Much has been written about the 2011 Japanese tsunami and resultant Fukushima nuclear disaster. Now, a Japanese rancher, Masami Yoshizawa, with a history of protesting the government, has moved back to the ranch he was forced to desert immediately after the meltdown. His reason: to save the radioactive cows from slaughter and mass disposal ordered by the Japanese government.
A Japanese Don Quixote
“The government wants to kill them because it wants to erase what happened here, and lure Japan back to its pre-accident nuclear status quo. I am not going to let them,” said Yoshizawa in the New York Times. He has renamed his property “Ranch of Hope.”
Many cows died from hunger when all the people fled, leaving behind livestock. Some survived by escaping their pens and foraging in towns and on streets. When the government started to transport workers to and from the plant for clean up, the wandering cows became “walking accident debris,” so the Ministry of Agriculture gave orders to gather up, kill and dispose of the cows by burial or burning, with other radioactive waste.
“These cows are living testimony to the human folly here in Fukushima,” said Yoshizawa. “If authorities say kill the cows, then I resolved to do the opposite by saving them.” And so it is that Yoshizawa returned to his property despite the health risks he chances. He has rounded up not only his own surviving cows, but others found in the area, too. Currently there are about 360 cows he is caring for; nearly half are cows from other ranchers.
Prior to the meltdown, having inherited his ranch from his father, Yoshizawa was raising cows for slaughter. The paradox of creating a sanctuary to now save these radioactive cows is not lost on him. When he first returned to feed the remainder of his surviving cattle, he visited other abandoned ranches. What he found inspired him to change course and create a safe haven for the non-human accident victims of the disaster.
He saw dead cows in rows with their heads in empty troughs awaiting food that never arrived. When he found a newborn calf hoarse from crying next to his dead mother, he decided to save not only the calf he named Ichigo, meaning strawberry in English, but all others who survived being deserted.
Even though it is illegal to live inside the evacuation zone, Yoshizawa continues to do so. Each time the police catch him there he is required to sign “prewritten statements of apology” for his presence. A rebel at heart, he signs the papers but not without crossing out the promise never to return. Apparently Japanese authorities have taken a position to ignore Yoshizawa and his efforts. They do not arrest or remove him from the zone, yet electricity and phone service has been restored to his ranch.
The dangers of living so close to the still damaged nuclear plant are threatening for both Yoshizawa and the animals. He was tested shortly after the meltdown and found with high levels of radioactive cesium in his body. He reports that has decreased in the last two years. Today, a dosage meter near his home rates the area at 1.5 times the government-set level for evacuation.
Health concerns have Yoshizawa ingesting only filtered water and food from outside the contamination zone. The cows, however, do not have that luxury. They continue to be fed with donated food that is radioactive from the zone. Any grazing the cows can do on the land is from contaminated soil. It’s either the food at hand or none, making the decision to feed the cows radioactive food a simple choice.
Yoshizawa has noticed about ten of the cows have small white spots on their bodies which he is attributing to radiation exposure. He was advised by experts that while they have never seen these types of spots before, it is possible they are caused by a fungal infection due to overcrowding.
“I’m a cowboy, and cowboys never leave their cows,” says Yoshizawa in the video below. “Instead of being slaughtered, these cattle should be studied for long term effects of radiation. Killing them is destroying evidence.”
In the meantime, Yoshizawa has become a man on a mission. He has a blog with a live webcam and can still be found in Japanese media. Every so often he holds one-man protests at Tokyo Electric Power Company headquarters, the nuclear plant’s operator. A bachelor with no other family, Yoshizawa seems to have fulfilled his quixotic destiny.
Photo credit: Thinkstock