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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Seven years on, how far has Japan come after its earthquake and tsunami?

It may not be the most significant of milestones, but for millions across Japan it's a date hard to forget

Composite of two images: Ishinomaki in 2011 and 2016. LEFT: Tsunami survivors look over the tsunami-devastated area of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, about 270km north of Tokyo, northern Japan, on 13 March 2011. Kimimasa Mayama / EPA ////// RIGHT: The same outlook tsunami survivors stood and watched from above, pictured just before the five-year anniversary of the tsunami and earthquake, on January 26, 2016. Kimimasa Mayama / EPA.
Composite of two images: Ishinomaki in 2011 and 2016. LEFT: Tsunami survivors look over the tsunami-devastated area of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, about 270km north of Tokyo, northern Japan, on 13 March 2011. Kimimasa Mayama / EPA ////// RIGHT: The same outlook tsunami survivors stood and watched from above, pictured just before the five-year anniversary of the tsunami and earthquake, on January 26, 2016. Kimimasa Mayama / EPA.

It's a rather unremarkable milestone, the seven-year anniversary; somewhere after the first big commemoration and still a few years before the next.

But as the clock ticks over to 2.46pm on Sunday, heads will be bowed and hands clasped across Japan, as the country takes stock of all that has changed in Tohoku.

March 11 marks seven years since the magnitude 9.0 undersea megathrust earthquake struck off the north-east coast of Japan, triggering a devastating tsunami.

As of March 1, 2018, the death toll stands at 15,895 across 12 prefectures. Sixty-two victims remain unidentified, and 2,539 people remain unaccounted for. Tens of thousands still remain in temporary housing.

In the immediate aftermath, the northeast coast of Japan was a war zone. Buildings were stacked sideways on top of each other, huge barges had found their resting places on rows of houses, and debris, silt and rubbish clogged every edifice.

I still remember the whirring overhead each morning. It was loud and came without warning; a macabre alarm to wake us from our makeshift volunteers village in the middle of a school field. Every day those helicopters went out across the devastated landscape, searching the piles of rubble for bodies that stretched across the horizon. At that point it was three weeks since the tsunami.

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Read more:

Air radiation in Fukushima returns to almost pre-disaster levels

Japan disaster spawns an industry

Fukushima: a place still trying to move on from nuclear disaster six years ago

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I was studying and living in Tokyo at the time but missed the disaster due to a well-timed holiday in Thailand. As foreign nationals were being evacuated, with a possible nuclear meltdown to rival the likes of Chernobyl looming, I returned - the NZ Embassy exhibiting an apt "she'll be right" attitude (that's 'everything will be fine' for the uninitiated).

We spent three weeks cooking, cleaning and generally trying to help victims across the Tohoku region. Futile attempt it may have been, witnessing the camaraderie and the determination to rebuild of the Japanese people.

When I returned for the five-year anniversary, I was floored at the progress; not least because I'd come from Christchurch - a city similarly attempt to rebuild in the wake of a major earthquake - where the recovery is a far sight more stilted.

From speaking to those still on the ground there recently, it's the same story. Tohoku will be great again, they say. And soon.

Any semblance of the devastation that befell Ishinomaki, a city in Miyagi prefecture which was once devastated, has been scrubbed from every surface. People have returned. Homes have been rebuilt. The condemned seafront is busy with activity, as construction begins on a memorial national park. Life goes on.

A boy and his father take a moment at the remains of the Okawa Elementary School destroyed by the tsunami in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Kimisama Mayama / EPA.
A boy and his father take a moment at the remains of the Okawa Elementary School destroyed by the tsunami in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Kimisama Mayama / EPA.

The Japanese barely let the dust settle before they set about rebuilding, and rebuilding better. In Minamisanriku, the hills near the township are being spliced away and the dirt transported to the coastline, where endless convoys of giant trucks are going about raising the land by over 10 metres.

Nearby in Fukushima prefecture, life has also returned. But it's far from normal.

Each day, thousands of Japanese workers are out in force in the evacuation zone, scrupulously scrubbing buildings to scrape away the top layers of radiated dirt from grounds, rooves, rainwater gutters - they all need combed for radioactive material.

The dirt is bagged, and the bags transported to "temporary" catchment areas — namely, the Fukushima countryside. Thousands of bags litter the landscape - roadside, in fields, beside buildings.

From here they will be transported to an "interim" holding place, which since October, has been a facility in Futaba, which will eventually cover 1,600 hectares of land.

From there, the contaminated debris is earmarked to move to a final disposal site, but where that will be no one knows. The Japanese government has pledged to move the contaminated debris by March 2045 - the problem is, it has yet to find a local government willing to accept it.

The government plans to open up small areas of the exclusion zone for residents to return in 2023. However, Greenpeace Japan believe the high levels of radiation around the stricken reactor will pose a threat for perhaps another 100 years.

And yet, 2017 marked the year when the widely-condemned Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) was approved to restart two reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa - the world's biggest power plant.

It will be the firm's first return to nuclear power generation since the meltdown, as the company struggles to decommission Fukushima Daiichi. That is expected to take four decades.

The tsunami-crippled Disaster Prevention Center is surrounded by banking construction in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, 10 March 2018, the eve of the seventh anniversary of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Kimisama Mayama / EPA.
The tsunami-crippled Disaster Prevention Center is surrounded by banking construction in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, 10 March 2018, the eve of the seventh anniversary of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Kimisama Mayama / EPA.

Understandably, tourists remain sceptical to return.

Even domestically, things are hard, as the rest of Japan steer clear of Fukushima-grown produce and meats — a serious blow to a prefecture whose economy is buoyed on agriculture.

A small breakthrough came in late February when Thailand became the first country to receive a shipment of fresh fish from Fukushima since March 2011.

But as another year ticks over after the disaster, one question for Japan remains: what do we do with these remnants of the disaster that dot the countryside? Preserve or demolish?

In Ishinomaki, the Okawa Elementary School where 84 people died, will be preserved. Arahama Elementary School in Sendai - a building which survived the tsunami but which was broadcast across the world with images of people getting evacuated from its roof - has been developed as somewhat of a relic of the disaster and reopened to the public.

In Minamisanriku, the future of the mangled wreckage of the former disaster management centre, which issued the last warnings of the impending 16-metre waves and has been left as a makeshift memorial, is unclear.

It's at these sites that people will gather at 2.46pm on Sunday.

Roadworkers will down tools, shop attendants will form rows, and residents will line broken seawalls and tsunami evacuation areas.

And after a minute's silence, they'll get back to rebuilding their community.

Life goes on.