The Five-Year Struggle of a Fukushima Dairy-Farming Couple

Economy Society

On December 3, 2015, Sanpei Toshinori (60) and his wife Keiko (57), dairy farmers living in Motomiya, Fukushima Prefecture, watched as the 49 cows in their barn were sold off. About 50 other dairy farmers had come for the sale, which started shortly after 10 a.m. A group of experts including farming cooperative representatives and a veterinarian had set prices for the cows in advance. Referring to these prices, those at the sale raised their hands to indicate their interest in buying the animals as they were offered one by one. One high-priced cow attracted 40 would-be purchasers, who drew lots to determine which of them would get it.

Several hours after the sale started, it was over. “Seeing the cows sold and being loaded onto trucks reminded me of the day five years ago when we evacuated them. Frankly it was tough.” So declared Keiko, who continued, “For the past five years I was totally occupied just trying to live, and that may have allowed me to avoid a real sense of what we lost. Now, for the first time, it’s come home to me.

This was the end of 40 years of dairy farming for the Sanpeis.

Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Plant Disaster

Five years ago, on March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, generating a huge tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The loss of power at the plant led to an unprecedented nuclear accident. Radiation from the crippled facility forced residents in the area to evacuate, and to this day many are still unable to return to their homes except for brief visits.

Among the evacuees were the Sanpeis, who had been running a dairy farm in the town of Namie, about 25 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. They had been working as a team for 40 years, devoting themselves entirely to the dairy business. I covered them starting just after the meltdown at the plant, observing their life over the years that followed. They had both insisted that dairy farming was everything for them, but just short of five years after the disaster they decided to give it up. The decision they reached was based on troubles that had beset them over the course of this period in the long shadow of the catastrophe.

When I started covering the Sanpeis, they were commuting daily to the rented barn where they were keeping their herd, located 30 kilometers from their home. They had moved the animals there after the disaster, because they could no longer keep them in their own barn.

The couple had evacuated immediately after the disaster, leaving their cows behind. But the cows were more than just a source of income to them. While staying at an evacuation shelter, they thought constantly of the animals, and their fondness for them meant that abandoning them was not an option. They found a barn for rent in the city of Motomiya, about an hour’s drive from their home and far from the crippled TEPCO plant, and they moved all the cows there. At the time, Keiko told me that they were totally determined to continue dairy farming, and so moving the cows was a big step forward for them. Her husband Toshinori was quiet, but worked briskly at looking after the cows. One day, after returning to their home in Namie, he griped that the one-hour commute was too long, but even so he appeared to be happy.

May 23, 2011, Sanpei Toshinori and Keiko with their cows shortly after they moved them to Motomiya.

At that stage, the Sanpeis had not abandoned the hope of eventually moving the cows back to their own place in Namie. They kept up their regular cleaning of the empty barn so it would be ready for the cows’ return at any time. Deeply engraved in my memory is the scene of them spreading grass and sprinkling powder to prevent mold so the cows would not slip on the floor when they came back. As Keiko recalls, “At that point we had a vague sense of hope for the future.” But the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster dragged on, and a few months later the Sanpeis moved to an apartment they rented close to their barn in Motomiya. And they began to prepare to resume dairy farming in a new location.

The Hurdle of Radiation Testing

Dairy farming requires a tremendous amount of labor, starting early in the morning with about three hours spent milking, cleaning the barn, and feeding the cows. The cows get fed again at noon, and late in the afternoon there is another round of milking and barn cleaning. The cows are liable to get sick unless they are milked regularly and the barn is kept clean, so dairy farmers cannot skip their daily chores.

But when the Sanpeis resumed their dairy operation, they ran into a problem: avoidance of Fukushima Prefecture products due to nuclear contamination fears. Some spinach and raw milk from Fukushima had been found to contain levels of radiation higher than the tentative guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, and this had led to a widespread reluctance to consume foods from the prefecture—Fukushima stigma, so to speak.

December 26, 2011: Keiko doing morning chores just after the couple were able to start shipping their cows’ milk again.

The Sanpeis did not give up, though. They started sending milk from their cows to be tested for radiation. The tests, which were mandatory at the time, were conducted once a week, and the radiation had to be below a specified level three consecutive times. They handed freshly collected milk in plastic bottles to an employee of the dairy farmers’ cooperative who came to pick them up. The tests revealed no radiation contamination, but initially it was not possible to sell the milk, so they had to dispose of it after they collected it.

After overcoming this hurdle, the Sanpeis were able to produce and sell milk from their cows for a couple of years, though they were operating in the red. They kept at it nonetheless, so they could get back to being able to make their living as dairy farmers.

July 20, 2012: The Sanpeis working in their barn in Motomiya—keeping up their operation even though they were losing money at it.

