A decade has passed since shifting tectonic plates released a 9.1-magnitude earthquake 70 km off the Pacific coast of Japan, creating a tsunami that inundated Tohoku and flooded the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which led to the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.
Hundreds of thousands of people were directly impacted by the catastrophe: lives lost, lives uprooted, livelihoods destroyed. Millions more have had to make sense of the events of that day, to understand the failures that turned a natural disaster into one of the worst crises of modern Japan.
As we commemorate those losses, we must also remember the heroes of that day and those that followed, men and women who scrambled to combat an unfolding catastrophe, putting their own lives in danger — and in some cases, making the ultimate sacrifice.
Those heroes include Masao Yoshida, a Tepco engineer who defied his bosses to keep seawater running into the reactors to avoid a meltdown, and Miki Endo, who continued to broadcast warnings and alerts over the community loudspeaker system in Minamisanriku, even as the tsunami swept over the building and swept her away. Another hero was Taylor Anderson, a teacher in the JET program in Ishinomaki, who died after helping her elementary school students get to high ground.
Also among the heroes were members of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), whose response to the crisis was unprecedented. More than 100,000 people — 45% of all SDF personnel — were deployed to perform tasks ranging from clearing roads to delivering supplies to helping extinguish fires at the Fukushima power plant.
It is estimated that the military was responsible for 70% of the persons rescued from the tsunami. They prepared for and performed all those missions as if they were going to war. Their efforts transformed the Japanese public’s view of the SDF — what was once seen as a potential threat to the nation is now seen as a savior — and that may be one of the most enduring and important effects of the triple catastrophe.
U.S. armed forces worked alongside the SDF in Operation Tomodachi, the largest joint operation ever mounted by the two militaries. The U.S. presence — more than 24,000 service personnel, 24 ships, including an aircraft carrier strike force, and 189 aircraft — confirmed in the most immediate way the U.S. commitment to Japan’s security.
In sharp contrast is the reputation of Japan’s nuclear power sector, which has been stained, perhaps irredeemably, by March 11. Multiple investigations into the nuclear accident revealed an industrial sector — power companies, regulators and politicians at all levels of government — that was compromised, engaging in deceit, negligence and occasional willful blindness.
The damage has been severe, undermining trust in a sector of the economy that is critical to Japan’s future, given the country’s lack of natural resources and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Nuclear power will be an integral part of any plan to combat climate change, but reliance on it is only possible if the public understands and accepts the risks surrounding its use. The nuclear “safety myth” does the country no good and the Japanese people still lack a realistic understanding of what nuclear power entails. That is inexcusable after March 11.
Acceptance would facilitate cleanup of the ugliest physical reminders of that day. There are 14 million cubic meters, about 1 million dump trucks’ worth, of contaminated soil that must be removed. Over 1,000 water tanks have been built near the power plant; they contain 1.24 million tons of water that is contaminated.
Although radiation levels are well within normal levels, other jurisdictions refuse the soil and release of the water is a public relations nightmare. In addition, 900 tons of nuclear debris remain in the three destroyed reactors, which include over 5,000 four-meter-long fuel rods. Experts believe that decommissioning those facilities will take a century or more and cost trillions of yen.
The pervasive image of contamination is one of the biggest barriers to Tohoku’s recovery. While over 30 trillion yen has been spent on reconstruction and most of the structures destroyed on March 11 have been rebuilt, the region continues to struggle.
Depopulation, underway before the disaster, has intensified and regeneration has been slowed by fears of radiation in the agricultural products that have been a mainstream of the regional economy. To this day, six foreign economies ban food and agricultural imports from the area.
Ten years ago feels like a lifetime, especially as Japan deals with another crisis, one that has claimed half as many lives but has more directly affected the entire nation. The COVID-19 pandemic is a grim reminder that stresses and tension are a new normal in a deeply interconnected world. The outbreak has produced a new understanding of and emphasis on the concept of resilience for individuals and in the aggregate.
The Japanese government, like others around the world, has focused on the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, for example, devoting considerable resources to measures that ensure the continued functioning of supply chains and production networks. Death counts and hospitalization rates are updated daily, but it is easy to overlook the impacts of trauma on survivors. Tohoku provides a grim lesson.
March 11 still haunts many young people there: Mental health centers in the three hardest-hit prefectures get about 20,000 consultations a year. That experience must be put to use amid reports that suicides have increased in Japan during the pandemic. It would be a fitting tribute to the events of that day, a demonstration of the nation’s understanding of the impact of such disasters and its commitment to helping deal with the pain and trauma.
Sadly, there will be many more chances to show that Japan has learned the lessons of March 11.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.