Suicides stalk Japan disaster zone

SUKAGAWA, Japan - When Japanese farmer Hisashi Tarukawa watched the local nuclear plant blow up on television, he uttered a sentence that will forever chill his family: "Oh, no. It's over."

Within days, the radioactive cloud from the Fukushima plant had forced authorities to ban some farm produce in Fukushima, where the 64-year-old had been growing rice and vegetables all his life.

The next morning before dawn, on March 24, Tarukawa's son Kazuya found his father hanged by a rope from a tree above his vegetable field.

"I rushed to the tree and talked to my dad, but his body was already cold," recalled grief-stricken Kazuya, 36, speaking at the family farm in Sukagawa, 60 kilometres from the crippled atomic plant.

Tarukawa, a father of three, left no letter to explain why he took his life, but his bereaved family says he didn't need to.

"I believe his suicide was an act of protest, like seppuku," said Kazuya, referring to the ritualised form of suicide once practised by Japan's samurai knights, known in the West also as harakiri.

His family says Tarukawa had often spoken about the horror of radiation since he attended an annual ceremony in Hiroshima 23 years ago to mourn victims of the 1945 atomic bomb attack on the western Japanese city.

"I don't want his death to have been in vain," said Kazuya, vowing to sue the plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), both for the financial and the emotional damages to their family.

The world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl 25 years ago was triggered by the powerful March 11 seabed quake and the massive tsunami it spawned, which took more than 20,000 lives along the Pacific coast.

TEPCO has argued that the scale of the tectonic disaster could not have been foreseen. Critics say the utility ignored expert advice on just such a seismic threat while it assured the public that atomic power is safe.

Fear and anger have grown in Japan, nowhere more than in the Fukushima region, where tens of thousands have had to flee their homes and where farmers, fishermen, hotel owners and others have lost their livelihoods.

Hisashi's widow Mitsuyo recalled how her late husband was at first shocked when the quake destroyed his shed and warehouse, and how his sadness gave way to panic as the severity of the atomic disaster came into focus.

"My husband was a strong man, but he gave in to the radiation," the 61-year-old woman said quietly, a slight tremor in her voice, as she stood before her husband's portrait on the Buddhist family altar.

"I was so sad and I felt such deep regret, but if he is in heaven and at peace now, I would accept that," she said.

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