This is a riveting story about Japan’s March 11 cataclysm told uncommonly well by two veteran Japan-based journalists who share their emotions, experiences and insights while giving readers ringside seats through captivating interviews with survivors.
The authors give a haunting voice to the people of Tohoku, one that will linger in your memory, as their evocative prose conveys a sense of the panic, horrors and heartbreak endured.
Birmingham and McNeill contrast the quiet dignity of the Japanese public with the shameful tale of risks ignored and sheer bungling by woefully unprepared government authorities and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. With the acquiescence of Japan’s “nuclear village” of pro-nuclear advocates, Tepco shortchanged safety and ruined the lives of tens of thousands of Fukushima residents.
The strength of this book lies in the narratives of six individuals and how they responded to this cascading disaster. We learn of the near-death experience of an American English teacher whose school was hit without warning. Then there is a fisherman who dashed from his bath to race his boat to safety, returning a day later to what was left of his tsunami-pulverized village. We also meet Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai of Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, who broadcast an appeal for help on YouTube and vaulted to global fame. Sakurai considers himself the embodiment of the Kenji Miyazawa poem “Strong in the Rain” about a persevering and selfless individual. These are valued virtues that were tested by the triple disaster all over Tohoku and beyond. It must be said that ordinary Japanese collectively passed this test with flying colors even as the political, bureaucratic and utility elite floundered so egregiously.
Perhaps the most intriguing character is a plant employee at Fukushima No. 1 who grew up in Okuma in the shadow of the reactors. As a local high school graduate, being a maintenance worker at the nuclear plant was the best job going. At least it seemed so until 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, when he was just leaving work. Like other town residents he evacuated to a shelter, but returned to what he describes as a battlefield where he and colleagues desperately worked in dangerous conditions to bring the nuclear disaster under control.
The tsunami stones that dot the coast of Tohoku should have been sufficient warning about the folly of building nuclear reactors close to the coastline. Massive tsunami are not black swan, once-in-a-thousand-year events; they walloped Tohoku in 1933, 1896, 1793 and twice in the 17th century. The authors write: “[T]he sense of danger diminishes after the passing of each tsunami-free decade. Each generation builds stone monuments at the highest point of the tsunami that struck their homes, then forgets their lessons; their faded stone lettering a metaphor for collective amnesia.”
Some residents grew complacent behind large seawalls, wrongly believing these concrete behemoths would keep them safe. The $1.6 billion seawall in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, was finished in 2009 after 31 years of work, but it didn’t protect the local residents — over 1,000 died — and it also deflected the waves’ power to neighboring villages with devastating effect. But that isn’t stopping the town from rebuilding this cement folly.
The three meltdowns at Fukushima were caused by a station blackout, a total loss of power that meant that the critical cooling systems could not operate. Government regulators warned the utilities about the need to beef up backup energy systems, but the utilities remained heedless about the dangers. The authors suggest that the earthquake may have damaged the reactor cooling systems before the tsunami inundated backup generators. Tepco has fiercely denied this possibility because if it is true then all of the utilities face high costs of retrofitting their reactors to upgrade seismic safety. It is disconcerting to read that the off-site emergency command center proved useless, that evacuations had not been practiced to avoid alarming local resident and that Tepco executives were clueless in coping with the emergency because they had routinely downplayed risks and believed their own propaganda. Tepco President Masataka Shimizu led government leaders to believe that the utility was ready to abandon Fukushima, and then he irresponsibly went AWOL, failing to take command. The government also failed to use data on radiation dispersal that could have averted the evacuation of local residents to radiation hot spots.
The Japanese media missed the meltdown story until Tepco finally came clean at the end of May 2011. “Strong in the Rain” shows a captive media towing the official line, relying on Tepco and government officials eager to downplay the extent of the accident. NHK kept nuclear critics at arm’s length and relied extensively on openly pro-nuclear experts. It took far too long for the mainstream media to break a story that the foreign media had reported soon after March 11. Japan’s press club system tends to co-opt journalists while the authors also suggest that the massive advertising budgets of the utilities kept critical reporting in check until the evidence became overwhelming. Aside from caving into the powers that be, the authors allege that Japanese journalists were also risk-averse, avoiding the Fukushima evacuation zone.
For many Japanese, March 11 is an ongoing nightmare. Evacuees may have to wait four decades before they return to what had been their homes. And throughout the tsunami zone, residents are trying to rebuild lives and communities, but recovery has been very slow, yet another reason for growing exasperation with the central government.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.