Tsunami's social impact deeper a year later


Anger over Fukushima could spark a challenge to Japan’s sclerotic institutions, writes DAVID McNEILL

JAPAN’S NORTHEAST coast is dotted with towns and cities that do not seem that foreign to the Irish observer – neat, conservative communities like Ofunato, a town of farmers, fishermen and small businesses about the size of Dundalk or Waterford.

The Irish coast, however, seldom deals with anything more dangerous than gale-force winds. Ofunato sits close to a major undersea seismic fault that has repeatedly jolted this community of 41,000 people, bringing it to its knees four times over the last century.

Exactly a year ago tomorrow, the fault struck again, triggering a 32m-high tsunami that wiped out more than a quarter of the town’s housing and took 305 lives. Another 6,200 people are still living in cramped temporary huts, waiting for their houses to be rebuilt and their lives to restart.

Among them is Shigeko Oikawa, who fled with her three children just before the waves snatched away her home. “We’re fortunate because we didn’t lose anyone,” she says, crediting the children’s grandmother for saving them by repeatedly warning about the dangers of the sea. “Young people forget what earthquakes and tsunamis can do.”

The Oikawa’s new, half-built house has been moved 20-30m back from the Pacific, enough, she hopes, to survive the next time the sea erupts. Insurance has paid for half the damage and her husband has enough work to borrow the remaining €130,000.

“Somehow, we think we’ll come back from this and my children will emerge unscathed.”

Not everyone is so fortunate. While, the debris from last year’s disaster in Ofunato has been cleared, leaving the rusting steel carcasses of the few buildings to have withstood the deluge, hundreds of thousands of people are still living in limbo, unable to rebuild because they don’t have insurance or work to pay for it.

Many local governments in the disaster-hit northeast are effectively bankrupt, struggling to adjust to fewer people and plummeting tax revenue. Otsuchi, a town of nearly 17,000 people 35km up the coast from Ofunato, has lost more than 18 per cent of its population and two-thirds of its taxes.

Nuclear contamination in Fukushima further south has turned several other communities into ghost towns. Imagine that Ireland’s plan to build a nuclear power plant at Carnsore Point had gone ahead in the 1970s, and an accident had contaminated swathes of Wexford, Carlow, Waterford and Wicklow.

Japan’s central government has stepped in, this week finalising a huge $13.5 billion (about €10.3 billion) budget, the largest on record, to pay for reconstruction. The package will add to Japan’s enormous public debt, yet it still isn’t enough: local authorities want millions of dollars to move communities back from the sea. Few will get it, meaning families will be forced to return to the tsunami zone.

THAT UNHAPPY compromise seems to reflect the national response to the March 11th earthquake and tsunami, a year after the disaster left missing about 19,000 people. Analysts hoped it might snap Japan out of its two-decade economic funk and propel it in a new direction – one without nuclear power, if public opinion polls are to be believed.

Instead, parliament has signalled business as usual with a year of bitter political infighting, stalled reforms and yet another change of leader – the sixth in as many years. Prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, a charisma-free ex-finance minister, embodies for many the central government’s lack of political imagination – and courage.

Mr Noda stunned political observers last weekend when he dismissed calls for a criminal investigation into the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, saying no single person could be held responsible. “Rather than blaming any individual person I believe everyone has to share the pain of responsibility and learn this lesson,” he said.

That wave of the prime ministerial hand effectively absolved operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), which ignored years of warnings about the dangers of coastal nuclear plants, then called the March 11th tsunami “beyond expectations”, despite millennia of devastating seismic eruptions.

To date, not a single person from the industry or government has been arrested for the nuclear debacle, or for negligence while handling it. The negligence included failing to release data that would have saved thousands of citizens from radiation exposure.

An independent report released last week said managers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant almost abandoned its overheating reactors a few days after it was pummelled by the quake and tsunami. Tokyo, the world’s most densely populated metropolis, may have been saved from catastrophe by a single order from then prime minister Naoto Kan that the managers stay at their posts.

