support. I need funds. All I have comes from donations. A little bit from everyone can bring big results.
“Please let the international community know about my work. The more people know about this, the more the Japanese government and TEPCO will have to pay attention and actually do something about this terrible tragedy. Not by killing the animals, but by cleaning up the radiation. We have to get started. There is no time to lose.”
Thank you, with Love,