How transplanted locals and a wounded country are coping with the worst quake in Japan’s history, and what we can learn from it here.
Thursday, March 8, 2012
Nastassja Vidro knew something was awfully wrong when the March air turned yellow. It happened while the CSU Monterey Bay alum was outside on the playground with the eight English-language students she taught at Shiramizu Elementary in Iwaki City, Japan, after the earth began to move.
Vidro, who graduated in 2007, was by then an old pro at earthquakes. She had lived in seismically active Japan nearly four years, and in California for more than two decades before that. But this quake was different. The earth rocked so violently that huge clouds of pollen erupted from the trees and hung in the air, casting the scene in an eerie hue.
The principal ran outside, telling everyone to huddle in the center of the schoolyard. Crouched on the ground with her students, Vidro kept waiting for the tremor to subside, but it went on. For six minutes.
She heard a fantastic noise – “like a monster roaring, not screeching, but deep, [and] I could hear the wood creak and bend and the earth move” – and ceramic shingles rattling off neighboring houses and shattering on the pavement.
She fixated on the ground quivering beneath her. “My hands were on the ground and the movement was pushing them off,” she says. “I’m not a very religious person, but I was praying so hard. I hoped the earth wouldn’t crack.”
She looked toward a fellow teacher, a Japan native, whose eyes were wide.
“I could see in her face that this was bad, that it was not an average earthquake,” she says.
Even though Vidro has since left Japan to study international education in New York City, the memory of that day will remain with her for a lifetime.
Like her, I lived in Iwaki City, Fukushima’s biggest metropolitan area, for years. Like her, I’ll never forget that day, though for me it meant waking in America to CNN coverage of my old home. I’ll also never forget what I saw in September, six months after the Great Tohoku Earthquake, when I returned to Iwaki – finding it eerily similar to how I left it, yet permanently, fundamentally different. And now, a year after the disaster, I hope Japan and earthquake-vulnerable places like California remember the lessons that emerged from the wreckage of the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear incident that followed.
At 2:46pm on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 shocker, the most powerful earthquake in Japan’s recorded and very quaky history, rattled the country and sent a monster tsunami – which reached as high as 133 feet tall, or about the height of Seaside’s Embassy Suites – into coastal sections of the eastern Tohoku region, capsizing ships, overcoming houses, and sweeping away cars and people like they were crumbs on a table.
What people screamed, “Hajimeta! Hajimeta!,” was telling. “It’s begun! It’s begun!” was an acknowledgment that The Big One had arrived, setting off a chain of events that killed 15,850 people, left thousands more unaccounted for, and sent parts of an aging nuclear reactor into a meltdown that caused the mandatory evacuation of a 19-mile radius around the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. The whole event displaced more than 200,000 people, well more than the population of Carmel Valley, Carmel, Pacific Grove, Monterey, Seaside and Marina put together.
At first, the only thing any of us – with or even without a connection to Japan – could do is feel terrible. Then relief efforts across the world raised millions of dollars in aid. In Monterey County, the American Red Cross raised $125,746 for rebuilding hospitals, refurnishing homes and welfare programs, says Cynthia Shaw, communications director for the nonprofit.
I was in Fukushima only two months prior to the quake, on the tail end of an around-the-world backpacking trip. The minute I heard of the disaster, I went online. My people back in Iwaki were all OK; they all said so in Facebook posts, but that didn’t prevent me from watching as much CNN as I could stand, mouth agape, leaving only to dry heave into the toilet.
Those images of destruction and death, in the last place I could really call home, contrasted sharply to the scene upon my return to Fukushima six months after the quake.
Cold pints of Kirin and bottles of sake move around low-lying dinner tables covered with plates of fried octopus, bowls of rice, salted edamame and bits of raw fish. Debaucherous karaoke sessions follow before a stumble home in the sunrise.
Moments like these – and evenings spent laughing through a haze of cigarette smoke at the local curry house Purnima – defined a lot of my nights in Iwaki.
