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PHOTO ESSAY: The man who saves forgotten cats in Fukushima's nuclear zone

Tim Kelly and Kim Kyung Hoon, Reuters

Posted at Mar 04 2021 11:41 AM | Updated as of Mar 04 2021 12:19 PM

FUKUSHIMA, Japan - A decade ago, Sakae Kato stayed behind to rescue cats abandoned by neighbors who fled the radiation clouds belching from the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant. He won't leave.

An aerial view of a seawall under construction in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, February 21, 2021. Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

"I want to make sure I am here to take care of the last one," he said from his home in the contaminated quarantine zone. "After that I want to die, whether that be a day or hour later."

So far he has buried 23 cats in his garden, the most recent graves disturbed by wild boars that roam the depopulated community. He is looking after 41 others in his home and another empty building on his property.

Sakae Kato walks past black bags containing contaminated soil from the fallout of the Fukushima nuclear plant, in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, February 21, 2021. Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

Kato leaves food for feral cats in a storage shed he heats with a paraffin stove. He has also rescued a dog, Pochi. With no running water, he has to fill bottles from a nearby mountain spring, and drive to public toilets.

The 57-year-old, a small construction business owner in his former life, says his decision to stay as 160,000 other people evacuated the area was spurred in part by the shock of finding dead pets in abandoned houses he helped demolish.

Sakae Kato holds a flash light in his mouth as he climbs up a ladder onto the second floor of an abandoned house that Kato converted into a cat shelter, on his property in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on February 20, 2021. Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

The cats also gave him a reason to stay on land that has been owned by his family for three generations.

"I don't want to leave, I like living in these mountains," he said standing in front of his house, which he is allowed to visit but, technically, not allowed to sleep in.

The two-storey wooden structure is in poor condition.

Sakae Kato eats instant noodles for dinner at his home in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, February 20, 2021. Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

Rotten floorboards sag. It is peppered with holes where wall panels and roof tiles that kept the rain out were dislodged by a powerful earth tremor last month, stirring frightening memories of the devastating quake on March 11, 2011, that led to a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown.

"It might last another two or three years. The walls have started to lean," Kato said.

Decontamination in fields near his house signal that other residents will soon be allowed to return.

An aerial view shows Sakae Kato's house standing close to a field which is being decontaminated in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, February 21, 2021. Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

He estimates he spends $7,000 a month on his animals, part of it to buy dog food for wild boar that gather near his house at sunset. Farmers consider them pests, and also blame them for wrecking empty homes.

On Feb. 25, Kato was arrested on suspicion of freeing wild boar caught in traps set up by Japan's government in November. At time this article was published, he was still being detained for questioning.

Sakae Kato cleans cat cages at his home, in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, February 20, 2021.Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

Sakae Kato holds Mokkun, a rescued cat, while an animal rescue activist applies an ointment onto its mouth at Kato's home, in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, February 21, 2021.Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

Sakae Kato prepares to feed wild boars in front of his home, in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, February 20, 2021.Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

Sakae Kato lies in bed next to Charm, a cat who he rescued five years ago who is infected with feline leukemia virus, at his home in a restricted zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, February 20, 2021.Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

An aerial view shows Sakae Kato walking Pochi, his dog that he rescued four years ago, on an empty road between restricted zones in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, February 20, 2021.Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters


FEAR LINGERS

About 30 km (19 miles) southeast, still in the restricted zone, Hisae Unuma is also surveying the state of her home, which withstood the earthquake a decade ago but is now close to collapsing after years of being battered by wind, rain and snow.

Hisae Unuma looks into her home that she lived in before being evacuated, which is 2.5 km away from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, as she visits the house on the anniversary of her husband's passing in a restricted zone in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, February 23, 2021. Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

"I'm surprised it's still standing," the 67-year-old farmer said, a week after the tremor that damaged Kato's house.

"I could see my cattle in the field from there," she said pointing to the living room, a view now blocked by a tangle of bamboo.

Unuma fled as the cooling system at Tokyo Electric Power Co's nuclear plant 2.5 km away failed and its reactors began to melt down.

Hisae Unuma wears a protective suit as she makes her way to her family's graveyard near her home that she lived in before being evacuated, which is 2.5 km away from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, as she visits the house on the anniversary of her husband's passing in a restricted zone in Futaba, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, February 23, 2021. Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

The government, which has adopted Fukushima as a symbol of national revival amid preparations for Tokyo Olympic Games, is encouraging residents to return to decontaminated land.

Lingering fears about the nuclear plant, jobs and poor infrastructure are keeping many away, though.

A bullocks’ skull sits on top of a cross on a wall that bears a nuclear symbol, at the Ranch of Hope, a cattle farm owned by Masami Yoshizawa, who defied an order to cull his irradiated livestock in protest against the government and Tokyo Electric Power after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in Namie, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, February 22, 2021. Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

Unuma, now a vegetable farmer in Saitama prefecture near Tokyo, where her husband died three years ago, won't return even if the government scrapes the radioactive soil off her fields.

Radiation levels around her house are around 20 times the background level in Tokyo, according to a dosimeter reading carried out by Reuters.

A radiation dosimeter, brought by a Reuters journalist, shows a reading of 1.89 microsievert per hour at Hisae Unuma's family graveyard, near her house that she lived in before being evacuated, as Unuma visits the graveyard on the anniversary of her husband's death in a restricted zone in Futaba, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, February 23, 2021. Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

Only the removal of Fukushima's radioactive cores will make her feel safe, a task that will take decades to complete.

"Never mind the threat from earthquakes, those reactors could blow if someone dropped a tool in the wrong place," she said.

Before making the four-hour drive back to her new home, Unuma visits the Ranch of Hope, a cattle farm owned by Masami Yoshizawa, who defied an order to cull his irradiated livestock in protest against the government and Tokyo Electric Power.

Bullocks stand on a field at the Ranch of Hope, a cattle farm owned by Masami Yoshizawa, who defied an order to cull his irradiated livestock in protest against the government and Tokyo Electric Power after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, February 22, 2021. Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

Among the 233 bullocks still there is the last surviving bullock from the 50-strong herd Unuma used to tend, and one of her last living links to the life she had before the disaster.

Her bullock ignores her when she tries to lure him over, so Yoshizawa gives her a handful of cabbage to try to tempt him.

"The thing about cattle, is that they really only think about food," Yoshizawa said. (Reporting by Tim Kelly and Kim Kyong Hoon; Additional reporting by Akira Tomoshige; Editing by Pravin Char)

The remains of cattle lie on the ground at the Ranch of Hope, a cattle farm owned by Masami Yoshizawa, who defied an order to cull his irradiated livestock in protest against the government and Tokyo Electric Power after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in Namie, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, February 22, 2021.Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

The remains of cattle lie on the ground at the Ranch of Hope, a cattle farm owned by Masami Yoshizawa, who defied an order to cull his irradiated livestock in protest against the government and Tokyo Electric Power after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in Namie, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, February 22, 2021.

Hisae Unuma works on her farm, where she has settled down after being evacuated from her home in Fukushima which was 2.5 km away from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant and in a restricted zone, in Kazu, Saitama prefecture, Japan, February 17, 2021.Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters