Sombre spring

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

The Japanese government and its various arms are trying to gain a grip on the crisis following the devastating earthquake and tsunami.

in Tokyo

THERE is an air of quiet purpose at the centre for tsunami evacuees in the Tokyo Budokan area. A large sports facility for traditional martial arts has been converted for the purpose, and officials from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government are busy with the day-to-day tasks of running the centre planning and organising for the inmates, channelling the donations in cash and kind, keeping registers, and running tests for radiation on all newcomers to the centre. There are 151 persons at the centre of whom 134 are from Fukushima and 17 from Miyagi, the prefectures that, along with Iwate further north, were the worst affected by the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Pacific coast of Japan on March 11.

At the recreation area in the centre, there are tables, benches and chairs for the inmates to relax on, eat, chat or watch television. Along one side of the long room are a row of computers on which children are playing computer games animatedly. A cluster of open cardboard boxes have items of clothing of both warm and everyday wear, undergarments, diapers, umbrellas, slippers and other items of personal use that evacuees can choose from. The indoor stadium, usually used for martial arts demonstrations, is out of bounds for outsiders as it is the designated living and sleeping area for the evacuees. Foldable partitions separate the space for each family.

We live just outside the 20-kilometre evacuation zone in the Fukushima prefecture. The earthquake damaged our ceiling and the tsunami flooded our fields, said an elderly woman. She and her husband are in a group of people relaxing in the recreation area, and among the few who agreed to be interviewed by Frontline, on condition that their names are not used. As her husband begins speaking, she looks anxious and tries to shush him. He wants to criticise the way the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station was mishandled by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). She is afraid he may say the wrong things to a visiting journalist.

As a matter of fact I helped build this plant; my wife and I were running a contract company for concrete work before we retired and took up farming, he said. I want to share my opinion with the world. It was a clear human mistake at the plant, not just a tsunami that caused the radiation leak, he said emphatically, and then lapsed into a brooding silence in deference to his wife's pleading.

Both husband and wife are worried and uncertain about what the future holds for them. They have signed up for temporary housing. But we are not on the priority list as we are both not yet 65, and our home falls just outside the 20-km radiation zone, the woman said. The radiation measurement where we live is almost the same as in the area that comes within the 20-km zone, yet we do not get the same assistance, she added.

They do not know whether their agricultural fields, where they grow rice and vegetables, are affected by radiation. She thinks the government is being unnecessarily rigid in taking decisions based on physical boundaries rather than by the health of the people. We have to put our trust in the government although we get most of our information on what is happening from media reports, especially TV, she said.

The dilemmas facing Kanako Matsuta, a woman in her early thirties who has come to the centre from Iwaki city in Fukushima prefecture with her husband and three-year-old daughter, are not too different. The child had been operated on for a cardiac condition before the disaster, and though they lived outside the 20-km radiation zone, Matsuta decided to shift to an evacuation centre when she saw others in the city suffer nose bleeds as a result of the radiation from the power plant. She too says the physical boundaries drawn by the government are far too rigid. The 20-km evacuation boundary cuts through the city, whereas radiation affects persons on both sides, she said.

Their requests for temporary housing have not been met so far, despite their daughter's condition. On the other hand, an elderly woman at the centre had been given an apartment that she did not want to move into, said Kanako Matsuta. The allottee is worried that once she moves out of the camp she may not get more assistance. We could have gone instead of her, Matsuta said. Much like the elderly couple, Matsuta, too, is frustrated because there is no clarity about the future.

The problems and issues that face the evacuees in the Tokyo Budokan centre in many ways mirror the massive challenges that confront Japan even six weeks after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami now officially renamed the Great East Japan Earthquake. However prepared the Japanese are for natural disasters and their consequences, the scale and force of the March 11 tsunami its fury and destructive power captured in real time by the visual media was never anticipated. Even as rescue teams still clear rubble in search of bodies, reconstruction and rehabilitation measures are complicated by the uncertain future of the Fukushima plant and the impact of radiation hazards on both health and the environment.

Two types of refugees

Today there are two kinds of tsunami refugees in Japan those who have suffered human and material losses in areas away from the Fukushima plant, and those who have suffered similar losses but live within the radiation belt of the plant. In the first case, rehabilitation can be planned both at the official level and at the individual level, and the resumption of life, even a better life, is a matter of time. In the second case, the future is horribly uncertain; there is neither any firm forecast on when the Fukushima power plant can be neutralised and declared harmless, nor any certainty as to the long-term radiation impact on humans, animals, soil and water. For the radiation refugees, the problems in planning for the future are far more problematic.

On April 22, the Japanese government declared the areas within a 20-km radius of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant as a no-entry zone in accordance with the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act. One member per household was allowed to go in wearing protective gear and under supervision for just two hours in order to collect essential items from their homes. In addition, the government also announced planned evacuation zones and emergency evacuation preparation zones. The first category covers the whole or parts of five cities or towns outside the 20-km radius from which evacuation would be required by the end of May, and the second covers those designated areas where residents are required to be so prepared that they can move out to other places or prefectures in an emergency.

I think it is different for the tsunami-affected people and the radiation-affected people, said Sayaka Matsumoto, media officer from the Red Cross Society. People in Fukushima who suffered radiation effects are very angry. For example, a lady I spoke to was angry and frustrated because once Fukushima was considered dangerous, nobody wanted to deliver anything to families living there. People had to live on one rice ball for two days in her evacuation centre.

