It was Japan’s worst nightmare: an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown. Henry Tricks tells the tale of a single survivor
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013
Before the disaster, there was always something reassuring about life by the sea in Ukedo, on the Fukushima coastline. Farther up Japan’s north-eastern shores, the rias, or inlets, would often become deathtraps when tsunamis barrelled up the narrow coves, crashing over isolated villages before the residents had time to flee. But in Ukedo, which lies on a smooth grey beach, ruffled in the early morning only by gulls’ feet and crabs’ claws, the Pacific Ocean was typically gentler. In summer, surfers would lie idly for hours out at sea waiting for a wave big enough to ride. If ever the waves did rise, giant concrete sea walls stood between them and the village like grim-faced centurions.
For generations, villagers came together twice a year to celebrate the bounty of the ocean. At New Year, dozens of fishing boats, festooned with flags, would join a parade out to sea, their horns blaring. In the lead was the vessel that had caught the most fish the year before. Two months later, when the sea was cold and rough and the fishermen needed an excuse to stay on shore drinking, the main matsuri, or Shinto festival, was held. It honoured the sea and the paddy fields of Ukedo, which together provided the two staple ingredients of every Japanese table: fish and rice. Children would dress up in gaudy costumes, with red and yellow flowers on their hats, speckled robes and red clogs, dancing to songs that celebrated life by the sea. Young fishermen would strip down to a pair of tight white shorts, and, fired up with slugs of the village’s sake, they would hurl themselves into the icy water, carrying heavy wooden shrines that sloshed about on the waves. The name of the festival spoke to the success of their entreaties to the Shinto spirits of the sea. It was called the Amba Matsuri, or Festival of the Safe Wave.
Morihisa Kanouya, then 71, had long reaped the benefits of the safety of those waves. A second-generation fisherman, he was often among the first five in the New Year’s parade because of the size of his catches. His working life was as regular as the movement of the tides. He would rise at 2am, six days a week, at his home close to the sea. Hisako, his cheery wife, would get up with him, handing him a small bento box that she had prepared before going to bed, with a snack that he would eat in the chilly darkness out at sea. He would set out with only his eldest son for company. In a few hours they would haul in anything from 50-200kg of fish, including flounder, octopus, sea bream and squid. By 7am, they would be back home in time for Hisako’s breakfast. Then from 9am, Kanouya-san (as everyone knows him) would unload his catch at the wholesale market, from where it would be trucked to Tsukiji, one of the world’s biggest fish markets, in Tokyo. By the early afternoon, he would have scrubbed his nets, and a bit later he would be tucking into his first glass of sake. A strapping, broad-chested man, he can still put away a few litres a day, he reckons. But by 8pm, he was usually home and in bed.
His income had long been as steady as his hours. Off Japan’s north-eastern coast, the collision of the warm Kuroshio current with the cold Oyashio current coming down from the Arctic Ocean produces some of the world’s richest fishing. It is not for nothing that many fishermen view the sea as a liquid bank, providing a recurring flow of cash year in, year out. For the fishermen of Ukedo, there was a bonus. Since 1971, when Japan’s biggest utility, Tokyo Electric (Tepco), had opened its first nuclear-power plant on the Fukushima coastline a few miles south of their village, they had been offered generous financial support for agreeing to give up their fishing rights, so that Tepco could pour the warm overflow from its nuclear cooling systems into the ocean. Ukedo’s fishermen took the lion’s share of the first big subsidy. Every time Tepco built a new reactor in the vicinity—there were six in total—the fishermen received a generous top-up. It had enabled Kanouya-san and his colleagues to buy new engines and upgrade their trawlers, making them more reliable and extending their reach out to sea. Fishing became far more lucrative than farming, and even when Japan’s economy stalled in the 1990s, Ukedo continued to prosper. For years Kanouya-san was one of its top seadogs, as head of the local fishing co-operative.
