Defiant Japanese rancher tends radioactive cows
Masami Yoshizawa believes the cattle on his ranch are as much victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster as the 83,000 humans forced to abandon their homes.
The New York Times
NAMIE, Japan — Angered by what he considers the Japanese government’s attempts to sweep away the inconvenient truths of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Masami Yoshizawa has moved back to his ranch in the radioactive no man’s land surrounding the plant. He has no neighbors, but plenty of company: hundreds of abandoned cattle he has vowed to protect from the government’s kill order.
A large bulldozer — meant to keep out agricultural officials — stands at the entrance to the newly renamed Ranch of Hope like a silent sentinel, guarding a driveway lined with bleached cattle bones and handwritten protest signs.
“Let the Cows of Hope Live!” says one. Another, written on a yellow-painted cow skull, declares: “Nuclear Rebellion!” Inside the now overcrowded ranch, bellowing cattle spill from the overflowing cattle sheds.
“These cows are living testimony to the human folly here in Fukushima,” said Yoshizawa, 59, who has a history of protest against his government. “The government wants to kill them because it wants to erase what happened here and lure Japan back to its preaccident nuclear status quo. I am not going to let them.”
Yoshizawa is no sentimentalist; before the disaster, he raised cattle for slaughter. But he says there is a difference between killing cattle for food and killing them because, in their contaminated state, they are no longer useful.
He believes the animals on his ranch, abandoned by him and other fleeing farmers after the accident, are as much victims as the 83,000 humans forced to abandon their homes and live outside the evacuation zone for 2½ years.
He is worried about his health. A dosage meter near the ranch house reads the equivalent of about 1.5 times the government-set level for evacuation. But he is more fearful that the country will forget about the triple meltdowns at the plant.
“If authorities say kill the cows,” he said, “then I resolved to do the opposite by saving them.”
The cattle at the Ranch of Hope are what is left of a once-thriving beef industry around the plant.
Entire herds died of starvation in the weeks after the residents left. The cattle that survived foraged for food among the empty homes and streets, where they became traffic hazards for trucks shuttling workers and supplies to and from the stricken plant. Proclaiming the animals “walking accident debris,” officials from the Ministry of Agriculture ordered them to be rounded up and slaughtered, their bodies buried or burned along with other radioactive waste.
Outraged, Yoshizawa began returning to his ranch soon after to feed the remnants of the herd he had been tending. He eventually decided to return full time to turn the ranch into a haven for all of the area’s abandoned cattle. Of the approximately 360 cattle on his 80-acre spread, more than half are animals that others left behind.
Although he describes his protest in mainly political terms, his explanation for returning despite the possible danger is tinged with a hint of emotion. He describes his horror on visiting abandoned farms where he found rows of dead cattle, their heads fallen into food troughs where they had waited to be fed. In one barn, a newborn calf bawled next to its dead mother. He said his spur-of-the-moment decision to save the calf, which he named Ichigo, or Strawberry, was his inspiration for trying to save the others left behind.
Yoshizawa is no stranger to challenging authority, having protested against nuclear power before. But he says he felt particularly bitter after the Fukushima accident, which he fears could permanently ruin the ranch that he inherited from his father.
It does not help that his town, Namie, felt especially deceived by its leaders. After he heard the explosions at the plant, he and many other townspeople wound up fleeing into the radioactive plume because the government did not disclose crucial information about the accident.
“I needed to find a new philosophy to keep on living,” said Yoshizawa, who is unmarried and lives alone on the ranch. “Then I realized, why is Japan being so meek in accepting what authorities are telling them? I decided to become the resistance.”
He has attracted a small following of supporters, but he has his critics, too, who say he is keeping the animals alive in less-than-humane conditions to make a political point. “Looking at the over-concentration of animals, I personally don’t think this is very humanitarian,” said Manabu Fukumoto, a pathologist at the Institute of Development, Aging and Cancer at Tohoku University who studied the abandoned cattle.
The local authorities have turned a blind eye to his defiance. Town officials in Namie deny knowledge of him or anyone else living inside the evacuation zone, despite the fact they have restored electricity and telephone service to the ranch.