Japan tsunami: Sweeping away the nightmare

By Michael Dickison

The Herald's Michael Dickison returns to Japan a year after the devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis and finds while the Government is keen to improve its world image, for the people daily life remains a struggle.

Flowers amid the rubble of Ishinomaki, one the areas hardest hit by the tsunami. Photo / Michael Dickison
Flowers amid the rubble of Ishinomaki, one the areas hardest hit by the tsunami. Photo / Michael Dickison

Tsunami nightmares woke Chikako Suzuki at dawn on Sunday.

"A year has gone by now ... It's safe," she says. "But those days [of the disaster] - every night as I go to sleep and every morning as I wake up I see them again."

The tsunami last March reached the ceiling of her house in a coastal suburb of Sendai, a big city in northeast Japan. She was home when the earthquake struck but fled to take shelter from the waves at a local primary school.

Many of her neighbours retreated to the upstairs of their houses instead. Thirty-seven of them died.

Death swept around her, even at the school as the surging water took many of the evacuees.

"People were trying to clamber on to the roof. We all thought that was it," Ms Suzuki says, speaking softly.

"The ones who sought refuge in the gymnasium were gone. Others were in the courtyard and didn't know where to go. We found some of them afterwards. They had hypothermia, so we pressed our bodies together to try to give them warmth. They didn't make it."

Ms Suzuki slept in emergency shelters for three months before moving into temporary housing built in a lot behind a kindergarten.

She is there when I visit this week, among rows of long, grey buildings of corrugated iron and exposed timber.

Her flat - one of 120 on the site, or 50,000 around the country - has an entry, a kitchen area and a small bedroom, which opens to a narrow alleyway lined with old bicycles.

Ms Suzuki lives with her sister, and the unit looks crowded for two.

She says she isn't too sure how to get back on her feet.

"I can't go back. I'm scared," she says. Her old house has been demolished.

"We have some money but it hardly covers living expenses - not enough to rebuild somewhere else."

The earthquake on March 11 created a tsunami that reached up to 40m above sea level. Waves as high as six-storey buildings swamped 190km of coastline.

An atomic power plant was pummelled, causing a tense nuclear crisis for several months.

Japan is now on a long path toward recovery.

MY RETURN to Japan brings back memories of my cold, desolate trip of a year ago, when I observed the raw wounds of the disaster.

I take the same bus from Tokyo's airport and get off at the same hotel for a transfer.

Last year I passed shuttered shops and blackened towns, with a rudderless feeling of wondering what could be ahead. The broken roads, the spread of radiation, fuel shortages, accommodation and even food were unknowns, and they held me in a loneliness as we drove along. The country was cold and dark under a blanket of sorrow ...

That is the feeling that comes back to me, anyway, on the road from the airport.

I think: maybe I won't be able to return to Japan, where I spent the first 18 years of my life, without feeling this way - stuck in the fragile aftermath of the disaster.

I wonder if it will be the same for those who left Christchurch. Will it forever remain rubble in their minds?

I go back to a devastated coastal town just a short taxi ride from Ms Suzuki's housing block.

Vast fields of debris and broken lives have been stripped down to the bare, concrete foundations of ruined homes.

Last year people had searched through the area for belongings and loved ones; now it is abandoned and deserted.

The grey foundations lie silent in the early morning. They stretch along the coast as a mass memorial, lacking only headstones.

Sixteen thousand bodies have been found. Three thousand are still missing.

On the taxi's radio, a news reader tells of 350 displaced schoolchildren on a trip being reunited with close friends.

A child speaks solemnly: "I'm happy to see them again."

The driver says he listens to the news reports but never asks or talks about personal experiences any more.

"At the time [last year], customers would get in and tell me 34 relatives died. A woman, she lost all her family. She asked me, 'what do I do?'

"I couldn't answer."

He pauses. "You have to create a new life. That's all there is."

I go back to the hotel to get the official briefings in a tour sponsored by the Japanese Government.

"We've invited many journalists from all over the world to show the actual situation in Japan," says a public relations officer for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"[Previous reports] affected very negatively Japan's exports and tourism ... We ask you to collaborate with us to send [back] the correct information based on the actual situation."

The anxiety to control publicity seems to overlap with a feeling of insecurity over the scale of the losses and the nuclear calamity. Often there is a sense that the accidents were embarrassing, and Japan now needs to address a tarnished reputation.

At a hosted lunch, a director of a government department reaches for his glass of beer after another long monologue. His eyes find an empty space somewhere in the middle of the table and hold on to the spot.

He spoke loudly.

"I'm the youngest of the directors at my level and I wanted to tell you today some things about Japan." He arches his eyebrows and pushes his glasses back on his nose.

"I think everybody can learn from Japan. Because it was human error, in a sense."

It is a sincere but distinctly self-effacing presentation. To me the positivity is sad, compensating for needless shame.

OUR FIRST stop on the tour is an engineering firm that has produced an experimental suspension system for buildings. In a quiet suburban street, the company has built into an apartment block what it calls a world-first, three-dimensional earthquake isolation device.

Rubber foundations for dampening horizontal shaking have been augmented with 3m-high air springs and hydraulics to absorb vertical movements. The system was completed a week before last year's earthquake struck, and it successfully reduced vibrations by 30 per cent to 40 per cent. It will be enough to prevent damage to museum exhibits, hospital equipment and data centres.