But in 2011 he had finally decided it was time for a change. He resolved to hang up his white fisherman’s boots, leave his job at the co-operative, and take Hisako on a trip—around Japan, and even the world, if possible. The news delighted her, he recalls. So when, on the afternoon of March 11th, he felt the biggest earthquake to jolt Japan in at least 1,000 years, he rushed home, only to find her laughing with friends. They had been having tea together when the quake struck. Now she was giggling and gossiping nervously with them, using a broom to sweep up the bits of crockery that had fallen to the floor. She was oblivious to the risk of a tsunami. He wasn’t. Some 17 of his fellow fishermen had done the most sensible thing under the circumstances: they had jumped into their trawlers and headed out to sea, knowing they could ride over the swelling tide before it would crash onto the coastline. But Kanouya-san’s first concern was his wife.
There was no more time to waste. He ordered her into his car and they set off inland. The quake had struck at 2.46pm on an overcast day with a hint of sleet in the air. As he drove out of the village, he could see through the fading light that the narrow road passing through the rice paddies was already jammed with cars. In typical, law-abiding fashion, when each one reached the main intersection, they paused before crossing. Even though the tsunami was bearing down on them, and bulletins urging flight were streaming across their car radios, they remained in line. Some leaned on their horns, all must have been checking their rear-view mirrors, keeping an eye on the sea behind them. But no one accelerated down the right hand side of the road, although no traffic was coming the other way.
Kanouya-san skirted the traffic and headed instead to a small hill, about 2.5km inland. It looked safe enough. Surrounded by a thicket of bamboo, it rose above the flat marshland that surrounds Ukedo. It was secure enough to have been designated, the year before, as an evacuation spot for the children of Ukedo elementary school. But when he got there, he saw a terrible sight behind him. "It was like a black wall, five to six metres high, and the white spray above it mixed with the sky, so you couldn’t tell where the sea ended and the sky began."
As the tsunami punched through the sea wall, just over an hour after the earthquake had struck, he started to run up the hill holding his wife’s hand. But the water rushed towards them so fast, he realised that they would not be able to climb high enough. He wrapped himself around a tree and held her in his arms. When the icy wave reached them, it tugged at him, snapping his knee and then, to his horror, tearing Hisako from his grip. "When the water receded," he says, "I was alone." His knee was broken. "I crawled farther up the hill, calling Hisako’s name countless times. But all I heard back was silence. I have never experienced such silence in my whole life. There was no answer from her, just silence. It was like sound had disappeared from the world."
As the sleet started to fall, he was overcome by shivering. He huddled on the ground, stuffing damp leaves inside his shirt in an effort to keep warm. Rescued a few hours later by a local man, he was driven to the nearest town, where he was wrapped in a woman’s jersey to keep him warm overnight. The next day, though desperate to search for his wife, he was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment to his knee. Hours later, a hydrogen explosion shook the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. The tsunami had knocked out its electricity supply, cutting off the cooling system, and setting in motion a series of three nuclear meltdowns. The explosion terrified local people and prompted the government to order mass evacuations within 20km of the plant. Kanouya-san’s hospital was just outside that area. Nevertheless, most doctors and nurses fled, all but abandoning Kanouya-san. For days, he shared a few rice balls with a handful of other remaining patients, all the time praying that his wife had survived.
She hadn’t. Though he cannot prove this, he believes she did not die in the tsunami, but could not make it to safety. "Perhaps, the same as me, she couldn’t move because her bones were broken. Or she was sickened from having drunk the filthy tsunami water. Or she was freezing cold."
Whether or not that is true, no search parties went out the morning after the tsunami as they did farther up the coast; the rescue workers were also forced to evacuate. While her husband fretted, Hisako’s body lay abandoned for more than a month in a rice field near the banks of the Ukedo river, exposed to the elements and to crows, insects and rats. When she was finally found, on April 17th, her corpse was unrecognisable. Like many others from Ukedo, it was quickly burnt and could only be identified by DNA testing.
As Kanouya-san puts it, summing up the disaster: "The day started in heaven. It ended in hell."
