Devastated communities, invisible fear: the 2011 tsunami in Japan | Earthquake News

I will never forget the moment we arrived in Natori Town.

Our crew had driven overnight from Tokyo after the earthquake. The sun was shining on a cold, cool morning.

As we got off the highway, we stopped to ask the chief of a fire station where the damage from the tsunami was. He told us to walk down the street a few blocks and turn right.

Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw.

We were miles from the coast, but nearly half of the city of 80,000 had been leveled.

It was as if a giant hand had come out of the ocean and dragged all of Natori’s structures into the waters of the Pacific. What remained were expanses of mud and fragments of civilization – overturned cars, shattered houses. As we walked towards the coast, every now and then we would see a limp hand or leg of someone who had been pounded by water or crushed in the rubble.

The tsunami killed 15,899 people. More than 2,500 are still missing.

As we started to report live, a great aftershock shook the ground. Sirens sounded, warning of another tsunami. We rushed to the second floor of one of the only remaining buildings. A few tense minutes and the sirens stopped.

It was a false alarm. There would be many in the days to come.

‘The pain of loss’

Our reporting team traveled from one affected community to another – Otsuchi, Miyako, Minamisanriku, Ishinomaki.

Taro was a village that was hit by tsunamis in 1611, 1896, and 1933. As a result, residents built a 10-meter-high (32-foot) dike for protection. The 2011 tsunami was 15 meters (49 feet) high. It looked like the houses had been tossed in a washing machine and then thrown away at random.

Steve Chao reports from Taro in northeastern Japan in March 2011 [Aya Asakura]

It was on the remaining parts of the wall that we met Fusako Hatakeyama, a home caregiver. His house was gone. His neighbors and friends were all dead. She walked aimlessly through the destroyed city.

She asked us if we had a way to recharge her phone battery so she could tell her son, who lived in another part of Japan, that she was alive.

Hatakeyama would later move to the outskirts of Tokyo. In the following conversations she had with Aya Asakura, our producer, she recounted how, having lost her home and her community, she felt so distant, so distant from Japanese society.

“Tsunami victims see that the country has changed,” Asakura said, “but they still feel the pain of the loss and still suffer trauma.”

A Japanese Self-Defense Force search and rescue team holds an impromptu ceremony for a victim found amid tsunami debris in Taro, Japan. The team would come together to pay tribute whenever a body was found [Steve Chao/AL JAZEERA]

For those who backed down, the government embarked on an ambitious $ 13 million plan to build what has been invented, “the great sea wall” of Japan. It is a 400 kilometer (249 mile) wall with the highest sections measuring 15 meters (49 feet) in height.

The plan has been heavily criticized, with some in coastal communities claiming the wall is an eyesore and cutting them off from the ocean, which they have relied on to support their families for centuries. The government says “protection” outweighs these concerns. Whether such a wall is sufficient is another matter.

For the most part, the survivors tried to move on.

When the tsunami swept through the town of Kesennuma, Kiyohide Chiba, a milkman, was swept away in black waters. He survived by hanging on to a Styrofoam box. After several hours, he managed to climb onto a bridge, spending the night shivering in sub-zero temperatures. In the morning, he learned that his wife and two daughters had passed away. Only her nine-year-old son, Eita, remained.

When we met him at a temporary shelter, Chiba told us that there was no time to cry, that he had to devote all of his time and love to supporting his son.

Between trying to rebuild his milk delivery business, he spent his free time playing baseball with him. It was Eita’s favorite sport. Chiba even tried to raise money to build him a batting cage by launching a marketing campaign called “Yogurt of Hope”.

Kiyohide and Eita Chiba with Al Jazeera producer Aya Asakura [Steve Chao]
Tsunami survivor Fusako Hatakeyama with Al Jazeera producer Aya Asakura a few months after the Tohoku disaster. Hatakeyama, who worked at a home for the aged, lost all of her friends and neighbors in 2011. While she says she has tried to stay positive, the loss of loved ones continues to haunt her. She has since moved to the outskirts of Tokyo [Matthew Allard/Al Jazeera]

During those early days, Eita struggled to describe how he coped with the loss of his mother and sisters. He managed to say that he hoped to someday honor them by helping to rebuild his city.

