The cows died

But mandatory slaughter of Fukushima’s radioactive cattle was just the beginning of a new tragedy

Japanese filmmaker, Tamotsu Matsubara’s, heartbreaking documentary — translated in English as Nuclear Cattle — is ostensibly about the cattle farmers in the Fukushima radiation zone, forced to make devastating choices. Do they slaughter their radioactive cattle, or keep tending to them, even though they can never sell the meat, or must throw all the milk away?

But the film is about something more than that — a loss of touch with our fundamental humanity, with nature, and with stewardship of all living things. It’s about a societal shift. If we are willing to rush the Fukushima nuclear disaster out of sight, and prioritize the economy over the well-being of human and animal lives, what does that say about where our society is headed?

The film was recently screened on line in France, before which Matsubara made his own statement. The film can be seen in its entirety on YouTube (it is embedded further down in this story). But Matsubara’s statement is a powerful one. We present it here, in full. (You can also watch it here in Japanese with French subtitles, from which we translated it.) 

A statement by Tamotsu Matsubara

I made my documentary film over the course of five years starting in June 2011, filming within a 30km radius around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a zone where the public is forbidden from going. The film shows the suffering of farmers whose cows are radioactive.

At the start of the film, there is a horrific scene where we see cows in a barn who have died of hunger. It’s a scene that symbolizes the consequences of a nuclear accident. The inhabitants didn’t know what was happening. They told them to leave without taking anything with them, and without telling them where they were going.

The radioactive plume, a mass of highly radioactive air, was moving in the same direction as the evacuees — towards the Northwest. The inhabitants were exposed to radioactive fallout which came down in rain and snow.

The members of the government and TEPCO must have known the direction of the wind and the consequent risk but this information was not disclosed. The government and TEPCO deliberately held back this information.

This tragedy is not a result of natural causes but of human ones.

From the start, the Japanese government advocated for 10 years to take the steps needed for indemnification and reconstruction.

Even more, in the name of the Olympic Games it it trying to erase Fukushima from public memory.

Japan is the victim two atomic bombs — Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the nuclear accident it knows a third atomic disaster. The whole world knows about the devastating effects, but there is no sign of abandoning this energy source. Too many major enterprises and researchers are involved in the nuclear industry.

We are in the post-accident phase, and the government wants the population to return to highly contaminated areas. It’s the essence of the problem.

The government and the operator disregarded safety measures, based on the principle that an accident would never happen. TEPCO did not take steps even though a large tsunami was predictable. 

The Ikeda farm is at Okuma, like the nuclear power plant. The Farm of Hope is at Namie, and proclaims itself anti-nuclear loud and clear. The Yamamoto farm belongs to a former city councillor from Namie. He is in favor of nuclear power. The Watanabe farm experienced the highest levels of radioactive fallout.

Everywhere, the number of cattle have diminished but the situation hasn’t changed. The farmers continue to tend non-commercial cattle.

The decontamination activities will begin at the earliest this year, and later next year for the Ikeda and Yamamoto farms. The decontamination work will reduce the radioactivity. The restrictions on entry will be lifted, and living in the zone will be permitted.

Is it reasonable to live there just because 10 years have passed? Given that radiation remains in the the areas already reopened, only old people will return there and not the younger generation. All that will serve to do is increase depopulation and the aging of the population and communities will never recover their earlier vitality.

Tamotsu Matsubara receives the Berlin Audience Award for his film, Nuclear Cattle, at the Berlin Uranium Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of the Uranium Film Festival)

Through the animal study on the health effects of exposure to low doses of radiation, led by the team directed by Professor Okada, a study which continues to interest me, I learned that the number of deaths caused by leukemia had risen. There are two types of bovine leukemia. One is viral. In the other, the number of leucocytes in the blood diminish due to the radioactivity. If the second type is what is found, this shows that there is a health risk for humans, linked to the radioactivity in the post-accident phase.

However, there are numerous hurdles. The researchers are not in Fukushima all the time. And given that the cow being dissected has already been dead for a few days, it is difficult to get accurate data. Genetic analysis of the cows with leukemia is underway but there is a low number of samples. As a result, I believe that even if one can definitely show leukemia among the exposed cows, this will not draw any attention.

This study on the effects of low doses of radioactivity on large animals is unprecedented anywhere in the world. However, the government is showing no interest in it and won’t finance it. I ask myself whether there aren’t influences at work to avoid uncovering the health effects on humans, effects that are inconvenient for the pro-nuclear lobby.