Top April 2013: Morihisa Kanouya returns to his village of Ukedo to see the devastation left by the catastrophe of March 2011. He now lives two hours away
Above right Morihisa Kanouya outside the prefab in Fukushima City that is his temporary home
These days, you find Kanouya-san, now 73, living alone on the outskirts of Fukushima City, capital of the eponymously named prefecture. His new home is about 50 miles north-west of Ukedo, across a high mountain range, and he rarely goes back. He lives in a prefabricated, box-like temporary housing complex. During my last visit, in February, an icy wind blowing from Siberia was making the snow billow up against the door of his home. Inside, he sat huddled with his back to the wall, in a coat and scarf, opposite his large
Panasonic television. As usual, there were several fisherman’s caps, fedoras and trilbies pegged to the wall above his head; they are his pride and joy and his only decorations. As usual, he greeted us gruffly. No small talk. Even as I struggled to unlace my boots at the door, he turned his back on me and went into his living room. To one side of him is a photograph showing him as a roguish-looking man in the 1970s, with a brown leather jacket and a cap worn at a tilt like Robert Redford in "The Sting". Next to him is Hisako, wearing jeans and with a round, smiling face. Sometimes I have remarked on what a playboy he looks in the photo. He smiles mischievously, as if to acknowledge that, back then, he did indeed have the pick of all the girls.
But now, it’s only the other photo of Hisako that counts. It shows her on her own, austerely dressed in a dark robe, with her hair swept back. Beside it are candles, sticks of incense and flowers, as well as oranges and biscuits that Kanouya-san offers every day as he prays to her. Among them is a small urn with her ashes inside. Hisako is now a spirit, and when he kneels at her shrine, he rings a small bell, lights a stick of incense, and bows his head solemnly.
"I speak to my wife every morning and evening," he says. "I tell her who I am going to see every day, and when I come back in the evening, I tell her what I have done. And every day I tell her that I’m really sorry that I was not able to save her when she died, and I apologise deeply for not being able to bury her in our graveyard. I beg for her forgiveness. And I say to her, when the time comes and I meet her again, please be in my life. Please wait for me, and I’ll be there."
I first heard about Hisako last year in a crowded conference hall near Fukushima City, when Kanouya-san, dressed in a suit and tie, told her story to a panel of investigators charged by the Diet, or parliament, with drawing up lessons from the Fukushima disaster. It was a chance for the commission to listen for the first time to representatives of the 88,000 people who had been evacuated from their homes within the 20km radius of the nuclear-power plant. Most of the local officials who addressed the meeting told harrowing stories of the chaos, fear and information vacuum as they followed orders to evacuate their villages—and then moved to areas where the radiation was even more dangerous. Kanouya-san told a more personal story, with such a poignant sense of both anger and futility in his voice that it reminded me just how incomprehensible the events of that tragic time were. As if to underline the point, a man in the audience stood up early in the hearing and began to groan. It was such a loud, incongruous noise, I thought at first it was a glitch in the sound system. But then I saw him ambling from one end of the conference room to the other, sounding like a gored bull.
Stunned by this raw display of emotion, a veteran Japanese journalist, sitting next to me, leaned across and whispered in English, "This cannot be Japan."
But it is Japan, even if the anguish after the triple disaster poses a problem for a country that has, following the defeated Emperor Hirohito’s injunction in 1945, prided itself on its ability to "endure the unendurable and suffer what is insufferable". Endure is what most of the 315,000 north-easterners still uprooted by the disaster have done for the past two years. They have suffered in silence. Despite the seething frustration, there are no unified voices urging the government to speed up its reconstruction efforts, or come up with new sources of employment in the stricken areas.
Meanwhile, instead of offering solidarity, much of the rest of the country, after an initial outpouring of sympathy, treats the whole thing like a national embarrassment. In Fukushima, those driven from their homes by radiation are quietly stigmatised. If they are at school, there are taunts in the playground; if they are looking for love, potential partners shun them. Supermarket shoppers elsewhere in Japan surreptitiously steer their trolleys away from produce grown near Fukushima. The Diet Commission report into the nuclear accident, an exemplary document that catalogued a chain reaction of human and systemic error, has been left to gather dust in parliament. Perhaps its conclusion was too challenging. The chairman, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, described the crisis as "made in Japan". Its root cause, he said, was the "reflexive obedience, reluctance to question authority, devotion to 'sticking with the programme', groupism and insularity" of the nation at large. Although the report criticised the government and Tepco for failing to foresee or prevent the crisis, it put the national psyche in the dock. A nation tinged by guilt prefers to turn away.