Iwaki itself is not too unlike Monterey – a city of modest population along the Pacific Ocean that attracts visitors with its natural beauty. Iwaki’s downtown is made of neon lights and mystery bars, but it’s flanked by rolling green mountains and prominent farmland that gives the old coal mining town a down-home rural edge.
I spent my days working in the public schools, where kids with Pokémon pencil cases would often be more interested in the hair on my arms or the size of my feet than in the song and game-filled English lessons I brought to class.
This was my life, for three years, when I participated in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, an international endeavor funded by the Japanese government that places foreign-language speakers as teachers and coaches in Japan’s public schools.
Six months after the earthquake, JET invited 20 people who had lived in disaster-afflicted areas of Tohoku to return for a week and see what the region was like a half year later, hoping the reports might be pleasant. I was selected. The Japanese government paid my airfare, travel and accommodation expenses.
Upon my arrival at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, I disclosed my travel plans to immigration officers. When I told them where I planned to go, one looked dumbfounded.
“You can’t go to Fukushima,” he said. “It’s dangerous.” The other expressed mild concern but thought I would be alright. I found that tenuous balance, between freaked-out and just fine, one that resonated throughout Fukushima.
The schools were in session; the kids were learning and playing and carrying on normally. But the schools’ swimming pool, which by September was usually full of kids learning to swim, sat stagnant and untended. The murky pool water was potentially exposed to radiation from the blown-out reactor about 30 miles to the north. Nobody could swim in the pool, and no one knew what to do with the water.
My old neighborhood escaped the tsunami. There was little earthquake damage to the area; only blue tarps covering the occasional broken roof, or a yet-to-be-repaired spot of busted pavement, acted as a reference. But a 15-minute drive to the tsunami-ravaged coast revealed whole communities erased by the wave. Driving north toward the boundary of the nuclear exclusion zone revealed desertion and forsaken land, nuclear ghost towns.
The saddest thing to see was the rice paddies. Once so immaculately maintained by proud rice farmers – every bowl of rice on Japan’s tables is grown domestically, and the crop commands a high price – many fields were left untended, growing wild and perhaps irradiated.
Back on the playground at Taira First Elementary, where I taught English, kids in dark green sweatsuits hurled dodge balls at one another. Inside, students practiced their traditional kanji characters.
I detected no quake damage. But the vice principal was keen to show me his new dosimeter, which he used to take daily radiation measurements around campus. On another nearby campus, a corner of the playground was roped off due to radiation.
The faculty I spoke with at Taira First were cautious but not worried about radiation. The children seemed unconcerned. In the main corridor of the school a small group of students clustered around me. I addressed them each individually, greeting them with easy English like “How are you” and “Long time no see.” One boy retorted, “It’s not long time no see,” in Japanese. “This is the first time we’ve ever met.”
And the kid was right. Most of the schools in Iwaki took in evacuees from places destroyed by the tsunami or contaminated by radiation. This boy was one of the several hundred evacuees relocated to Iwaki’s central Taira district.
Later that day I saw a Japanese news article stating Iwaki City’s radiation levels were some of the lowest in Fukushima prefecture. But before I left for Japan and after I returned, plenty commented about my possible exposure.
Surprisingly, I would learn there was less to be worried about than those friends thought. And that would be just one of the many lessons – some more surprising, others less so – to follow me home from my return to Japan.
After the quake struck, thousands of homes were left without running water. Roads into the cities ripped apart by the quake prevented the delivery of goods. Gasoline became a rare commodity, with people queuing patiently for hours to buy a tiny two-liter ration.
One convenience store grew so crowded that the line to get in stretched outside. The portable generator powering the store failed, cutting the power to the cash register and leaving the customers in the dark.
It would have been easy for people to grab armfuls of stuff and leave the shop like an afterthought. But they didn’t. They just put their items back on the shelves where they found them and walked out empty-handed.
