Japan one year on: A journey through a world shaken to the core

First the earthquake, then the tsunami, and a nuclear crisis. But as David McNeill found, millions of people are still struggling with the hardest part of all: picking up the pieces

''The world is heavy on us," says Katsunobu Sakurai, recalling the day that its weight almost crushed the life out of his city. On the morning of 11 March last year, Minamisoma and its mayor were struggling with the same mundane problems as many other small rural cities across Japan: a declining, greying population, creaking public services and a faltering local economy. By nightfall, an existential disaster had engulfed Mayor Sakurai's office, one from which it has yet to re-emerge.

It began with the huge quake that struck off the coast of the city of 71,000 at 2:46pm. Less than an hour later, Mr Sakurai was on the roof of the city office, squinting toward the sea about six miles away. "We could see this huge cloud of dust rising into the air from the Pacific. I asked someone, 'Is that a fire?' Then we realised it was the tsunami." Even as he spoke, the deluge was inundating homes, drowning old people and children alike, sometimes whole families. By evening, bodies were being brought to a makeshift morgue in a local college.

The 11 March quake and tsunami took 630 lives, including 100 children, in Minamisoma. For days, Mr Sakurai wondered if his elderly parents were among the casualties. But instead of looking for them he was dealing with the crisis that would define his city. On 12 March, 23km south of his office, an explosion blew apart the building housing reactor 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Operator Tokyo Electric Power and the central government were silent on what was happening. Public television said there was no need for panic. Minamisoma's citizens made up their own minds and fled after rumours of radiation.

Within a few days, the town had almost emptied of people. Twenty-seven thousand – a third of the population – have yet to return a year later. "They're scattered all across Japan," says Mr Sakurai. "We know of some families in America, too. Who knows if they will ever come back?" About 150 of his city's 830 employees are expected to quit this year, what he calls a 'municipal meltdown' brought on by the stress of last year's calamity. "We had to work everything out for ourselves because there was no help from central government. We're seeing the results of that now."

Minamisoma's agony was replicated all along the northeast coast, where the tsunami at some points topped 40 meters. Nineteen thousand people were left dead or missing. Among the terabytes of digital footage from Japan's disaster, one of the most heartbreaking shows fleeing refugees from Rikuzentakata, up the coast from Minamisoma, impotently watching from a hill as a huge muddy wave slowly swallows up their picture-postcard town. Voices behind the shaky handheld camera record the emotions of the crowd, from initial incredulity to horror, then keening despair. Old and young, male and female, weep. An elderly man, possibly the camera operator, keeps repeating "tomete kure, tomete kure" (stop it, please stop it). Afterwards, they were surely thankful to have survived. But in the moment captured on film, the overwhelming reaction was disbelief and for some, perhaps, déjà vu.

Memory and forgetting were life-or-death issues. Akio Komukai, a factory worker, recalls speeding away from the coast in the town of Ofunato after the earthquake struck and meeting children on their way home from school. "They were walking toward the sea and I rolled down the window of my car and shouted: 'Tsunami tendenko' There's a tsunami coming! You need to run away!'" The youths looked at the 61-year-old and kept walking, an episode one imagines being repeated through the centuries.

Tsunami warnings are as common as muck in the north-eastern Tohoku region – there had been one a few days before 11 March. Mr Komukai, who remembers a 1960 tsunami washing away houses, still wonders who among the children survived. "They didn't believe me," he says. "We forget that the sea is close because we build next to it. Then the tsunami comes and washes away the houses and you can see the sea again. And we're reminded."

The tsunami roared through a huge floodgate in Rikuzentakata, sweeping away 45 young firemen trying to shut the gate, tearing the town of 23,000 people from its roots and leaving behind a gaping landscape that reminded survivors of post-war Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Journalists who arrived in the town found car navigation systems still directing them to the post office, hospital and other washed-away landmarks. Survivors could be seen picking through the mud for belongings, especially photo albums. In makeshift refugee centres, pictures plucked from the deluge were painstakingly laid out near the entrances in the hope that their owners might claim them – if they had survived.

Today, only the skeletons of steel-structured buildings stand in many of these coastal towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Two-roomed prefab homes have sprung up in public spaces, housing the roughly 340,000 people displaced by the disaster. The lucky ones, such as Makoto Mikamori and his wife Megumi have already started to rebuild. "It's tough but our community has pulled together so we're managing," says Yoshiko Oikawa, who lost her home near the coast in Ofunato. It will be several years before she gets a new house but she considers herself fortunate because her children are safe: "Some of their friends were not so lucky."

History has repeatedly shown that these communities can rebuild, often with remarkable speed. In 1933, waves up to 28 metres tall demolished much of this coastline, leaving more than 3,000 people dead or missing. Another huge tsunami up to 38 metres high crashed ashore in 1896, killing 22,000. Ofunato, Minamisoma, Rikuzentakata and other towns have always bounced back, erecting stone monuments at the highest point of the tsunami that stuck their homes, then forgetting their lessons; their faded stone lettering a metaphor for collective amnesia. Recovery this time, however, is less easy to predict.

Even before the earth shifted on its axis on 11 March, communities like Rikuzentakata, where over a third of the population is 65 or older, were quietly withering. Many fear the disaster may accelerate the migration of the young to the cities, further sapping them of the energy and taxes needed to rebuild. Regeneration is further complicated by the radiation from the Daiichi plant that has blanketed eight per cent of the entire country. Nearly all of the 23 million tonnes of rubble from the tsunami and quake is still piled up around the coast because it is widely believed contaminated and the government can't persuade local authorities to dispose of it.