Those same traits probably explain why the disaster-stricken communities do not make more of a fuss. But, in isolated cases, some of the anguish-ridden people of Fukushima are taking a stand—and in the process making brave efforts to keep their shattered communities together. Kanouya-san leads one such group, which brings together families, many from Ukedo, who lost loved ones in the disaster. What is extraordinary is the nature of their action. They have lost homes, land and livelihood. Their children or grandchildren have been thrown into new schools, far away from old friends. They have been uprooted from the balmy seaside to bitterly cold mountain towns where snow piles up in winter outside their tiny prefab homes. Many children are still living in areas where the levels of radiation are so high that their time playing outdoors is rationed, and they cannot roll around in the grass. Yet these people’s protest is not on their own behalf, or that of their little ones. It is on behalf of their dead—many of them among their communities’ eldest residents. It shows just how deeply respect for culture, tradition and the aged still runs through Japanese communities, especially in rural farming areas like Fukushima. It is a fight for dignity, one of the few things left for people who have lost everything else.
Kanouya-san has gone to battle with Tepco at the head of 333 families. At first glance it seems like a quixotic venture. Tepco is already on the hook for more than ¥3 trillion ($31 billion) in damages to those who have been driven from their homes by radiation, or lost land and incomes. It estimates it needs another ¥10 trillion over the next several decades to decommission the radioactive Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, and seal it away, like Chernobyl, for generations. Tepco would already probably be bankrupt were it not for effective nationalisation by the government. Yet Kanouya-san’s group wants Tepco to dig even deeper—to pay for the dead, as well. Though they were victims of the tsunami, not of radiation, their relatives argue that some of them might have been rescued had it not been for the nuclear accident. More incontrovertibly, their right to a decent burial was violated after their deaths, the plaintiffs say. Because of the radiation plume, there were no search parties sent out to find their corpses. That meant the bodies were left to rot in the fields for weeks.
Kanouya-san’s lawyer is a thoughtful man called Harutaka Kanno. Sitting in a leather-backed chair in his office in Fukushima City, he acknowledges that it is an unprecedented case. In effect, it is seeking to put a price on a dead person’s dignity. But he says it is not blood money the bereaved are after. They are pressing Tepco to show sincere sorrow for the anguish it caused their loved ones at the time of death—and afterwards. Under Japanese law, the only way to measure the weight of that sincerity is through money.
In some of the testimonies recited by the bereaved at a hearing with Tepco in February, the pain almost burst out. There was a lot of guilt: family members had been hurriedly evacuated, believing their lost loved ones were in other temporary shelters and would be moved out separately. It was only later they found them to be missing, and by then it was too late to search. There was the helpless anguish, lasting more than a month, of wondering whether the bodies would be found. When they were, there was horror at the general state of decomposition. Kanno explains that in Buddhist burial rites the usual practice is to make up the face of the corpse and put on clothes, to make them look serene before incineration. Many of the testimonies note how sad the family members are not to have been able to dress and make up their loved ones.
The final insult, they say, is that they were unable to bury the ashes in their ancestors’ graveyards, because, in places like Ukedo, the burial grounds are still off limits. That is why Kanouya-san keeps Hisako’s ashes on her shrine at home. But until her ashes are buried, he believes her spirit lives in restless limbo, somewhere between this world and the next.