Their response to the disaster was markedly Japanese: the queuing, the patience, the thoughtfulness that comes from a nation of people who are used to close quarters, and attuned to the adversity caused by rocking the proverbial boat.
My fellow JET teacher and New Orleans native Doug Tassin has seen the difference in how people react.
“In Japan, everyone did their part,” he says. “Whereas here [during Katrina], there were looters. You never heard stories of anything like that in Japan.”
He remembers going back to Iwaki to volunteer in June and seeing bumper stickers and signs displaying Iwaki pride or cheering on Japan: “It’s kind of like Team Japan. When I was volunteering, I met guys from Hiroshima, Saitama, all over the country, coming all the way over to Fukushima to volunteer.”
Another lesson: Even though Monterey County is an ocean away from Fukushima, there are plenty of nuclear-energy insights that should be absorbed well before the chain of flotsam caused by the tsunami arrives on America’s West Coast.
For Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, a nuclear physicist at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, the most important one is clear.
“The biggest misconception: that nuclear energy is cheap,” he says. “This is not true. Especially if you take into account all the governmental subsidies for nuclear energy. If one takes into account all the costs associated with it such as disposing of spent nuclear fuel, decommissioning reactors, cleanup of sites and the probability of serious disruptions as Fukushima… then it might not be the cheapest. I think Japan is starting to consider this.”
Fukushima residents already have. A nuclear stigma has been attached to their prefecture, which has hurt it economically and psychologically. Tourism is down 60 percent, and the region’s fishing and agriculture industries have suffered. Peter Gillam, a JET colleague who has lived in Fukushima for nearly five years, says people are not seeing the area for everything it is.
“What people need to know most about Fukushima is that it is a prefecture first, a city second, and a nuclear reactor a distant third,” he says. “Not the other way around.”
Another takeaway: Ignorance is not bliss. A new investigation by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a private policy organization funded by charitable organizations with no ties to the Dai-Ichi power plant accident, found that at the height of the catastrophe, while Japanese leaders didn’t know the extent of the damage to the beleaguered Dai-Ichi plant, they still downplayed the risks posed to the public – and secretly considered evacuating 30 million people from Tokyo. As the nuclear situation in Fukushima escalated, information from the government and the stricken reactor’s owner and operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) was slow and in some cases confusing. People did not know what to believe.
One poll showed more than 80 percent of the Japanese population didn’t believe the government’s information about the nuclear crisis. Scaremongers cried nuclear wolf, and the Internet howled back. Enenews.com, a website known for its sensationalism, often spouted heated nuclear rhetoric, even claiming the government kept a radiation survey of Iwaki children a secret.
Some people are convinced the severity of the Fukushima incident is being covered up by TEPCO and the government. However, other experts, like Wade Allison, emeritus professor of physics at Oxford University, contend the Fukushima incident has caused no loss of life and won’t, even in the next 50 years. With a portion of Fukushima declared a quarantine zone, the results took on a painfully self-fulfilling aspect: Nobody was actually dying there from radiation, but since misplaced fears were keeping people from visiting, the place is on pace to die economically.
As Allison told the U.K. Guardian, “The voices of science and common sense on which the future of mankind depends were drowned out and remain to be heard, even today. The result has been unnecessary suffering and great socioeconomic damage.”
The good news is that a trip to Japan, even to Fukushima, is unlikely to cause significant harm to your health. The nuclear physicist Dalnoki-Veress says levels of radioactivity recorded around Fukushima are “not that high” and the radiation a traveler would be exposed to on a week-long trip to Fukushima would be lower than the average dose of radiation a person would receive on an intercontinental flight, which is low.
The bad news: You might end up dying of cancer anyway. Any of us living in an industrialized nation already have scary high odds of it. In Japan those odds are already one in three; in the U.S. it’s one in four for men and one in five for women. We live in a radioactive world, more so now than ever. Every time we have an x-ray or eat a banana, we are exposed to low doses of radiation. Even the cell phones we carry in our pockets emit radiation. Genetics, diet, lifestyle and access to health care will all play a role as well. And as cancer victims know all too well, when it comes to cancer, it is very difficult to prove causality.