Those whose homes were not fully destroyed and who wanted to go back did not know how long they would have to wait. People living within the 20-km radius of the factory had to face all kinds of discrimination refused hairdressing services, refused entry into schools, and so on. But the tsunami victims I met in the north said that for generations they had lived together with the ocean. It is not anyone's fault, they said, it is nature, Sayaka Matsumoto said.

According to the latest figures (May 1) from the National Police Agency, the number of confirmed dead is 14,704. Another 10,969 persons are reported missing (in some cases, as for example, when an entire family or locality was washed away, there is no one even to report the missing). As of April 28, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, 1,68,901 persons were evacuated.

With nearly 11,000 persons still missing, basic rescue operations the clearing of millions of tonnes of debris within which bodies are trapped are still on in many parts of the affected areas. On April 19, the National Police Agency announced that the post-mortem results of 13,135 people confirmed dead in the three prefectures within a month from the occurrence of the disaster had shown that more than 90 per cent of them had drowned. This was different from the damage caused by the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995 where more than 70 per cent of the victims were suffocated or crushed to death by collapsed houses or buildings.

The Japanese Red Cross Society and several local governments have put up missing persons' lists. In Japanese culture it is not enough to be told your family is dead, said Sayaka Matsumoto. You have got to find a dead body so that the family can have a ceremony to bid goodbye. There are people who still go back to the house or the school to try and find a body. It is very difficult, but without that we cannot move on to the next stage.

Six weeks after the event, the Japanese government and its various arms, with the help of international agencies, the media, non-governmental organisations, foreign governments and a growing volunteer movement, have gained a grip on the crisis.

However, it is still confronted with problems that will take years to overcome incalculable human and material loss, massive displacement, and the problem of a crippled nuclear power plant that continues to pose a radiation threat.

Loss of farmland

Among the more serious issues that Japan faces is the loss of agriculturally productive land. The three prefectures of Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki are among the country's top farming prefectures. Around 20,000 hectares of farmland was buried under earth and debris by the tsunami, an acreage that had the potential to produce 100,000 tonnes of rice.

That the horror of mass death and suffering of this magnitude still weighs on the Japanese psyche is evident even to a visitor to Tokyo. The sense of solidarity the average citizen has with the affected is striking.

Virtually every street corner in Tokyo has groups of volunteers taking collections for the tsunami-affected; the issue still dominates the media's attention; and even the crowds milling about stations and shopping malls in the capital appear to be sombrely dressed.

Reports from evacuation centres suggest a great sense of caring among tsunami victims for fellow-sufferers. According to Sayaka Matsumoto, almost 20,000 nurses trained in psycho-social therapy have been sent to evacuation camps to counsel people. In centres, community ties are very strong. People help each other. Those who have lost only property would say that they feel guilty when they see the plight of those who have lost family members. I have heard of people who are entitled to move out into temporary housing and yet feel guilty to leave the centre because they have been together with others for a month, helping each other out, she said.

An important aspect of the crisis as it unfolded, reported widely by the media and substantiated subsequently by figures, is its multidimensional impact on the elderly in Japan, a country where almost a quarter of the population is over the age of 65. Reconstruction and relief

Banri Kaieda, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, formally announced that TEPCO would start handing out provisional damage payments to evacuees from the nuclear accident. From April 26 on, one million yen per household (750,000 yen per single-person household) has been paid for those who lived within a 30-km radius of the plant and residents within the planned evacuation zones. Kaieda said the government would come up with a comprehensive compensation scheme.

Draft guidelines for this had already been drawn up by a government-appointed screening panel on Disputes for Compensation for Nuclear Accidents. The guidelines cover areas within a 20-km radius of the Fukushima plant, and separately for the planned evacuation zones and the emergency evacuation preparation zones. The compensation covers transportation costs and considers reduced income because of business difficulties and work impossibilities, and the loss of asset values including farm animals, and also mental trauma.

Reconstruction Design Council, a private advisory body of Prime Minister Naoto Kan to discuss reconstruction plans, was set up on April 23. The council, which includes the Governors of seriously damaged Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, is expected to make its first recommendations by the end of June. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism on April 25 announced that about 30,400 of 72,000 temporary houses now being requested would be completed by the end of May. At the House of Representatives budget committee meeting on April 26, Prime Minister Kan said the government would do its utmost so that everyone who wants to move to a temporary house will be able to do so by around August 15 at the latest. The principles laid out by him in his vision for the future are that the wisdom of all sections should be taken in the reconstruction plans so that recovery is forward looking and will create rather than merely rebuild.

We need to rethink and debate over a comprehensive energy policy, Noriyuki Shikata, Deputy Cabinet Secretary for Public Relations in the Prime Minister's office, told Frontline. Around 40 per cent of our oil is imported, and for our energy security and keeping in mind the issue of climate change we need to diversify our energy sources. Nuclear energy is considered to be compatible with the climate change agenda, but nuclear safety issues are very important, that is for sure, he added. In the reconstruction plans for the Tohoku area, eco towns is a concept that is on the drawing board.

The traditional celebration of the annual spring cherry blossom (Sakura) season has been muted this year in view of the disaster. An abiding motif of beauty for the Japanese, Sakura represents revival and fresh beginnings. In its response to the catastrophe, Japan appears to have drawn inspiration from these cues of nature.

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