March 11, 2021, marks 10 years since the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident hit Tohoku in 2011, and while arguments over the government’s response and the future of nuclear energy in Japan continue, it’s worth taking time to remember the individual lives that were thrown into turmoil that day. In “When the Waves Came,” M.W. Larson provides a somber and moving look at four experiences of the disaster and its aftermath.
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Larson had first come to Japan with the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Programme in Mutsu, Aomori Prefecture, but was in the U.S. studying at the time of the quake. The book opens with his partner, Junko, calling from Mutsu. The power is out, people are evacuating, but it’s not yet clear how serious things are. The scene perfectly captures the moment that many still remember — caught between a complacent assurance that “earthquakes happen all the time” and a fear that this was “the big one.”
That summer, Larson returned to Japan and volunteered to help clear up affected areas. His stories of walking the abandoned streets and working to gut a hotel in Iwate Prefecture bring the reality and scale of recovery into sharp focus. It’s the personal narratives, however, of the locals he meets that are the heart of this book.
One of them, Masami Yoshizawa, is particularly enlightening. His cattle farm fell within the exclusion zone around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant where three reactors melted down and, as a result, he nearly lost everything. With no one around to feed them, cows starved to death in the thousands, and the mental image of their corpses littering the countryside remains long after the last page. Yoshizawa’s anger at the confusion and misinformation prevalent in the weeks afterward is palpable, as is his frustration that pushed him toward campaigning for better support for the survivors of the disaster and limiting the use of nuclear power.
The earthquake and ensuing tsunami were natural disasters, but the events at the nuclear power plant, and the responses from Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. and the government, were not. The story Larson tells is one in which “crowds of commuters ignore the growing homeless population and the main function of politics seems to be managing decline.” The people of Tohoku who inhabit Larson’s book rebuilt their lives with the support of their neighbors, not their government, and sneer at the money being poured into the Olympics while many continue to live in temporary accommodation and wait to be told if they can ever return home.
It’s the telling details that humanize the story: the hair salon customer evacuating with her perm half done; Yoshizawa’s sister making ramen for the police manning the roadblocks; the detritus of daily life floating in dirty pools of water. The human cost of disasters can be difficult to comprehend, and so Larson’s book is a vivid reminder of what was lost, what the people of Tohoku went through, and what they are still living with 10 years on.
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