Why do the farmers look after their irradiated cows rather than kill them? Raising them doesn’t bring in any money. I think this is the hardest aspect for you to understand. Spending time alongside the farmers for more than five years I noticed certain things. There is the “attachment” of the farmers to the cows, their “pride” as a breeder, and “resistance.” 

Exposed cows must be slaughtered. Initially, the government adhered to this idea, but about two years after the nuclear accident, the policy wavered somewhat. They took into account the fact that the farmers were not obeying the order to slaughter and proposed certain conditions under which the cows could be kept.

The conditions are: “No reproduction”, “no commercialization”, “no leaving the zone”, “take on the costs of feed themselves”, and “when an animal dies, bury the body in a 5 meter-deep hole”.

But the farmers who would have liked to have kept their cows, instead had to obey the slaughter order because the cost of burying a dead cow was too high to bear.

In order to allow slaughter, the government requires a signature of approval from the cows’ owner because, legally, you cannot dispose of private property without authorization. It was this policy against which the farmers rebelled. The decision by the government to slaughter all the exposed cattle  is based on the reasoning that it “protects food safety for people.” However, in the case of illnesses like foot and mouth disease or mad cow disease, the government promulgated a special law for mandatory slaughter.

For the Fukushima farmers, if the cows represent a risk to the food supply, the order to slaughter had to be given without obliging the breeders to sign the consent form. Signing a document authorizing the death sentence, places a burden on them such that they can never face a return to cattle breeding or to raising other animals.

If this policy is designed to protect the Japanese people, then the Japanese government should take responsibility for the slaughter. This is revealed in the expression of Mr. Shiba during an interview. Mr. Shiba says: “raising them down there among flourishing nature, for me that was the height of happiness. Right now, it’s nothing more than a dream. I don’t have the will any more to look after animals.” I think his expression speaks for itself.

Mr.Shiba lost his deam — raising cattle in a nature paradise. (Still from film)

If slaughter is obligatory, they have no other choice than to obey. But the government has imposed the responsibility on the farmers, who are however themselves the victims of the accident. Isn’t this a violation of the farmers’ human rights?

I would like to talk about the tragedy of a farmer who is an example of this. He had a dairy farm in the town of Soma, situated 50 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Every day, several times a day, he milked irradiated cows just to throw the milk away afterwards. There was compensation for those living less than 30 km from the nuclear plant. But this farmer had received only “condolence” money shortly after the accident.

He milked the cows he raised with care, just to throw the milk away. He did this day after day. But the farmer couldn’t carry on, his morale was shattered, and he committed suicide. This happened one year after the nuclear accident.

Today in Japan, there is no longer any place for common sense. It’s all about bringing the nuclear accident to a rapid close and the government is trying to make residents return, no matter the cost.

This is all because of the nuclear politics supported by the Ministry of Economics and Industry and because of the refusal to recognize the aberration of this policy. If the lives of inhabitants was a priority, we should have done as they did in the case of Chernobyl and designated an exclusion zone of 30 km from the plant and evacuated the inhabitants far away while guaranteeing them means of subsistence. 

In my opinion, since cesium 137, which has a harmful effect on humans, has a half-life of 30 years, the zone with high radioactive fallout about 20 km around the plant should be closed for 30 years. After 30 years, one could give the inhabitants the option to return. Until then, evacuating populations to another area and providing them compensation instead of investing in decontamination work, would be much more effective.

But the government will not adopt such a policy.

The important thing is to avoid wiping villages and towns off the map, something that would bring disgrace on the government. It’s not the lives of people which has priority. But the reputation of the government.

What I want to show you through this film is that Japanese society or economic activities now come before human life. Does this kind of society truly contribute to the wellbeing of people? For sure, it’s important to earn money to live. But to the point of neglecting human life and the dignity of all forms of life?

Watch Nuclear Cattle

In Japan today, the supremacy of economics seems widespread, both in the heart of government and among the population. I think that in this kind of society the likelihood of a major disaster such as a nuclear accident is heightened.

You already know that the cost of nuclear energy, which humans cannot control, is by no means cheap.

I hope that in Japan, as elsewhere in the world, life will once again become paramount.

I hope this film provides you the opportunity to think about it.

Tamotsu Matsubara is currently making a film about the tigers of Bhutan.

Headline photo: Promotional poster for the film, Nuclear Cattle, courtesy of the author and filmmaker.

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