The tsunami museum at Rikusentakata, seen from atop the coastal tsunami barrier across the land that was devastated by the waves in March 2011
Thursday 11th March 2021 was the tenth anniversary of the Japanese triple disaster: earthquake, tsunami and radiation release. I sent my greetings and respects to my Japanese colleagues and spent the day teaching my students about the event and its aftermath.
I first visited the affected area in 2014, having failed to gain a place on an earlier expedition that took place a year and a half after the disaster. The affected area is the Tōhoku region of northeast Honshu island. In particular it comprises the eastern parts of the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, the picturesque Sanriku Coast, a land of forests, rice paddies, estuaries and drowned rias.
A tsunami is usually nothing like the breakers that surfers ride. The 11 March 2011 waves, seven of them, were a slowly rising mound of thick, viscous grey-black water, full of debris, oily, turbulent, menacing and highly destructive. Observers were horrified to see the water go on and on rising until it engulfed everything in sight and obliterated most of it.
One of my early memories is to have visited the shell of a school at Arahama, a few hundred metres from the sea in Miyagi prefecture. The gymnasium was full of personal effects that had been salvaged from the wreckage and no one had the heart to throw them away. Photograph albums, statuettes, wedding pictures, cameras, even clothes. Most heart-rending was a collection of about 100 children's school satchels, symbolic of an education blown apart by the disaster. Remarkably few children died in the tsunami, but almost all of those who did were in the Okawa elementary school, where a misconceived evacuation decision had fatal consequences for almost all students and teachers. The building is due to become a national monument. The story of Okawa is movingly described in Richard Lloyd Parry's remarkable book Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan.
When it comes to earthquakes, Japan is a remarkably well-prepared country. I was in a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in southern Italy in which nearly 3,000 people died, 8,800 were injured and 280,000 were left homeless. I experienced an earthquake of the same magnitude and remarkably similar physical characteristics in Sendai, capital of the Tōhoku region, and in the local coffee bar people did not even stop reading their newspapers as the ground shook.
On the Sanriku coast, vast amounts of debris were systematically separated into artificial mountains of soil, concrete, wood and steel, and then recycled. Around them, cemeteries, shrines and monuments sprang up. A makeshift shrine was erected at the base of the three-storey emergency operations centre in Shizugawa. It was washed out by a 20-metre tsunami wave, while the officials who remained at their posts broadcasting warnings until they drowned. Two survived by clinging to the radio mast on the top of the building. As I stood beside the shell of the building, local people driving to work would stop and say a prayer at the shrine in memory of the emergency managers who sacrificed their lives for the community.
The Japanese Government promised reconstruction in only seven years. Broadly, they achieved it. People who lost their homes had to live in transitional houses only 28.5 or 33.5 square metres in size, but in compensation they knew they would be given proper homes in a period of time that was remarkably short. Elevated ground, refuge mounds, sea walls, improved infrastructure, landscaping and flood gates appeared all along the Sanriku coast. So did tsunami museums. Several of these are large, bold structures which demand of the residents and visitors that they remember the disaster and ponder on its meaning. In Kesennuma, the museum is integral with a school that was washed out. A car was deposited, upside down, on the upper floor, 15 metres above ground level. Piles of rusty debris remain in situ. In the museum's auditorium visitors are shown a film of a 17-year-old giving his high-school graduation speech, nine months after the tsunami. His teacher whispers to him "be strong", as he grapples with his emotions and struggles to express the enormity of coming of age in a time of major disaster. It is a very moving testimony.
In November 2019, on my second visit to Fukushima Dai'ichi, I stood in front of the wreckage of reactor no. 1, about 20 metres away. It was streaming out radiation at a rate equivalent to 350 chest X-rays. That was on the up-slope side. On the ocean side the rate was one third higher. The reactor site is a remarkable place: hundreds of tanks, each holding 100 tonnes of radioactive water, thousands of radioactive vehicles that cannot be driven off site. The ruined reactors, the cryological barrier and all the impedimenta that maintains it, the businesslike air of programmed activity. On my first visit there were 9,900 workers on site; on my second visit exactly 3,730.
The road infrastructure of the irradiated area is being upgraded and the fields are full of workers who are stripping off the soil. Everywhere, there are dumps full of back bags of soil and biomass, low-level radioactive waste. One looks at the landscape, perhaps bright green in summer, or golden-russet in autumn, and it looks so peaceful and innocent. However, the level of radioactivity varies widely, from negligible to three times the permissible limit. There are 'hot-spots', small and large. In Iitate the town is open for business and its buildings are shiny with newness, but only 10% of the population has returned, mostly elderly people. Radiation levels in Iiatate are low: in the local noodle restaurant only 2% of the permitted maximum, but translocation means that the situation is unreliable. Forests cannot be decontaminated without razing them. Radioactive leaves blow across and settle on the decontaminated fields.
Down the road in the interdicted area there is a plant where contaminated soil is being mixed with uncontaminated soil and spread on the land so that a variety of plants can be grown in it. This is an interesting experiment with careful control and monitoring of the processes involved (even rainwater is collected from the roof of the plant and tested for contamination). However, the workers need 40 minutes to deal with one cubic metre of soil. Unless the final process is heavily automated it will be a Sisyphean task. Meanwhile, the problem of what to do with hundreds of thousands of bags of radioactive soil and biomass seems insoluble.
In Natori, on the coast near Sendai, I met an elderly couple who were looking after 30 dementia patients in sheltered housing. They had decided to devote their lives to serving the community, in thanks for having survived the tsunami. Overlooked by the local authority they were struggling with a care burden that was making their lives intolerable, but they soldiered on with strength and fortitude, uncomplaining. We took the matter up with the local authority and pleaded that they be given more support.
The tsunami zone has been losing population for decades and the disaster could only accelerate that process. Yet, not all is lost. Artists have been irresistibly attracted to the area. Small businesses have reappeared. Tepco, the culprits of the nuclear disaster, have been talking about establishing a vineyard in the area. The Sanriku narrow-gauge railway, devastated by the tsunami, was washed out by the floods of October 2019 (which also submerged and ruined 12 brand-new Shinkansen bullet trains). However, it has been mulling over returning to service on a model akin to the Welsh tourist lines, and there is solid local support for this community asset.
In contrast to Europe, in Japan property
loses its value over time. Perhaps this is part of the philosophical concept of
the impermanence of human existence. However, there is nothing ephemeral about
the resurgence of life on the Sanriku coast after the devastating triple
disaster. We have just witnessed ten years of a most remarkable transition,
from devastation to the reestablishment of orderly life.