Year in review: The disaster of decades

By Simon Scott

Earthquake linked us with Japan in a year of loss but the scale of the destruction on March 11 was overwhelming

The power of the tsunami transformed into an invisible threat when it caused nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. Photo / AP
The power of the tsunami transformed into an invisible threat when it caused nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. Photo / AP

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.

When Marxist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin famously made that remark he was probably referring to the October Revolution of 1917; a man-made event which changed Russia, Europe and much of the world forever.

Yet natural disasters, as the people of New Zealand are only too bitterly aware, can also twist time in the same way and make weeks carry the weight of decades.

In this regard, Japan and New Zealand - two different yet friendly nations - have been somewhat tied at the hip in 2011 - riding together through the cruel surf of an ugly and unforgivable year.

The first Japanese earthquake victims of 2011, surprisingly, did not lose their lives in the terrible March 11 Tohoku disaster but, a few weeks earlier, thousands of kilometres from home, in Christchurch, New Zealand.

A total of 28 Japanese, most of them language students with Kings Education in the CTV building, lost their lives in the February 22 quake with 97 New Zealanders and 51 people of other nationalities.

Apart from New Zealand, Japan suffered the greatest loss of citizens.

Then two weeks later, on March 11, while Japanese rescue crews still scoured the rubble on the corner of Madras and Cashel streets, the Pacific Ring of Fire flexed its muscles again, 9000-odd kilometres north of New Zealand, off the coast of Sendai, Japan.

Seismologists tell us the chance of a causative link between two earthquakes so far apart is next to zero, yet one can't help but feel that some kind of dark cosmological alignment was at play.

It is something of a testament to Japanese building standards, some of the strictest in the world, that the magnitude 9.0 earthquake - the most powerful to have hit Japan and the fifth largest worldwide since records began - is believed to have directly caused relatively few deaths, although one can't know for sure as the official death toll doesn't separate earthquake and tsunami victims.

Still, in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area - the world's largest megalopolis with a population of over 35 million - where the effects of the tsunami were minimal and the quake was recorded as 5.0 on the Richter scale - only 31 people died.

About 30 buildings in Tokyo were destroyed and 1046 others damaged. But while damage in the nation's crowded capital was minimal, the outcome for Honshu's northeast coast was very different.

Across the globe, people sat at their TV sets transfixed as surreal images filtered in revealing a disaster of truly apocalyptic proportions.

Whole towns wiped off the map in seconds not by a tall, single, Herculean, crested wave as one imagines a tsunami, but by a rumbling swell of insatiable black water.

The sea, the lifeblood of so many of Tohoku region's rural coastal communities, turned suddenly and unforgivably against the people who had loved it and lived off it for so long.

It was the perfect storm.

In terms of the earthquake and tsunami, at least, the initial response of the Japanese Government was better than expected. Lessons had been learned from the 1995 Kobe quake and offers of international aid and assistance were quickly accepted.

In the wake of that disaster, the Government at the time was widely criticised at home for rejecting offers of international assistance and failing to manage Japanese volunteers.

Ironically, the yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's largest and most infamous crime syndicate, gained kudos from the Kobe disaster because its members immediately hit the streets and handed out bottled water and food to earthquake victims.

In the case of Tohoku, the ire of the Japanese people became focused increasingly on the Government's handling of the third phase in what is now known as Japan's Triple Disaster - the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

The advent of a massive earthquake and tsunami which left, according to latest government figures, 19,479 people dead and missing, would be enough for any nation to cope with, but it wasn't over yet.

The earthquake and tsunami disabled the cooling system at Daiichi Nuclear Plant, causing fuel rods at three reactors to overheat leading to the world's first triple meltdown, a nuclear disaster on a scale not seen since Chernobyl in 1986.

The resulting explosions and steam releases sent unknown amounts of radiation in to the atmosphere triggering massive panic across Japan and poisoning the sea, the air and the land.

Japan, a country scarcely appearing anymore on the global media radar beyond the occasional filler piece about schoolgirl knickers in vending machines or the ever-rising yen, had suddenly become the news story of the decade.

At the height of the crisis, Prime Minister at the time Naoto Kan announced with no overstatement the country was facing the "biggest crisis Japan has encountered in the 65 years since the end of World War II".

International news crews rushed into the country as expats and tourists rushed out, and the massive media circus which ensued fuelled the fires of paranoia by sending apocalyptic messages of impending doom.

British tabloid the Sun's front page headline on March 17 read: "GET OUT OF TOKYO NOW".

Yet the international media's arguably sensationalist reporting was in many ways a necessary counter-measure to a docile domestic press which, at least in the early days of the crisis, seemed to do little more than regurgitate statements by bumbling Japanese bureaucrats who seemed intent on playing down the disaster.

As the crisis dragged on, public criticism of the Government's inadequate response began to build and lead to Naoto Kan resigning as Prime Minister in August.

Just this month, Japan's new Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, announced while trying to hide his smile of satisfaction that all the Fukushima reactors had now finally been brought to "cold shutdown".

Yet one couldn't help but feel this somewhat muted declaration of victory by the Japanese Government over the forces of nuclear energy was not unlike the famous victory speech George W Bush made back in 2003 claiming the United States had won the war after the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad's Firdos Square.

And Noda's words will be cold comfort for the tens of thousands of people still unable to return to their homes in the exclusion zone, or the mothers of Fukushima who, nine months later, are still on their knees scraping the top soil off the prefecture's parks hoping their kids will one day be able to play outside again free of the spectre of radiation.

- NZ Herald

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