Areport this year by the Independent Investigation Committee on the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, a group set up in September 2011 by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, condemned what it called Japan’s “absolute safety myth.” The Japanese government, in collusion with the media and the regional electric-power companies — with Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) at the front of the line — perpetrated this myth on a gullible public, the report inferred.
The result: the incalculable destruction of property and desecration of land by the release of radioactive substances into the environment after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.
Now Japan, in little more than a year, has switched in disaster-consciousness terms from “never happen” mode to “any day now.” There’s been no such 180-degree turnaround since Aug. 15, 1945, the day the war ended, when the nation switched off belligerency and hubris and on to peace and deep regret.
The new motto for the country could be taken right from the Boy Scouts: Be Prepared. But are we in this country prepared for the inevitable — at some time and in some place — a monstrous quake and towering wave that will follow?
The answer is, sadly, no. Memory of a disaster fades quickly; and the government’s eagerness to return to status quo ante for many of the nation’s nuclear power plants indicates we are being set up like squatting ducks for a sequel to the tragedy of 2011.
The public is in dire need of knowledge of information about tsunamis, how they manifest themselves and the kind of havoc they can wreak on our villages, towns, cities and power-plant facilities.
Some coastal areas, for instance, are busy planning new sea walls or raising old ones. But such unsightly barriers, built at huge cost, can prove useless in a major tsunami. If a tsunami of, say, 10 meters’ height strikes a seven-meter sea wall, the kinetic energy of the wave is transformed into potential energy — and the height of the tsunami rises several meters. In other words, sea walls are no guarantee of safety.
In addition, being some distance from the shore may not save you either. The immense tragedy that took place on March 11 last year at Ohkawa Primary School in Miyagi Prefecture is an example. The school, on the bank of the Kitakami River some 4 km from the river’s mouth, was a designated evacuation center. But the surging water of the tsunami reached it and inundated the entire two-story building, killing 74 students and 10 staff members.
The Great Showa Sanriku Earthquake of March 3, 1933, gave rise to a tsunami that did not reach the location of Ohkawa Primary School. This may merely have given people a false sense of security.
In addition, surges in rivers have been a major cause of damage far from coasts. In that 1933 earthquake, fires from leaking fuel on boats carried inland broke out in Ofunato and Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture. Flood damage several kilometers from a shore is common. I don’t think people in our major cities bear this fact in their consciousness today.
Another misconception is that tsunamis always begin with a rip current. Curiously, it was the Irish-Greek author Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) who helped propagate this notion in his story “The Living God,” which features a tsunami in Wakayama Prefecture, and which appeared in Japanese school textbooks between 1937 and 1947 under the title “Inamura no Hi.” In fact, it is said to have been Hearn who first used the word “tsunami” in English, in this story in which an old man named Hamaguchi notices the waters receding from the shore and saves the village people by setting rice stacks alight on a plateau and drawing them to that place. But some tsunamis are not preceded by noticeable rip currents.
Many people seem to believe, too, that great tsunamis only follow great shaking of the land; but this is incorrect.
The Great Meiji Sanriku Earthquake of June 15, 1896, gave rise to a tsunami that reached more than 38 meters above sea level and claimed nearly 22,000 lives. Though the magnitude of the energy released by the quake was a formidable 8.2 to 8.5 on the Richter Scale, in most places only a mild level 2 to level 3 of shaking on the Japanese seismic intensity scale was recorded. Yet one in 40 residents of Iwate Prefecture perished in that 1896 disaster. Of people living on or near the coast, the toll was far higher: 1 in 4.
It is thanks to one of these disasters, by the way, that Iwate Prefecture has no nuclear power plants today.
That’s because Zenko Suzuki, prime minister from 1980-1982, was born in the fishing village of Yamada-cho in Iwate. At age 22 he witnessed the destruction wrought by the 1933 tsunami, and when the time came to build a nuclear power plant in his home prefecture, he recalled the catastrophic effects on his village, where drowned river systems that often magnify the effects of tsunamis line the coast. He simply would not tempt fate and court nuclear disaster in his home prefecture — and that insistence of his in refusing to go nuclear may very well have saved Iwate from calamity in 2011.
If you look at maps of the Sanriku coast (corresponding to the shores of today’s Aomori, Iwate and part of Miyagi prefectures) from before the Meiji Era (1868-1912), you will see that the coastline is made up of inlets and lagoons. It was the politicians of Meiji who decided that these districts should be drained to create a rice-producing region that would feed the rising population in the newly reconfigured Imperial state.
Yet as Norio Akasaka, a professor at Tokyo’s Gakushuin University and an expert on the history of Honshu’s northeastern Tohoku region, has pointed out, those districts are unsuitable for rice cultivation due to their precarious location and propensity for marine inundation, and should be allowed to return to their former natural state.
And what of the giant conurbation of some 36 million people known as the Tokyo Zone?
Four rivers that flow into Tokyo Bay — the Edo, Arakawa, Sumida and Tama — may experience a major surge of water from an incoming tsunami, causing massive flooding, destruction of bridges and fires from boats forced upriver. Up to 70 subway stations may be flooded and as many as a million people driven out of their homes. Petrochemical complexes by the sea are vulnerable to explosive sloshing caused by tremors and soil liquefaction, both of which may lead to dreadful conflagrations.
Yoshiaki Kawata, a pioneer of tsunami research, has estimated that 38,000 lives may be lost as a result of a 3-meter-high tsunami hitting the Tokyo area.
So, if we don’t know how to recognize a tsunami, are largely ignorant of how deviously and far it moves, and are unsure of where to go when it strikes, then “Be Prepared” is just another empty slogan like “never happen.” It’s no more than a new safety myth. Setting fire to rice stacks on a plateau will save no one in the 21st century.
People living near a coastline need to be aware of the devastation that can strike at any time. Zenko Suzuki was prescient because his memory was long. To let those memories fade with time or to willfully obliterate them in the interests of profit, as the owners and operators of nuclear power plants have done and are about to do again, is to invite disaster to a million doorsteps and into the lives of everyone in this nation.