Fukushima has again showed the world why it must scrap nuclear power, says Adi Roche, head of Chernobyl Children’s Project International, who is visiting Japan for the March 11th anniversary. She is bringing messages of support from President Michael D Higgins and Mayor of Cork Terry Shannon, who is a member of Mayors for Peace.

“We have used up five of our nine nuclear lives,” she says, referring to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima. “We are gambling with the future of the world with this uncontrollable technology.”

Experts are still calculating the final price tag for the Fukushima triple meltdown. Tepco was told by an advisory panel in October to prepare for claims of 4.5 trillion yen. A broader calculation, by the private Japan Centre for Economic Research, puts the entire cost of the disaster at 40-50 trillion yen – a figure that approaches the bill for cleaning up the US subprime banking meltdown in 2008/2009. Japan’s disaster is likely to be the most costly in history.

Tepco will eventually be nationalised, passing the burden on to the taxpayers. In the meantime, farmers like Katsuzo Shoji begin a long fight for compensation. The 120-year-history of Mr Shoji’s farm in Iitate village, Fukushima, effectively ended when cooling systems at the Daiichi plant, about 40km away, failed on March 11th and nuclear fuel in three of the reactors began to melt down.

Mr Shoji (76) and his wife, Fumi (75), today live in two-room temporary housing in Date, about 60km northwest of the plant, after being forced to abandon their property, along with 112,000 other nuclear exiles. Twelve months since the destruction of their land, income and way of life, the Shojis have received about €16,400.

“We have no expectations of being properly compensated and have given up hope of returning to our home,” he says.

The mean-spiritedness and lack of clarity in the nuclear compensation process means lawyers are inevitably sharpening their knives for battle. The refugees have not been offered anything for their homes or farms, because the government insists they will return once they have been “decontaminated”, says lawyer Yasushi Tadano; thousands more who have voluntarily evacuated may never get a penny.

“The scale of difference between what Tepco is offering and what these people need is so large that we’re telling people not to bow down and to fight their corner, even if we can’t promise that they’ll win,” says Mr Tadano.

In the meantime, observers say the strategy of Tepco and the government during what is likely to be the most expensive liability case in Japanese history is, in effect, to suppress compensation claims by making them as restricted, bureaucratic and difficult as possible for thousands of Fukushima victims.

“It’s standard practice in these cases,” says Martin Schulz, senior economist at Fujitsu Research Institute, Tokyo. “It’s especially depressing to see it here.”

STILL, IF 3/11, as it has become known, didn’t bring the political and social earthquake many expected, it has changed Japan in more subtle ways. Tepco’s arrogance and the widespread suspicion the government is protecting the nuclear industry have sparked generalised distrust in politicians and a revival of political activism. Last summer saw a string of large anti-nuclear protests, culminating in a rally of 60,000 people in central Tokyo.

Just two of Japan’s 54 reactors are still online, and restarting them is likely to provoke fierce opposition among a population that rarely raised its voice before last March.

“I think many people now realise that they’ve been taken for a ride by the government and the nuclear industry,” says Nobuyoshi Ito, a farmer and activist who has remained behind in Iitate. “This crisis has forced people to sit up and take notice of what is happening around them.”

Mr Ito says the stakes are very high. “This same disaster could happen anywhere in Japan because we have so many earthquakes.”

As if to remind Japan’s beleaguered citizens of that fact, the nation’s meteorological agency said this week that it has been a bumper year for quakes, with more than 10,000 “strong enough to be felt by humans” since March 11th. The Japanese archipelago is being pulled slowly eastward by its subterranean plates, says the agency, noting some towns have shifted up to 76cm in 12 months. Seismologists have warned that another major quake in Tokyo is likely.

Social scientists have long speculated that living powerlessly with that sort of nerve-wracking seismic instability might be the origins of the peculiar fatalism in Japanese culture, typified by the shopworn phrase Shikata ga nai (it can’t be helped). But Mr Ito is among many who hope the anger generated by Japan’s worst crisis since the second World War might erode that fatalism and trigger a challenge to the sclerotic political and social system.

“I think we’re past the point where we can just accept what we’re told,” he says. “It’s time to say enough is enough.”