Not that more and more effects to human health won’t be apparent over time, which leads to the next lesson: Ongoing attention is more than a powerful way to honor those lost, it’s a critical step to understand the effects of the meltdown. Put differently, citizens in Japan and California can’t afford to let the long-term effects be ignored. But my colleagues in Japan say not much is being made of the nuclear situation.
Ryan Nagle, 29, an American artist and teacher, lives in Tokyo with his Japanese wife and their daughter. He says the nuclear issue has been “squelched” in Japanese media, and that life is going along quite normally.
“In the media I’m exposed to, the nuclear issue has fallen into the background,” he says.
Mark Hiratsuka, editor at CNNGo Tokyo, a travel site under the CNN umbrella, also sees little attention. “We’re focusing on the positives of travel in Japan,” he says.
Fortunately, the anniversary inspires some reflection. Locally, a memorial service held by MIIS students, faculty and staff is scheduled this Sunday, March 11, in the Irvine Auditorium. A continuing conversation on nuclear policy and the situation in Fukushima will be held in the same location on Tuesday, when Dalnoki-Veress and (via Skype) the vice-chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission will give some insight into the nuclear situation. A seminar on tsunami-preparedness, and how to disseminate information officials hope will save lives in case of disaster, was held March 1 at Monterey County’s Office of Emergency Services.
Pacific Grove native Sayaka Gammon, another JET participant, had been living in the prefectural capital Fukushima City for seven months when the earthquake happened. For her school, March 11 was graduation day. By the time the quake struck, the graduation ceremony was finished and she was on the phone with her mother, Mitsuko Gammon, owner of Cha-ya, the Japanese teahouse in Old Monterey.
But Gammon says she didn’t realize there was a tsunami or hear any whispers about the nuclear calamity until she spoke with family again the next morning.
She says many of her peers faced pressure from their families to get out of town as news of the nuclear meltdown came to dominate the headlines. She credits her parents for helping keep her calm. She stayed in Fukushima for days after the quake, traveling to Iwaki to see the extent of the damage, and for a time, sleeping in an apartment packed with 10 other people in the prefecture’s Aizu region, which still had running water and was considered to be a safe distance from the nuclear reactor.
It was only after a plea by her father, who she says grew distraught by all the reports of leaked radiation, that Gammon left Fukushima to stay with family in Saitama, a couple of hundred kilometers away. While she was there for five days, she volunteered at a refugee center.
When she returned to Fukushima the next week, she got involved with Hearts for Haragama, a grassroots charity to help a local man whose wedding was meant to be March 12 regain his footing after his home, possessions and $10,000 cash he saved for the honeymoon were lost in the tsunami.
“This guy we know literally lost everything,” Gammon says. “We raised money for him. It was better than just giving it to a general relief fund. We knew where our money was going, and to people who needed it.”
In support of local farmers and economy, Gammon says she eats with solidarity.
“I eat Fukushima products,” she says. “So many farmers lost everything. They have been killing themselves because people won’t buy their food. Their livelihood is ruined.”
For Gammon, she doesn’t live in fear, and says she’s not worried about radiation. She defers to the example of her Japanese coworkers, the locals she knows and trusts.
“If it’s good enough for them,” she says, “it’s good enough for me.”
With that, the young teacher unknowingly provides a final lesson: That bravery and strong bonds between people who care about one another provide the strength that makes resilience possible.
“I chose to live there,” she says. “I make the best of the situation.”
A memorial event will be held Sunday, March 11 from 6-8pm at Irvine Auditorium on the MIIS campus, 499 Pierce St., Monterey. A panel discussion on nuclear energy happens Tuesday, March 13 from 6:30-8:30pm in the same location. Both events are free and donations to ongoing disaster relief in Japan will be accepted.