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.

Photography by Kim Kyung-Hoon. Reporting by Tim Kelly.

“I want to make sure I am here to take care of the last one,” the Japanese resident 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.

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, Feb. 20, 2021.

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.

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, Feb. 20, 2021.

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.

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.

Two of the cats, Mokkun and Charm, are infected with feline leukemia virus. They stay at his house that doubles as a cat shelter.

He estimates he spends $7,000 a month on his animals, part of it to buy dog food for a wild boar that gathers 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 a 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.

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