In a week we see many other defences against natural hazards. Ever since an earthquake in 1995 killed more than 6000 people in Kobe, research into disasters has intensified.

Thousands of seismic sensors have been installed around Japan to create an early warning system. Building standards have been raised and a special command centre built for emergencies. Technologies for satellites, robotics and cutting-edge structural engineering have been advanced to shackle the impacts of major tectonic movements.

The measures were largely effective when the earthquake struck last March - the magnitude-9 quake itself caused little damage. The Metro underground rail system, for example, went unscathed, and other trains around the region began braking before the earthquake even hit, because the tremor was picked up nearer the epicentre.

But still, all those systems could not prevent a major calamity, which was televised and scrutinised across the world.

But despite the incipient self-doubt, Japan remains a place of wonder for many - including for a particularly strange journalist from Cambodia, who asks local government administrators, Foreign Affairs officials, a robotics professor and a fisherman how they will use their powers to stop earthquakes altogether.

The fisherman has been speaking of the industry's devastated production and increased inspections after radioactive wastewater spilled into the ocean.

We are fed seafood constantly during the trip, so the authorities must be confident of their figures that it is now safe - or maybe I will be growing a new limb before long.

The fisherman agrees with the experts that, in fact, the biggest lesson from the tsunami is the importance of running away.

Sea walls had been overrun and there is not much more that can be done structurally. Survival hinges on finding higher ground.

"I'm ready to run," he says. "I think another will come."

Future plans for disaster preparedness are focused on other such social factors, as well as economic ones.

Awareness of what to do will be heightened and risks reduced.

Energy use, in particular, is set for a dramatic shift. Japan is looking to shed its 30 per cent reliance on nuclear power by exploring thermal energy and other renewables and, notably, shrinking total electricity use.

"If you prepare now, the cost will eventually be much less. That's our experience," says Japan's chief climate change negotiator, Kenji Hiramatsu. This is a very difficult decision to make. It will set the course of our future."

Evacuees, meanwhile, have been given three-year terms in temporary housing, and ideas are being put forward for economic rejuvenation.

But it is expected that many, particularly the elderly, will have a hard time regaining independence.

A 20km exclusion zone around the blown nuclear reactor will be empty for a long time. Some cities, such as Sendai, have decided never to rebuild houses along the coast.

For Ms Suzuki and the neighbours in her housing block, it will be a long time before the emotional wounds can heal.

"When it was all happening I was nervous and had so much fear I thought my chest would burst," she says.

"At first we didn't talk about it, but gradually we began to. We met in gatherings and started to let it out.

"It took people's lives. I'm still filled with hate and regret."

But there are relentless attempts at positivity. Every other shop front has put up a sign saying "gambarou", an all-encompassing word of encouragement. Officials and businessmen we meet plead for positive news stories to get them back on track.

And I find myself coming around to the idea, not because I think it is imperative, but because it isn't just bureaucrats and PR agencies peddling the message. There are ordinary people who believe and want it too.

SUNRISE AT a coastal resort town north of Sendai glows a deep orange over a bay of small islands.

The distant mountain ranges fade into the dawn sky, and pine trees with twisted branches are a solemn green, almost black. Later in the day, a snow flurry will remind me of hot drinks with an old friend, running home from school and being cocooned in the laughter of childhood.

Despite the horrors of last year's tsunami, Japan has a beauty that can inspire visitors. But perhaps its own people need to know that even more.

Read some of Michael Dickison's stories from the 2011 Japan tsunami here.
* A lonely drive north along the highway to desolation
* Barrage of threats adds to confusion in desolation region
* Signs of life in a wasteland
* Evacuees taking life a day at a time
* Nuclear fears dim Tokyo's glow but not its spirits

LETTER FROM THE DISASTER ZONE
- Maiki Sekimoto of the Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital.

I don't have a large vocabulary, so I may not express my experiences well.

When the earthquake hit this area, I was in the hospital. I was in charge of the red "triage" area [for the seriously injured] and prepared for many patients arriving. But not as many patients came as we had expected. It wasn't that they didn't come - they couldn't. Some of the ambulances were ruined by the tsunami, and afterwards it was dark outside and the Self Defence Force wasn't able to search for and rescue the wounded.

But from the next day, many people were transported to our hospital and I saw so many patients suffering and dying; and their families crying.

For the first week after the earthquake, the staff of the hospital, including me, worked without rest. Because almost all the other clinics and hospitals here were damaged by the tsunami and the city hall had also come to ruin, our hospital had to take care of most of the people in the area.

Fortunately, my residence suffered no serious damage and my sister who lives with me was okay. I was really, really lucky.

I think it will take so much time to recover the entirety of our lives. So many people lost their families. But every day we cheer each other on, and we've got more friendly after the earthquake.

In our neighbourhood we gave what we needed to each other. We became a big family.

We got many relief goods from foreign countries. We ate sausages made in Chile, drank bottles of water sent from the United Arab Emirates, and used a pocket torch made in Korea! Everyone in the disaster area is thankful for the warm support we received from all over the world.

Now the situation looks better, but we still have some problems.

All we can do now is tell our experience to more people. To tell our experience, what we did when we were hit by disaster, is to try to be helpful for people in other areas with the risk of being hit by a big disaster.

I hope you can understand what I want to say.

- NZ Herald

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