It’s been two months. I didn’t realize it until it was mentioned on the news last night. Two months since this big mess began and people who were living within the 20 kilometer evacuation zone in Fukushima are being allowed to go back to their homes. Only one person per household, taken by bus, for only two hours, wearing protective clothing and radiation detectors, to collect personal belongings, only what they can carry in a 70 cm square plastic bag. Most people want to go back and get important things that they left when they fled such as personal identification, bank books, glasses, extra clothes, and photographs. That’s probably the one thing I have heard most frequently. People are going back only for photographs. To illustrate this point a bit, the other night on the news they showed a frail, eighty-eight year old woman who had to evacuate her home when the radiation fears began. In the tsunami her daughter perished, and one grandchild and one great grandchild are still missing. She is too feeble to make the trip to her home so she asked her daughter-in-law to go in her stead. All she wanted were her photo albums. When asked what else she would like brought back, she answered “I need nothing else. Only the photos.”
Another elderly man from the same village of Kawauchi, just on the edge of the 20 kilometer evacuation zone, was happy to be going back as he had to flee his house and his farm, leaving his cows behind to fend for themselves. He wanted to go and check on them, but when he arrived they were gone. Seeking food they had busted out of their pens and run off into the mountains. The elderly man spent his two hours cleaning the barn and piling up hay in case they came back. When he returned to the evacuation center, after being checked for any radiation of course, he spoke to reporters and like most of the people interviewed he expressed his regret that the alloted time was too short. Two hours. Two hours to try and pick up something meaningful from what you had to abandon two months ago.
Soon the enforced evacuation zone will expand to a 30 kilometer radius from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Plant and villages are in the last stages of preparation. Shelters have been secured for those who have no place to go but there are, it goes without saying, a lot of mixed feelings from the people being forced to go, mostly anger.
Speaking of Nuclear Reactors (and isn’t everyone talking about them these days?), Prime Minister Kan has requested that the electric company which runs a nuclear plant in Shizuoka shut down that plant as soon as possible. This comes as a bit of a surprise. My first surprise is that it seemed to come from nowhere, however after looking into it a bit more that plant is the most dangerous in Japan right now. It is along the ocean and, other than a man made sandbank, has no protection from tsunami. Plans are in place to build an enormous wall between the sandbank and the reactors, which would take two years, and also to move the control room to the top of a hill behind the reactors. It seems strange that the Tohoku region, whose electricity is supplied by TEPCO, will be facing an enormous shortage of electricity soon when summer hits, yet another section of the country can shut down a nuclear reactor without causing shortages there. Well, so they say. The government looked at last year’s energy consumption during the summer and calculated that without that plant running enough electricity should be available. Barely. However, experts are saying that for each degree above average that the temperature rises an extra 800,000 kilowatts (I think that was the number. Lots of zeros were involved) would be needed and this could be problem. I will admit to being angry when I heard they were shutting the plant down. Not because it could mean there would be a shortage of electricity. I live in an area supplied its electricity by TEPCO and shutting down a plant in the south of the country has no affect on me (because the energy companies use different currents!?!?!?! Can you imagine? Even if different areas of the country have extra power they can’t get it to those areas that are lacking unless it is converted first and there are only four convertors in the country and they each can only convert so much per day.) No, my frustration stemmed from the fact that in Tohoku you have tens of thousands of people who can’t go back to work or companies that can’t get going again and in Shizuoka they are going to shut down a reactor that employs 2,800 people. Manufacturers in that region express concern that there will be insufficient power during the summer to keep their machines running. Bandai operates in that area. The government has said it will assist if needed which means a government in charge of an economy in its third decade of recession is killing jobs and giving money away.
I realized the other day while watching the news (again.. still.. it’s all I really watch on Japanese television) that they are no longer updating the numbers of dead or missing. It seems that number has stabilized somewhat, for now at least. So now the news is focusing on more individual stories and there are so many of them, too many to keep track, but some stick with me.
An elderly gentleman related how after the quake he and his wife fled to the designated evacuation center, a community center, and when he got there felt doubt that the building was safe from the coming tsunami. Unfortunately, being on in age there was no way he could have made it anywhere else so he just had to wait it out. The ‘safe’ evacuation zone was not spared by the tsunami and the water poured in and flooded the entire place, washing 80% of the people who were gathering there away. He was picked up and was able to grab onto a ceiling support beam and held on for dear life as the water came in and, just as powerfully, went back out. He later found his wife’s body in the 2nd floor bleachers.
A young man of only eighteen years of age, lost one parent, a grandparent, and his five year old younger brother. May 5th was ‘Kodomo no Hi’ or Kid’s Day here in Japan. On that day large flags resembling Koi (japanese fish) fly from housetops all over the country. This young man wanted to do something for the brother he will never see again, who loved Koi no bori, so he wanted to get some flags. Having little money, or even a rooftop to hang them from he got assistance from someone who set up a website asking for donations of flags from around the country. Over 200 flags were donated and on Kodomo no Hi, were erected in the middle of what used to be a neighbourhood. Survivors and evacuees got together and took part in a community event.
One of the hardest hit townships is Minami Sanriku (it is the city in the video I posted in my last quake-related entry). Many unbelievable videos have come out of that town and in most of them you can hear the evactuation announcement over the public address system. A woman’s voice calmly repeats the same warning. “A tsunami is coming. Everyone must evacuate to higher ground.” I originally thought this was a recording that they played during emergencies, but it turns out it is an actual person, a young woman of 24, who stayed in the city hall to continue giving the evacuation notice. That city hall was completely destroyed. Only the steel frame remained after the tsunami overwhelmed it. They found that young woman’s body just over a week ago. They had to identify it by DNA and also a charm bracelet she wore around her ankle given to her by her husband whom she married only a year earlier.
Last week was Golden Week here in Japan so I had a week off and used that time to travel to my in-laws’ place where my wife and daughter were staying for 40 days. It takes 25 hours by boat to where I was going so I used most of that time to catch up on sleep, which is the one thing that still seems to be lacking in my life. When the boat docked I eagerly disembarked and walked down the ramp and scooped up my little girl who ran into my arms. She’s enormous now. I spent four days there and didn’t do anything. I played with my daughter, checked out nature, swam in the ocean, spoke to friends and relaxed. I even built a Gundam kit one evening while sitting on the floor listening to the island nature sounds coming through the screen door. In that environment it is easy to think that nothing ever happened in Tohoku. Everything is untouched by this disaster and the only thing bringing it to people’s attention there is the news and even the news is different. At home, each night on the news they give the radiation levels around Kanto. It’s similar to a weather forecast in that a map of Kanto is displayed but instead of little images of clouds or suns there are numbers. 0.07 in Yokohama, 0.20 in Ibaraki, and so on. That wasn’t included in the newscast down in Chichijima.
I was a little apprehensive about my family returning to Kanto with me, after all, as the nuclear situation is far from resolved, and there are still some aftershocks although they are few and far between now. But life can’t be put off forever. Like most everyone in this region, we take it day by day. The difference for me, though, is that I have an idea where I will be tomorrow.