Much of the worst radiation damage was inflicted on 14 and 15 March, when winds carried a plume northwest over pristine farming land in Fukushima, one of Japan's key food baskets. "It rained on those nights and the rain brought the radiation down on top of us," says Nobuyoshi Ito, a farmer in the mountain village of Iitate, 40km from the plant and a half hour scenic drive from Minamisoma. For reasons that remain murky, the government delayed releasing data that would have shown the radiation's path and saved many from heavy exposure. Hundreds of families unknowingly evacuated into the most irradiated areas. "It was a crime and the people in government who made that decision should go to jail," says Mr Ito.

He is among a tiny number of farmers who have ignored a government directive to evacuate from this area. The order has emptied 114,000 people from once thriving towns near the plant, including more than 6,000 from Iitate. An unknown additional number, anywhere from 50,000 to 120,000, according to observers, has moved voluntarily because of radiation fears, ignoring official claims that life inside or around Fukushima Prefecture is safe. Typically, mothers have taken their children out of the prefecture and started new lives elsewhere, splitting up families, often in the teeth of protesting fathers and in-laws.

"My husband didn't agree to the move and tells us to come back home," explains Akemi Sato, a housewife from Fukushima City (about 60km from the nuclear plant) who now lives in Tokyo with her two children, aged seven and nine. "I have to pay my bills in Tokyo and travel to Fukushima to see my husband three or four times a month. It's very expensive and stressful but I didn't see a choice." Compensation for the victims of the nuclear disaster has dribbled in – most people have received less than£17,000. Mrs Sato, who moved voluntarily, is not currently entitled to a penny because the government insists that her home is safe.

Cleaning up the contamination and convincing sceptical mothers like Mrs Sato to return is a mammoth task. Workers in boiler suits and masks have descended on towns with power hoses, trying to scour the Daiichi plant's toxic payload from playgrounds, parks and other public areas. The workers have removed most of the most dangerous contaminant – cesium – from the grounds of Minamisoma Middle High School, says its principal Shinichi Hamano. Like other public buildings here, the school has planted a large dosimeter outside its front gates showing the current radiation in large digital letters in an attempt to reassure local parents – with limited success. Only half of its 360 students have returned since last year, Principal Hamano admits.

"I don't know if we will ever recover to what we were before 11 March but we are certainly improving," he says, pointing to the flashing red dosimeter outside, which reads 0.2 microsieverts. Last March the radiation was 10 times as high, a level that exceeded the government's annual guidelines of 1 millisievert. In response, the government controversially hiked the limit to 20 millisieverts, sparking protests. Many children have since reported low immunity and other health problems, though no one has proved a link to the nuclear plant.

A few kilometres from the school, national highway six, which runs right by its gates and down the Pacific coast, hits the 20km exclusion zone around the crippled plant. Police officers with dosimeters pinned to their chests prevent locals from entering, even Mayor Sakurai, who has a small farm on the other side. Reporters and citizens who venture inside through back roads can be arrested. Inside the zone, life has frozen in time. Homes have been abandoned and reclaimed by weeds. Thousands of farm animals and pets have been left to die. Roughly 80,000 people who once lived here have not been told when, if ever, they can return.

Cleaning up and compensating for the triple disaster will add to Japan's already groaning debt burden. Although its powerful economy is showing signs of life after predictably contracting last year, the nation faces profound long-term structural problems, notably a looming demographic crisis. In January, the health ministry forecast that the population of 128 million will fall by 30 per cent in the next half-century. The shrinking and ageing population means the government will struggle to cope with ballooning social welfare costs and the aftermath of 11 March, while trying to pay off Japan's public debt – at $12 trillion, the worst in the industrialised world.

Mayor Sakurai and other observers fear that the central government may have backed off from the more radical changes needed to guide the country through what the former Prime Minister Naoto Kan called Japan's worst crisis since the Second World War. Mr Kan's successor, Yoshihiko Noda, has signaled business as usual for nuclear power and few other new initiatives, except for a hike in taxes to pay for recovery. "I think we can recover, but we need leadership and I see little of that," says Mr Sakurai.

Still, he is optimistic that good will come from the tragedy that erupted with such awful suddenness a year ago. He believes the crisis will galvanise a nation that has seemed adrift for two decades. He says it has already forced people to draw on hidden reserves, independent of the faltering gears of central government. Thousands of young people have volunteered for work in Tohoku, farmers experiment with new crops, school children have begun thinking about new approaches to the country's problems.

"Those are the energies we have to draw on," he says. "That's our future."

Suicide rate spiked in wake of disasters

The number of people who took their own lives in Japan spiked in the months following last year's devastating earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, new government figures show.

For the fourteenth year in a row, more than 30,000 people committed suicide, according to the 2011 survey.

Following the tragic events of March last year, the number of people who committed suicide rose considerably in April, May, June and August. In May, the number was 21 per cent higher than it had been the year before. Many of those people were men in their thirties.

Most people were driven by health issues, though the figures have also been linked to Japan's economic downturn that followed the disaster, according to Tomohiko Karube, of the Cabinet Office's suicide prevention team.

"The whole of Japanese society was anxious after the disaster, and we suspect that to be a contributing factor," an official said.

The economy suffered considerably in the wake of the disaster, which killed more than 15,854 people. A further 3,271 people are still listed as missing.

Japan has one of the world's highest suicide rates, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Enjoli Liston

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