Today, Eita is finishing high school in Tokyo and enrolling to study in the UK. By moving abroad, he hopes to find ways to forge new connections between his hometown of Kesennuma and other cities around the world. His commitment, born of the devastation of March 11, is still with him.

All of the destruction that day was accompanied by another fear – unseen.

The tsunami damaged three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, causing an unprecedented meltdown and one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, just behind Chernobyl.

Confusion, contamination

I remember the heightened confusion and panic over the radioactive contamination.

Sputum in the air from the exposed reactors was lethal amounts of iodine-131 and cesium-134/137. The government first ordered residents to take shelter indoors, only to announce that it was setting up an exclusion zone of 20, then 30, then 80 kilometers (49 miles) around the plant. . With just hours’ notice, authorities ordered some 160,000 residents to pack their bags and leave their homes, with no guarantee of ever being able to return.

Fishing gear and houses are squashed together in what was once a residential neighborhood in Taro, Japan. Having faced tsunamis several times over the centuries, the village had built a protective dike. It was not high enough to protect residents from the 15-meter wave that occurred in the wake of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake in March 2011 [Steve Chao/Al Jazeera]

In the weeks following the mass evacuation, many displaced families told us that they were being treated as outcasts in the communities where they had settled. Some recounted how their children were bullied in class, ridiculed as “radiation carriers”.

Ten years later, the fear is almost gone. And the same goes for discrimination.

Japanese leaders have spent billions to clean Fukushima’s neighborhoods from radioactive contamination. The exclusion zone has narrowed to some 307 square kilometers (190 square miles). Over 100,000 residents have returned home.

“Back then, it was impossible to think that we would ever forget the scale of the tragedy,” Asakura said. She has taken media teams to the disaster area dozens of times since 2011.

“It was so ubiquitous, so vast and present in our minds. But now for many Japanese it has become a distant memory. COVID-19 is what concerns us now. “

The Japanese coastal town of Otsuchi, just days after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 [Steve Chao/AL JAZEERA]

In the newspapers, the efforts of Tokyo Electric Power Company or TEPCO, the company responsible for dismantling the damaged plant and safely disposing of nuclear waste, are mostly relegated to a few small paragraphs in the last pages.

But Fukushima is not finished. The environmental threat caused by nuclear fusion remains.

Honor the dead

Last year, TEPCO and the government announced plans to dump more than 1.25 million tonnes of radioactive water – the equivalent of about 500 Olympic-size swimming pools – into the Pacific Ocean, saying it lacked space to store it. Environmental groups as well as the United Nations have criticized the decision.

Fukushima’s radioactivity has already caused widespread contamination of fish and has even been detected in tuna off the coast of California.

The announcement made me think of Tadayoshi Tadokoro. In the months following the collapse, I had joined him on his boat. The authorities had stopped all fishing, so he and his men received a small financial compensation from the government in return for testing the fish for radioactive cesium.

As we hung out in front of the nuclear power plant, Tadokoro, who came from a proud line of fishermen, spoke of the financial hardship he and his family were experiencing. He feared to be the last generation to live off the sea in Fukushima.

The government has since allowed fish caught at the nuclear power plant to be sold again in the markets. But the anticipated release of radioactive water will likely force those like Tadokoro to once again remove their fishing nets from the waters.

The government says that this 10th anniversary will be the last year of the tsunami commemoration.

While recognizing the importance of moving forward, communities along the northeast coast expressed fears of being forgotten.

Many plan to continue to organize their own ceremonies to honor the dead and, above all, to remind them of the lessons of this disaster.

Steve Chao was Al Jazeera’s senior correspondent in Asia at the time of the triple disaster in Japan. The Emmy-nominated journalist is now a documentary filmmaker.

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