Top The shrine Morihisa Kanouya has built inside to his wife Hisako. The picture in the frame is one of only two that remain of her
Above right He joins another former resident of Ukedo to return to their ancestors' graveyard. With the area in ruins, the people are unable to honour their dead
That sealed-off burial ground lies on the edge of Ukedo, a jumble of marble and stone headstones toppled by the tsunami like dominoes. When I visited it in early autumn 2012, wearing a white anti-radiation suit from head to toe so that I wouldn’t be recognised as a journalist, it was overgrown with weeds and the goldenrod flowers that swept across the landscape in broad brushstrokes of yellow. My guide, who had been brought up in the village, led me to the tomb that he had built with his own hands before the tsunami for his father, who had died previously. He showed me an empty casket. The father’s ashes had been licked out of their resting place by the black waters of the tsunami, and washed into the surrounding marshland. We found the russet-coloured marble lid of the grave a hundred metres away in a rice field, upside down in the mud, an ant tracing its way from one side to the other.
"My fear is that nature will consume this graveyard, making it unrecognisable," the young man said. One of his strongest demands is that the graveyard be moved to a more accessible place, so that once again the people of Ukedo can honour and tend to their spirits. "Of course," he mutters, "the bastards don’t listen."
From an outsider’s point of view, it is curious how alive the dead are in Japan. Every year at Obon, a Buddhist festival celebrated mostly in August, families gather to tend to their ancestral tombs, and to leave food and drink at the household altars where they believe that their forebears’ spirits return to feast. At the Ukedo graveyard, the young man recalls that when he was building the tomb, other villagers would bring tea and water to their loved ones’ graves to quench their thirst. He had been startled by how long they would carry on talking with the spirits, even in the blazing summer heat.
As I picked my way later that day through the village of Ukedo, I was able to trace the memories of some of the 164 people who had died near there in the tsunami. Often their deaths showed how the seam of stoicism that marks the people of Fukushima endured to the end. Their stories also showed the reality of village life—of jealousies and spite, as well as harmony and uniformity. One lady, married to a cranky old asthma sufferer, had been cruelly mistreated by him and his mother throughout their married life. When the mother-in-law died, her friends urged her to leave him. But she stood by him even as the tsunami crashed over the house, listening to his stubborn insistence that he would not budge. She died by his side.
The village priest was another victim, as were his wife, daughter and son-in-law. His family had been in a feud with some members of the village over the upkeep of the village shrine and the cost of the annual pageants. When his surviving daughter took the courageous step of volunteering to take his place after his death, the old guard of the village vetoed her. A small temporary shrine now sits on the site of the magnificent old one, which was rendered unrecognisable by the tsunami. Its care has been outsourced to a priest in a village 30 miles away.
Perhaps the most poignant memories are those of a 14-year-old girl, Wakana Yokoyama, who lived so close to the sea that crabs would scuttle through her garden. Her favourite toys were the desiccated starfish thrown away by fishermen, which she would toss across the beach like a frisbee. Fish and shellfish were always on the table. By the well in the garden, she would watch her grandfather, the village’s venerable shipwright, gut the fish that he would often bring home after a brisk walk to the port, given to him free by the local fishermen. As far as Wakana can remember, her family never paid for a fish during her whole life in Ukedo.
Her grandfather’s most mesmerising trick was to use a fish knife with his left hand, open a salmon, and gently squeeze out the roe, which they ate on top of rice for breakfast. "He had hands like a god," Wakana says. "Grandpa did it beautifully, better than anyone else on earth." He was killed in the tsunami, along with his wife. Like Hisako, their bodies were left abandoned and unclaimed for weeks.
Abandonment haunts the land around Ukedo. It haunts the area around the nuclear-power plant. It haunts much of Fukushima itself. You do not need to have a vivid imagination to feel that the disaster has left a ghostly tinge across the area. Radiation itself is like a ghost—invisible, intangible, but clinging to everything it touches.
