Enduring the nuclear winter


The legacy of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami will be felt for many years, writes DAVID McNEILLIN Tokyo

WINTER HAS arrived in Japan’s pulverised northeast, bringing freezing temperatures, snow – and loneliness. Soyo Usuzawa (79), is one of many pensioners living alone in temporary housing and wondering what 2012 will bring. “Nobody I know is in the mood for celebrating the new year. We just want things to return the way they were.”

For now, that seems unlikely. The elementary force of the March 11th magnitude-9 earthquake literally changed the world, accelerating the earth’s spin, shifting its axis between 4 and 10 inches and moving Japan’s main island nearly 8 ft closer to North America. Its impact on people is much more profound and hard to measure.

Searching for a word that sums up the momentous events of 2011, the Japanese media has opted for “kizuna”, meaning human bonds or friendship – reflecting what many see as the rekindling of human relationships amid the tragedy. But in Tohoku (the northeast), the words most often heard are “suffering” or “endurance”. Many people quote local poet Kenji Miyazawa, a sort of Japanese Patrick Kavanagh:

Strong in the rain

Strong in the wind

. . . That is the sort of person

I want to be

The earthquake and tsunami took nearly 16,000 lives and left 3,500 people missing. Hundreds of families are in limbo, reluctant to declare missing grandparents, parents or children dead. Over 125,000 homes and buildings have been destroyed, leaving 47,000 families spending winter in temporary housing.

For those who survived, the struggle to escape the unbearable weight of 2011 is only beginning. About 1,500 children have lost parents and will begin grief counselling with government welfare officers in the new year. Nearly 200,000 people have signed on the dole in Tohoku, newly unemployed after factories and offices were washed away. Suicide rates are rising too.

More than 100,000 people have been displaced due to radiation around Fukushima Prefecture, home to the crippled Daiichi nuclear plant. Those who stay keep children indoors for much of the day. Others, such as single mother Kanako Nishitaka from Fukushima City, have fled in an attempt to find normality in a different part of the country.

“My daughter is smaller and closer to the ground, so she absorbed more radiation,” she says. “They found caesium in her body. I was told it was about the same amount as people exposed to nuclear bomb tests. When I told my son we were moving, he cried his eyes out because he didn’t want to leave his friends.”

Many doubt the immediate area around the plant will ever again be habitable. The Daiichi plant will become an unwanted monument to Japan’s nuclear ambitions for years to come, while the cost of dismantling its reactors and supporting its victims will haunt future governments.

TV debates focus on prospects for recovery. The government has funnelled budgets totalling roughly $155 billion, to rebuild towns and ports. It has announced, with little public complaint, plans to increase income tax for 25 years to fund this. Much of the disaster debris has already been cleared and policymakers and businesses hope the huge reconstruction project in Tohoku will energise the economy, protecting it from the gathering storms abroad.

Communities on the Tohoku coast were aging and declining long before March 11th. Many face a double struggle: rebuilding and bringing back young people in a country with a aging, falling population.

For many, the most difficult task of all is being doomed to remember March 2011 while trying to forget it. For better or worse, thousands of people will rebuild where they lived.

In Sakihama, Iwate Prefecture,fisherman Kenji Nakajima argues with his wife Yuki over whether to build on the same spot or move inland, at greater cost. “We can’t rebuild here,” said Yuki. “In 50 or 60 years the waves will come back. We’ll be dead, but what about our children?”