The Impact of a Huge Compensation Payment

In December 2013, however, the government abandoned its policy of aiming to have all the evacuated residents return to their original homes. Parts of the evacuation zone with high radiation levels, including the Sanpeis’ home and farm, were designated “areas where residents will have difficulties in returning for a long time.” The Sanpeis at this point completely shifted their base of operations to the place they were renting in Motomiya. And along with others from these high-radiation areas, they received a compensation payment from TEPCO.

The lump-sum compensation payment ended up causing an unanticipated new problem: a complete loss of will to work. As Toshinori explains, “The situation hadn’t changed a bit, but an amount of money that I’d never seen before showed up in the bankbook. The sight of that sum left me feeling like an empty shell.”

The amounts paid to the evacuees were indeed huge—“like winning the lottery,” as a number of them told me. Considering the damage caused by the disaster at the TEPCO plant, the lottery simile may not be appropriate, but the government estimated that the payment to an ordinary family of four from the high-radiation area came to ¥106.75 million. In the Sanpeis’ case, the lump sum they received also included compensation for their barn, other buildings, dairy farming equipment, and land.

By way of reference, the evacuation zone is now divided into three types of areas according to radiation levels and the prospects for evacuees’ return: (1) areas where residents will have difficulties in returning for a long time, to which entry is in principle forbidden because of high radiation levels; (2) areas in which residents are not permitted to live, though entry is permitted; and (3) areas for which evacuation orders are ready to be lifted. The estimated payments to an ordinary family of four from the second and third types of areas came to ¥71.97 million and ¥56.81 million, respectively. As a result of the classifications, even people who were living close to each other have received different levels of payments, and these differences are sometimes a source of discord even now, five years after the disaster.

After the Sanpeis received their payment, one acquaintance who formerly lived near them and who received a smaller payment said sarcastically, “It’s nice that you got so much.” Keiko reported this with regret, suggesting that the large amounts of money had caused the disaster victims to lose their sense of mutual sympathy.

Even in the face of these circumstances, the Sanpeis devoted themselves assiduously to rebuilding their dairy farming operation. But they encountered interference from an unexpected quarter: Abenomics, the economic policies implemented by the government after Abe Shinzō became prime minister in December 2012. The government’s drive to end deflation caused the yen to lose value, and this meant substantially higher prices for their cows’ feed, which consisted almost entirely of imports. As a result, they found it hard to avoid running losses every month.

Undeterred, they invested several million yen of their compensation money in a pedigreed cow. This was about the only sort of capital investment they could make while operating in a rented barn. And when they got extra income, such as from selling newborn calves, they were able to turn a monthly profit. They held on as best they could and kept on dairy farming.

Calling It Quits

In September 2015, though, they ran into another serious problem. The dairy farm that had been disposing of their herds’ dung for them became unable to do so any longer. And it is not possible to run a dairy farm without having a way of disposing of these wastes. After exhausting the possibilities, the Sanpeis made up their minds to abandon their operation.

Keiko declares, “We spent five years doing our utmost. We knew it was going to be tough, but we agreed at the beginning that we’d give up dairy farming after three years if it didn’t work out. The compensation payment allowed us to stay at it longer than we had anticipated. But even so, it’s frustrating to retire at this age.” And Toshinori explains, “We came to the conclusion that we should quit before the five-year landmark if it was going to be impossible to keep up the dairy farm without relying on the compensation money.”

The Sanpeis say that after they reached their decision, they felt the weight of the four decades they had devoted to dairy farming. “The thought that ‘this is really the end’ filled my heart,” said Keiko. And Toshinori added, “Honestly, I very much regret having to do this to an operation that our family had kept going since my father’s time.”

The couple have built themselves a new home in a different location and have found new jobs. Toshinori is managing and maintaining equipment at a farm attached to a nursing home. It is his first experience as a salaried employee. Keiko now helps with milking and other chores at an acquaintance’s dairy farm, but just for a few hours a day.

Keiko laughingly says that she is finally getting used to her new lifestyle, after having been with cows basically every day of the year up to now. But she quietly remarks, “To tell you the truth, I still think in my heart that I’d return all the money they gave us if they’d put everything back the way it was before.”

(Originally published in Japanese on February 25. Banner photo: Sanpei Toshinori and Keiko in their rented barn in Motomiya, Fukushima Prefecture, on November 24, 2015. The couple decided to abandon dairy farming after keeping it up for almost five years after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster. All photos by Koriyama Soichiro.)

Great East Japan Earthquake Namie Tokyo Electric Power Company 3/11 the Fukushima Daiichi Nucelar Power Station dairy farming the evacuation zone radioactive contamination