Above On the beach: police comb the Ukedo shoreline for traces of the dead, within sight of the crippled nuclear-power plant
Ukedo was almost entirely razed by the tsunami, but the towns farther inland still stand. Some have broken roofs and windows from the earthquake; in all of them, spiders’ webs have been spun across doors and windows, giving them the air, almost literally, of ghost towns. It is striking how large they are. Namie, which is Ukedo’s main municipality north of the nuclear-power plant, was home to 20,000 people. Tomioka, to the south, had a population of 16,000. The entire no-go zone is an area almost as large as the Yorkshire Dales. It is not hard to imagine places like Harrogate and Skipton abandoned like Namie and Tomioka. What’s more, like Yorkshire, the area has become suffused with a Bronte-esque sense of desolation, with nature now running amok. When I crept into Tomioka after the disaster, there was not a human soul on the streets, but sturdy beef cattle were on the loose, grazing on the secondary-school playing fields. As I gazed into the shattered innards of the garish Night Friend nightclub, I suddenly felt an eerie presence behind me. I turned around to find an ostrich staring at me through its bulging eyes. After the disaster, it appeared to have escaped from a nearby farm, desperate for food, with no one left behind to feed it. With me in my protective white suit and facemask, it was hard to say which of us looked more incongruous.
Abandoned animals can be a source of intrigue, but also of anguish. More than three weeks after the tsunami, I came across a stable near the coast that was just within the 20km cordoned-off zone. Six dead horses lay sprawled on the grass in front. Those that were left alive, though they still had big trusting eyes, were emaciated and mottled with scars. You could see from their hoof marks climbing up the side of the wall how they had paddled in panic as the tsunami swept through their stalls.
There are other grim stories. One 93-year-old woman, who had stubbornly refused to abandon her home in the no-go zone, hanged herself. She said she would prefer to be evacuated to a graveyard. Nonetheless, some of my encounters in the area have been touching, because of the sheer beauty of the surroundings, and the tender longing their former residents have to return. One morning I took a wrong turn in the mountains above the nuclear-power plant, and followed a sign that said, in English, Romantic Road. It took us to a tiny creek running down the hillside, blooming with purple irises and studded with Japanese cedars and maple trees. At a spot called the Whispering Passage, a hand-written wooden sign urged visitors to drink the water that trickles through a bamboo pipe from the "god of the mountain" above. Our Geiger counter warned us not to: it wailed when put into the undergrowth, with readings that measured around 100 millisieverts a year—a level even nuclear workers would consider dangerous. Pasted onto the window of the house opposite were short poems that radiated only homesickness. One, dating from the tail end of winter 2012, said "Plum trees haven’t bloomed yet this year. Our pride is gone, but don’t forget, spring is coming." Another, more bitter, was haiku-like in its brevity. "Crying in temporary housing. Thank you Tepco."
In his own temporary housing, Kanouya-san is not crying—publicly at least. If his abandoned homelands remind me of the Yorkshire Dales, he could well be the flinty Yorkshireman, plain in his words and eloquent in his gruffness. He would not trouble me with the indignity of his tears.
Yet, in his own way, he is giving vent to his despair. And his way says a lot about the backbone of those who apparently suffer in silence. His arbitration case against Tepco is coming to a head. Those who know him liken him to a yakuza (crime syndicate) boss in his fury about his wife’s death and his unyielding determination to make Tepco pay. So far, Tepco has been just as stubborn—offering what many of the plaintiffs considered a miserly sum to shut them up.
But part of the point is to show Tepco that despite the local tradition of stoicism, and the tendency to keep emotions bottled up, the true feelings of the bereaved should not be taken for granted. As Kanouya-san told Tepco at the February hearing: "Your employees have their own families. If they put their feet into our shoes, they would understand what agony we have been through. I just want you to understand how much we have suffered and how much pain we are in."
The lawyers stared back at him, he says, with stony-faced impassivity. Like much of the rest of Japan, they want to look away. Yet these little tokens of understanding may now be the only way for people like Kanouya-san, his beloved Hisako and many other victims of an incomprehensible tragedy to find a measure of peace.
Above The lone figure of Kanouya-san gazes at the centre of Namie, a town 7km from the nuclear-power plant. This was on April 4th, three days after these streets were reopened to the public
Henry Tricks is a former Tokyo bureau chief of The Economist
Photographs Jeremie Souteyrat