Naoto Matsumura is the man who stayed behind.
Known as “the last man from Fukushima“, 55-year-old Matsumura is the only person still living in the exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which suffered a meltdown after the major earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011.
Yet Matsumura, nicknamed Macchan, is not alone. He has remained in his home in the coastal town of Tomioka, around seven miles from Fukushima’s stricken nuclear reactors, in order to look after the area’s animals.
Macchan takes care of scores of pets and livestock left behind when their owners fled, including cats, dogs, ducks, pigs, cows, a pony and even ostriches.
It began with the animals on his family’s farm. Having left home with his parents at the start of the nuclear disaster, Matsumura returned alone to check on the farm dogs, who hadn’t been fed for several days.
“When I did eventually feed them, the neighbours’ dogs started going crazy,” he told Vice magazine in 2011. “I went over to check on them and found that they were all still tied up. Everyone in town left thinking they would be back home in a week or so, I guess.
“From then on, I fed all the cats and dogs every day. They couldn’t stand the wait, so they’d all gather around barking up a storm as soon as they heard my truck. Everywhere I went there was always barking. Like, ‘we’re thirsty’ or, ‘we don’t have any food.’ So I just kept making the rounds.”
The more suffering he saw, the more determined Matsumura became to stay.
More than a hundred cattle starved to death in a barn; others were euthanized en masse on the government’s orders. Matsumura rescued one dog, who he named Kiseki or “miracle”, from a barn where he has been trapped for over a year, surviving only by eating the remains of dead cows.
He would find other dogs caught in traps set for wild boar and long forgotten. Many more animals became ill from lack of food and care.
“We have all been abandoned by the government,” Matsumura told Japanese documentary maker Maya Nakamura last year.”So the animals and I are staying here.”
Now Matsumura feeds the animals – and himself – with the help of donations from well-wishers. Food and water from inside the exclusion zone is no longer safe, so much of what they consume has to be brought in from outside.
He receives visits from supporters and journalists and sometimes leaves Fukushima to give talks about the dangers of nuclear power, but most of the time it’s just Macchan and his animals.
They and he continue to survive despite daily exposure to radiation and, against all expectations, new generations are being born in the ruins of Fukushima.
As well as the kittens, puppies and calves he has helped to deliver, Matsumura has had a child of his own: Naoki, a little boy born in 2013. He lives outside the exclusion zone with his mother, a woman Macchan met on an anti-nuclear tour of Japan and Europe. They do not know when, if ever, they will live together as a family.
So, while decontamination efforts continue with no end date in sight, Matsumura will remain the last man in Fukushima, surrounded by the animals who rely on him – and on whom he, too, has come to depend.
“Animals have comforted me and allowed for my survival,” he says.