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Former TEPCO worker turned monk on remorse-driven pilgrimage

Norimasa Masuda is seen at Zenko-ji Temple in Nagano on June 10, 2017. (Mainichi)

A former Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) worker turned monk is in the midst of a remorse-driven pilgrimage across northern Japan, saying that he feels responsible for the firm's nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011.

Norimasa Masuda, 80, was not actually working for TEPCO at the time of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in March 2011, but he still cannot shake off a sense of responsibility over what happened -- having at one time been a TEPCO employee. "I feel like I'm an accomplice to a huge crime," Masuda says, as he continues to walk solemnly across the country's northern prefectures.

Masuda was deputy director at TEPCO's Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant from 1987 to 1989. After retirement, he became a mountain priest at the age of 70, after completing a five-year training program.

He feels responsible for the 2011 meltdown because he sees the cause of the disaster in TEPCO's corporate culture. The monk says, "The company basically just complied with manufacturers' orders and didn't come up with its own ideas." He also said the company's emphasis on efficiency, at the cost of ensuring safety, went unchallenged and he regrets that his own efforts to try to reform the corporate culture at TEPCO were "insufficient."

When Masuda learned of the accident via his radio at home, he immediately felt that nothing had changed since the time he was at TEPCO. In the aftermath of the disaster, Masuda says, "Everyone just ran toward the No. 1 reactor like kids chasing a soccer ball." He feels that if the team members had spread more widely, the company could have protected the No. 2 and No. 3 reactors and prevented the situation from worsening.

So far, Masuda has walked to the city of Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture, the city of Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture and the city of Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture. During his walks, he often presses his hands together by the sea and prays for the victims, chanting the Buddhist prayer, "The Heart Sutra." Whenever he meets people affected by the nuclear accident, he tells them about his career history, and bows his head apologetically.

In July, the octogenarian plans to walk to Aomori Prefecture. "What happened was an unforgivable crime," he says. "Therefore, there is no end to my journey of 'apology.' I will keep on walking until my body will let me."

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