Asia

The big stories affecting you in 2011

  • 30 December 2011
  • From the section Asia
Kuji city tsunami damage. Photo: Lee Wood
Just some of the damage Kuji city saw after the tsunami hit. Pic: Lee Wood

More than 15,000 people were killed when Japan was hit by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, followed by a massive tsunami on 11 March 2011.

Cars, ships and buildings were swept away by a wall of water, while further danger erupted just days later when the cooling system at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant failed.

At the time, Japan's then prime minister - Naoto Kan - said his country was facing its toughest crisis since World War II.

But the Japanese people have proved resilient and for others who chose to remain in the country life must go on. Ten months on some residents reflect on the events and the future.

Regis de Lavison, Fukushima

I was in Fukushima City when the earthquake hit, driving to pick up children for afternoon classes at my school.

I didn't realise at first how strong it was. The utility and telephone poles were violently moving as was the car but it was not at all traumatic.

Regis de Lavison
The explosions at the nuclear power plant made things much more horrific for me and my family

Listening to the radio and hearing the panic in the announcer's voice and frantic tsunami warnings made me realise how serious it was.

Fukushima City was basically unaffected by the initial earthquake and ensuing tsunami. It was the power outage and lack of gasoline which made life inconvenient.

The explosions at the nuclear power plant made things much more horrific for me and my family.

Within a week of the earthquake we managed to fly out of Fukushima airport and stayed in Fukuoka, Kyushu for four weeks.

Due to the lingering radiation we are very careful about what we eat avoiding locally produced food. We also keep the children indoors and playing outside is very limited.

The radiation problem is very worrying and will remain for at least the next three generations.

The government dealt with the situation very poorly. They gave out bad information and were slow to admit the seriousness of the disaster.

The Japanese people who were to limited to local news for information (and that's almost everyone) were unable to make proper decisions on their own regarding what to do.

I am happy to be alive and to know no-one who lost their life due to the horrendous tsunami. And, my wife is expecting our third child for February. I continue to count my blessings.

Sarah Feinerman, Yotsukaido, approximately 230km from Fukushima

I am from California, US, but have lived in Japan for four years.

Sarah Feinerman
Sarah Feinerman managed to keep smiling just moments after the quake struck

On the day of the earthquake I was at work at Yasato Minami Junior High School in Ishioka, Ibaraki.

At the very moment it struck, I was in the faculty room with the vice-principal and the grounds keeper. All of the other teachers were in a meeting with parents in the school's central hall, along with the some of the students.

At first I remained at my desk, as did the other two teachers in the room, as earthquakes and aftershocks are really common in Japan. Often the children don't even blink because they are so used to them.

But after a few moments the grounds keeper and the vice-principal started opening the windows - that's what happens when the tremors last longer than just a few seconds.

And that's when the building really began to shake. I stood up from my desk and simply stood there like a deer caught in the headlights.

I left through a side door to the playground leading from the faculty room while the children, their parents and the other teachers left through the front entrance, not even pausing to change out of their school slippers to proper outdoor shoes.

The school is a three storey building and we could see it swaying. We evacuated everybody. All the girls were crying.

Most of the children went home with their families but we had about 10 children aged 13-14 whose parents hadn't come to the meeting, so we had to be responsible for them.

Some were worried about their grandparents, others who weren't crying didn't know how to deal with the panic their friends were feeling.

Mostly, I remember just talking to them - mainly about my friends and family back home. That helped stop me from being scared too.

Sure, we were on a tarpaulin in a cold parking lot and the earth was moving of its own accord, but the worst was over and we could focus on what we were supposed to do next.

Crack in ground in Ibaraki. Photo: Sarah Feinerman
Cracks emerged outside Sarah's school in Ibaraki, Japan when the quake hit.

The only thing is - we hadn't heard about the tsunami yet.

That was my last day teaching there, talk about going out with a bang.

I was never evacuated, despite being only just outside the evacuation zone recommended by the US government.

However I have a co-worker who was inside the zone set by the Japanese government, and she's had to change jobs and get a new apartment with her husband.

I sent her a card to her old address for the new year but it was returned to me with a formal letter apologising that the radiation situation meant it would be impossible to deliver.

My friend says it will be 20 or 30 years before anyone can go back to the school where she worked, so all the kids and teachers are at different schools now.

I'm not worried about radiation because no-one else seems to be.

I live further south than I did before, after a move that was planned before the earthquake, and we drink the water and eat the produce and no-one even talks about it anymore.

I met someone from Germany who'd been told before his trip not to stay longer than a week and not to eat any meat, I found that kind of hilarious.

I couldn't say that my life has changed significantly because of what happened. I do always keep bottled water in my car and have some instant food packets in case something like that happens again.

