Japan still coming to terms with 3.11

Author: Tessa Morris-Suzuki, ANU

It is the stillness that is most overwhelming. The rubble has been cleared away. The grass has grown back. But along much of the coastal strip devastated by the tsunami that struck Japan on 11 March 2011, a silence remains.

A file picture dated 5 April 2011 shows Mayor of the Urashuku First Ward and an emergency volunteer firefighter Fumio Hiratsuka, 76, looking for his missing relatives at a makeshift mass grave for tsunami victims in the coastal town of Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan. (Photo: AAP).

The silence is particularly deep as you approach the areas close to the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station where the levels of radiation are still dangerously high. Five years on, four towns inside the evacuation zone are still uninhabited, and many surrounding areas have experienced drastic population decline. Around 100,000 people from the evacuation zones and other nearby areas are still living as evacuees.

The contrasts are stark. The centre of the town of Minamisoma, north of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, looks like the centre of any bustling small town. The population, which plummeted from around 71,500 before the disaster to around 10,000 immediately after, is now back to some 53,500. But as you head southward from the town centre, you reach the coastal strips razed by the force of the tsunami that swept away everything in its path. Here, few have moved back to rebuild lost houses.

A sign over the road tells visitors that they are entering the disaster zone, but otherwise the only real memorial to the disaster is the emptiness itself, occasional makeshift shrines constructed by former residents, and the strangely beautiful flowers which, here and there, bloom in the wasteland: survivors from vanished gardens.

To the outside observer, one of the strange things is the absence of major memorials to the disaster. Some communities have begun to build their own small monuments. In Ishinomaki, for example — the town worst affected by the tsunami — a beautiful semicircular memorial on a hillside commemorates the 18,000 victims of the disaster. But there is something very local — almost private — about this memorial, which has attracted little attention from Japan’s national media.

The absence of national memorials could be seen as a symbol of the fact that Japan is still coming to terms with the 3.11 disaster. It is not just the magnitude of the tragedy that makes it difficult to fully comprehend, but also its complexity. At one level, it was a reminder that even a prosperous, technologically sophisticated and highly earthquake-aware society like Japan can never fully control the destructive forces of nature. At another, it also raised immensely challenging questions about Japan’s disaster preparedness and its reliance on, and governance of, nuclear power.

The official response to the disaster has resolutely focused on positive thinking. The much repeated mantras are fukko [recovery] and kizuna [social solidarity]. The desire to be positive in the face of tragedy is understandable and the collective energy and generosity with which Japanese people responded to 3.11 is profoundly admirable. But the long-term response to disaster needs to leave room for grief, remembrance and reflection too.

The impact of the nuclear disaster on human health remains unclear, despite assurances from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) that no significant changes in cancer rates are expected. Over 1600 people are believed to have died from causes related, not to radiation, but to the mass evacuations that followed the nuclear disaster. In October 2015, the Japanese government for the first time paid compensation to a nuclear worker involved in the Fukushima cleanup. The payment acknowledged that the cancer he subsequently developed may have been caused by radiation exposure, though the government continues to insist that the causal link has not been proven.

Health surveys of some 300,000 residents conducted by Fukushima Prefecture since April 2011 have found 167 children (aged 18 or less at the time of the accident) who are confirmed or suspected of having thyroid cancer. So far, only one suspected case has later been found to be benign. This high number — 60 or more times the normal incidence of childhood thyroid cancer — at least in part reflects the unusually detailed screening of the population with sensitive measuring equipment. But the level and pattern of cases has now reached the point where some serious scientific studies are suggesting a possible causal link to the March 2011 disaster. Heated debate on the issue continues.

Questions of responsibility surrounding the disaster remain unresolved. After repeated court cases and challenges, on 29 February 2016 three executives of TEPCO (the operator of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant) were indicted for professional negligence causing death and injury. Their trial will doubtless be a long and contentious one. Just three of Japan’s 53 nuclear reactors have been restarted, and a fourth restart had to be shut down again only three days later due to a fault.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the world responded with generosity to the victims. Generosity and support for the many suffering survivors is still needed as Japan continues the long process of coming to terms with the consequences of 3.11.

Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki is an ARC Laureate Fellow based at the School of Culture, History and Language, at the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.