Japan, one year later

A lot has changed but the country is still scarred by the earthquake and tsunami
Houses burn in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, Tohoku region on the night of March 11, 2011. (Japan Ground Self-Defense Force via NHK TV/AP Photo)

One year after the earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan, Maclean’s senior writer Nicholas Kohler is back. He will be visiting communities on Japan’s northeastern coast, talking to survivors and posting on all week, chronicling the story of a people’s comeback from devastation.

It’s hard to believe how much has changed in 11 months.

My last dispatch from Japan appeared on April 11, exactly a month after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated Japan’s northeastern coast and crippled the Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima.

On the cover of that issue of Maclean’s: Michael Ignatieff squaring off against Stephen Harper in an election special that carried the cover line: “Round One Ignatieff: His Surprisingly Strong Start.”

Like I said, a lot’s changed.

A year ago, Tokyo, where I’m writing from now, was under a cloud: darkened by electricity rationing, with some countries urging their nationals to flee–”Get out of Tokyo now,” read one U.K. headline–and frequent aftershocks keeping nerves taut (I remember my high-rise hotel swaying with the quakes as I rushed to meet a deadline).

I lived in Tokyo for a while, 10 years ago, and it’s now much as I left—the labyrinth of streets around Shinjuku remain full of revelers at night, this morning the streets were packed with Monday-morning salarymen streaming from the train station and marching to work, and the stores are packed with shoppers and ubiquitous store clerks.

Preparing for a trip to Tohoku, the Japanese northeast, with its farms, fishing villages, factories and nuclear plants, I’m eager to find out what’s changed since my last time there.

(It was just a year ago, and yet how much I forget: that the sockets here won’t accept my MacBook Pro’s three-pronged plug; and why didn’t I check to see whether my antiquated BlackBerry could handle Japan’s new-fangled cellular network? It can’t.)

The Tohoku towns I saw last year—fishing villages like Otsuchi, for example, or the almost entirely leveled Rikuzentakata—were metres deep in a mulch of debris, strewn cars and rubble.

A lot of that has now been cleared away—one Canadian I spoke to living in Sendai, for example, tells me the coastal portions of that city, Tohoku’s major hub, have been cleared of the foundations of the homes that once stood there, a mouth without teeth.

Still, frequent quakes there, as many as once a week and some of substantial size, keep the disaster fresh in people’s minds.

But located just 65 km north of the Dai-Ichi plant, the major effect of the earthquake and tsunami in Sendai is invisible: the fallout that locals fear has contaminated their fisheries and farms and crept into the food chain.

Outside the 20-km exclusion zone surrounding the plant farmers are divided over whether to sell their crops, which can prompt radiation instruments to squawk. A lot feel they have no choice but to bring what they’ve grown to market.

“Buy local!” their signs read; a lot of people don’t.

Another Canadian living in Sendai tells me his Japanese wife inspects every label and buys produce grown as far away as possible, so frightened is she of contamination. “You’ve heard of the 100 mile diet? This is the reverse,” he says. (He, like others I’ve spoken to, says he’s not frightened—in his 60s, he’s too old to care, he says, but he wouldn’t let his daughter or her children live in Sendai. Another man, who has cancer, joked that his chemotherapy had immunized him against the fallout.)

Farther north, in the smaller fishing villages that dot the coast, the debris has been slower to recede. One challenge in many tiny hamlets is where to dispose of the wreckage—between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains there’s very little space to put all of it. They make do.

An American I talked to who’s lived in Japan on and off for over 30 years started going north bringing supplies almost immediately after the quake. When he saw that people were eating nothing but rice balls he hauled vegetables and natto, a fermented soya bean product that many foreigners find revolting, but which is a staple in Tohoku. He made a deal with a poultry farm and, little by little, trucked 15,000 eggs north, all together. By the end of September, in the Iwate village where he was concentrating most of his energies, a supermarket had opened: “It beats the hell out of anything you’d find in Tokyo,” he says. An indication, perhaps, that better times lie ahead.

The fishermen of the town, by that time too, had banded together and started sharing the limited number of boats that survived the tsunami; instead of food the American started hauling refrigerators so they could store their catch. He drove up some 50 freezers. That was enough, the village finally said.

Now he’s casting around for his next project; like many foreigners in Japan, he’s optimistic the country will pull through the crisis, despite its many challenges.

There’s something about the way the people of Tohoku have met this particular crisis that seems to bring out this attitude. I’m eager to see it again—after last year.

Tomorrow, Sendai.