I think the fact that people are referring to the situation as an isolated horror, blaming just a bad day (the 11th) a bad month (March) or a bad year (2011), is a really good sign.

It happened, it was terrible, but we're Japan and we'll keep going.

Robert Murphy, Sapporoa, approximately 600km north of Fukushima

Robert Murphy
Robert returned to Sapporoa in May

I was meeting a former student in a coffee shop on the ground floor of a huge eight or nine storey building opposite Fukushima Station when the earthquake struck.

I assumed it would stop in seconds, as they normally do, but it didn't.

The muscles in my legs tightened as I heard older people in the coffee shop make comments like "I've never known anything like this".

Alongside this was the continuing noise (a huge building rumbles so), the falling signs, the disappearance of power, and the constant smashing of crockery from the tables, plus the sight of a bus outside rocking violently from side to side.

The loss of phone connections made it more worrying, because my wife would have been alone in our aging apartment block, some 2-3km (1.2-1.8 miles) away.

I had never known the like, no power, no water, all shops closed, no certainty about anything - except each other, and our immediate neighbours.

We were cut off. Fortunately, my laptop had sufficient battery power to contact my sister in the UK, the embassy in Tokyo, and the BBC.

The changes were significant, but nowhere near as bad as those affected by the tsunami.

We went to bed dressed; ready to vault out and head for the exit.

We were told to leave the radio on all night, and constant warnings to "take cover immediately!" made me think of WWII films.

I would say we are all worried deeply about the radiation but we have to continue living.

The British Embassy evacuated us on 18 March, and we arrived in Britain four days later. We returned to Japan in May. Some foreign residents just left everything and everyone behind.

I feel the Japanese government has dealt with the situation extremely poorly.

They allowed rumour to run wild, and were cack-handed in their public statements, while telling us that there was nothing to worry about.

I think matters are still to come to a head, in political terms, and people are still worried.

For us, 2011 has been very mixed. As regards to the disasters and official responses, and the reports of the media here and overseas, it has been a continuing disappointment. As for ordinary people, most have been superb, including the young.

Our overseas students returned in April and May which both surprised and heartened me, and three have contributed substantially to our drama group and public speaking group.

However, 2012 could be even worse than 2011, as Japan is now in a major slump, as is the world.

Ryan McDonald, Koriyama

When the earthquake hit I was at my apartment in Koriyama, 36 miles from the Dai-Ichi reactor and about 130 miles from the epicentre.

First there was a small quake, then the real quake hit and was only slightly larger than the previous ones we'd been having.

Ryan McDonald
Ryan was 130 miles from the earthquake's epicentre

After about a minute I realised it was bigger than usual and pulled out my iPod to take what I thought would be a short video.

I videoed the quake for another four minutes and then it stopped recording, but the quake was still going.

It sounded like a freight train. There were several large booms and I saw heavy appliances bouncing around in my apartment.

Then I saw some buildings leaning much farther than I thought was possible.

I knew I needed to get away from the doorway in case the building came straight down. Then I realised I was standing close to the natural gas containers which might explode, but I couldn't get to the parking lot because some bikes had bounced into the path and I was in my socks.

I couldn't run away or hide or go to higher ground since everything was moving and shaking violently

It took several months for me to be able to go into a deep sleep since any noise or small aftershock woke me up and caused adrenaline to surge.

Since it was a Friday I had planned to go grocery shopping the following Sunday so I had nearly nothing in my apartment.

Convenience stores were rationing water and small snacks since no new deliveries were coming. Gas stations were either out of gas or had a three hour wait for about five litres.

Since that time I have started keeping non-perishable food and bottled water in my apartment.

The bad thing about radiation is that it's a silent killer. I have a friend who bought a dosimeter around mid-March. From mid-March to the end of September he registered one millisievert.

So based on that I'm not overly concerned about radiation. The global average for one year is less than 2 millisieverts and that doesn't even include any medical procedures one might have.

We were beyond the 50 mile safe zone set by the US government. We left mainly because we had no gas or water service in the apartment and were unable to buy food. I returned about a week later when the gas and water services were back on.

The Japanese government did a fair job, but several parts of Japanese culture prevented them from being completely forthcoming.

First, they are group based and don't want to say anything bad about their group or say things were another group's fault. Second, they are very aware of rank and will never say anything disparaging about a senior ranking official or colleague. Finally, they are even more aware of appearance and how things look and showing weakness (as in lack of control) is very bad.

When the foreign media asked point blank questions expecting point blank yes-no responses, they were frustrated by the lack of information coming out. We were in the same boat and were told various things by various authorities.

Some of the information was accurate, some sounded like it was supposed to calm us.

It's been a stressful year, but my perspective has changed on life. I no longer feel indestructible and realise a situation can deteriorate quickly and having a plan is much better than making one up.

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