Swept away by tsunami

Land of the rising sun

Swept away by tsunami

Reduced to rubble: Test of Japanese resilience AFP

My flight to Tokyo is almost empty — the first tangible sign that something is utterly wrong in Japan. I’ve seen the images of devastation — first an earthquake, then a tsunami, then a nuclear crisis. But this, I can feel.

Earlier, waiting in transit at Delhi airport, there’s breaking news on television. A fire has broken out in a nuclear reactor in northern Japan. It’s a little more than 200 km from Tokyo, where I’m headed — and where my mother is holed up in her apartment.

I give her a call, but it’s already 2 am in Japan. She’s asleep. There’s an urgent fear of radiation, an invisible, ever-growing phantom, and it has superseded every other worry. But I grew up in Japan; in many ways, it’s home. If my friends and family have to deal with it, I’ll deal with it too.

I land in Tokyo to a bare arrival hall. Immigration officers sit quietly at their counters with nobody to serve.

Driving into the city, the raised motorways squeeze through mazes of skyscrapers. The towers are as big and countless as ever, but their lights are out. Japan’s ongoing nuclear disaster has dimmed the capital’s luster.

Tokyo usually heaves at night. Lights glimmer and flush from buildings reaching high above you, pushing out the stars. In winter, the windows of packed trains cloud over with the heat of bodies pressed together. Smoky restaurants fill up with cold hands reaching for cups of hot sake.

But power shortages caused by the blown nuclear plant in Fukushima has forced Tokyo Tower to turn off its often garish illuminations. It rises as a cold steel frame, a black shadow. The office buildings are just as deadened.

In commercial districts, flashing neon signs have been snuffed out. Giant television screens that form rings around major train stations are blank, and departmental stores are shuttered and dark.

There is a strange, subdued mood.

Tatsuya, who sells me a mobile phone, says his acquaintances are leaving the city.
“It’s not a good time to be here,” he says.

A friend I’ve known since kindergarten says it was the scariest thing he has ever experienced.

Now, on his desk at work, alongside a triple screen charting the movements of financial markets, he displays real-time Geiger counter readings from around the city.

Supermarkets have been emptied of stock, and business districts are barren as firms as big as Sony reportedly send people home to wait out the disaster. A relative says a sense of defeat has swept over Japan, but it isn’t shock — it just isn’t over yet.

Aftershocks have circled Tokyo from the northeast around to the other side, as if they are coiled to strike the capital. And now there’s the radiation.

Getting out isn’t easy. Tokyo’s transport normally runs with perfect efficiency, but it has been thrown off kilter. Trains heading north have shut down, and there are no rental cars because companies can’t buy petrol.

The worst-hit areas are 500 km away in a direct line. Two expressways go in their direction, but they only travel about 100 km before being closed off to all but emergency vehicles.

Structural damage starts to be apparent there, still hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre, showing just how widespread the effects have reached.

A grand, temple-like Japanese home built by Nobu’s grandfather is in ruin. Roof tiles have crumbled and walls of great stones have bowled over, and he’s not insured. But, after chatting awhile, he says, “Please take care.” I’m only passing through, but he’s the worried one.

Everytime I ask for directions, I hear it again — “Please take care.” I don’t say where I’m going — I don’t really know myself — but I say which road I’m looking for and it’s enough.
The road northward is lonely. Route 118 has a steady stream of vehicles going southbound, but I’m the only one heading north. By night near the border to Fukushima, the region burdened with the overheating nuclear reactors, everything is closed and dark. Small inns don’t bother to open because no one is around, and the big ones have signs saying it’s too dangerous to let anyone in.

I’m lucky to find a room, and I’m shaken by five aftershocks in a night. The whole area is deserted, even in the morning. But then, there they are: queues of cars parked from the rare service station with a stock of petrol. It can only sell tiny amounts, but that’s better than nothing. For each service station with anything left, there are easily 20 which have sold out.

Two hours later, when the sun has heated up the air to four degrees celsius, the motorists are still waiting.

Shimizu-san, queued in his car, says he needs fuel for everything — not just to get around, but to heat the house.

It’s dire for Fukushima — Ground Zero. “Taihen desune.” That’s what they say in the line of cars snaking around three bends, past shut shops and service stations, queuing almost two kilometres at dawn for petrol.

Further on, in inland Fukushima, the earthquake damage grows. Buildings have been knocked off their foundations. A young woman at a shop, Eriko, asks how I’m getting on, and she tells me she’s lucky with only a broken water supply.

“Well, there’s no escaping anyway,” she says. This far in, there is no fuel at all. It’s only 60 km from the reactors, and thousands pass through the town as they evacuate from the nuclear peril.

A restauranteur says it’s impossible to find petrol. There are rumours there might be a shipment next week. When asked what he expects about Fukushima’s future, he can only stay silent.

A man selling baked sweet potatoes from his truck says his house has totally collapsed. Potatoes aren’t coming into the town and he needs to quickly sell off his stock before it goes bad.

But I’m not there yet. The earthquake’s epicentre — and its deaths, almost 20,000 of them — is still further north.

Sendai, the northeast’s centre, has all but shut down. It’s an emerging city dotted with shiny skyscrapers. But you have to scrape around to buy food or any other supply you might need. It has hundreds of evacuation centres still occupied by people who have lost their homes or don’t have enough to get by.

A 90-year-old evacuee, Mitsuko Kujiwara, can’t go home until her power, water and gas lines are restored, and she can buy enough supplies. Otherwise, there’s no way she could take care of herself. “Solitude is another thing. Being alone now, right now, is chilling,” she says.

And it’s along Sendai’s coast where the real damage starts. Almost 200 km of coastline, full of villages, homes and lives, have been wiped out by the tsunami. Under the looming nuclear threat, the public focus has moved away from the tsunami’s destruction. But this is another world, the worst of the disaster, unimaginable until you arrive. You only need to cross one street for the devastation to start. The sheer force the wave carried has dug scars into entire neighbourhoods. Cars are upturned, lodged in buildings and stuck up fences. Houses have become rubble. There are entire fields of undifferentiated debris with just roofs sticking out.

Under them, thousands of families have been lost. Relatives return to the devastation to scour the wreckage for bodies. Two weeks since the disaster, that’s all they can hope for. There’s a man standing by a pile of tiles and timbers. I ask if there’s anything I could help with. “Thank you. But it’s time to give up. It’s been too long,” he says. His family is missing. He thanks me again and bows low.

This pain I can feel.

But it isn’t just him. It’s the common plight of tens of thousands of Japanese people in the country’s worst humanitarian disaster since World War II. 

The suffering is wide, but here, on the coast, it is the deepest.

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