For the last couple of days, the town of Fukushima (the capital of the Fukushima Prefecture) has been covered in fog. Actually, it is not fog – it is a smoke haze hanging over the town and its vicinity. In Japanese horror movies, such a haze is always an evil omen boding ill. In real life, horror begins when it starts to rain after the fog. People hurry to seek shelter under awnings and in buildings. Pedestrians carrying umbrellas walk faster. I am on my way to the local shelter camp, when I hear a man’s voice behind me: “Big dangerous! Without umbrella — no-no!” He is yelling in broken English and pointing at the sky. Without waiting for my reply, he offers to share his umbrella with me. We continue on our way together. It is obvious the man needs to go in a different direction but he walks with me all the way to the camp.
It is a school gym temporarily accommodating about 300 people. There are rows of mattresses on the floor, one next to the other ,most people are lying on the mattresses, contemplating at the ceiling; some are watching the news (they have somehow mounted a huge panel screen TV on the wall). In the news programme, they are showing how other Japanese people are hiding from the precipitation. One corner has a play area for the children. Little kids are playing with toy cars and construction kits. Teenagers – boredom written all over their faces - are looking out of the windows: they had to come back inside because of the radioactive rain. They wish they were playing football outside instead. Football is very popular in Japan nowadays.
It is slightly chilly in the gym — there are only portable radiators working; the air conditioning system has been switched to heating mode. Mutsumi Nakomoto, the owner of a small strawberry production greenhouse 20 km away from the damaged nuclear power plant, is reading a newspaper out loud. “The World Bank states that the damage due to the earthquake amounts to 235 billion dollars … How exactly did they arrive at this figure?”, he exclaims loudly. “I made half a million in one year selling strawberries, but now it is all over and lost forever! Ten years will pass and still people will be saying: ‘I won’t buy your radioactive garbage’.” His wife, Idzuko, is kneeling on the floor next to him; she pats Mutsumi on the shoulder in an effort to comfort him and says:
“The Chinese will buy; don’t worry. Why are you so upset? We will offer them good discounts.”
“Hush!”, exclaims Mutsumi. “What are you talking about? Do you want me to be dealing with Communists? I would sooner sow grass over the whole place and play golf to my heart’s content!”
“What is so bad about Communists?”, I ask.
“Everything!”, exclaims Mutsumi. “They think they are better than everybody else! There was once a whole delegation of them here – they looked around, asked lots of questions about the soil composition and why my strawberries tasted so good. They gave me their strawberries to taste – they were so sour I couldn't eat them! But six months later, not long before the earthquake , I received a package from them – strawberries tasting almost as good as my own and a note: ‘You can now sell your business to us.’”
Mutsumi shook the newspaper in his hand. His wife Idzuko sighed deeply: “It would be much better if you could just play golf.”
I wanted them to take some of the medicine and masks I had — my journalist colleagues and I had bought a lot of them in the capital. The people at the Fukushima shelter camp politely refuse to take any. They ask us to send help further north, to the Miyagi Prefecture, where the tsunami destroyed the entire shoreline. “We’ll manage and get by here; at least, we are alive”, says Mutsumi. “ There, they have lost everything, and so many people have been killed…”
Since last Saturday, there have been several more earthquakes a day registered in the north-east of Japan (Tokhoku). A new earthquake begins when we are at the bus terminal waiting for the bus to Sendai. First, the floor rises up under our feet, then the roof over our heads begins to sway. The people waiting for the bus cling to each other, holding each other’s hands. Somebody takes my hand. I look at people’s faces but I do not see any fear in them. Some are smiling, as if telling me: “Relax; everything is OK.” A minute later, people go back to where they were standing as if nothing had happened.
These earthquake shocks, 4-5 points on the Richter scale, do not cause any damage, but people turn on their TVs and radios anyway, as there might be a tsunami warning following. Seconds after a new earthquake begins, TV broadcasting is suspended; on the screens people see twitching images sent from the cameras installed on tall buildings. They are followed by a layout plan of the area with data on the epicentre and the earthquake magnitude in different towns. Finally, a voice off-screen says that there is no danger of a tsunami.
Sendai, the town hit hardest by the tsunami, is gradually recovering. Roads between Sendai and the neighbouring towns are open again; there is even a daily bus to Tokyo. Although one needs to book a ticket in advance and wait for 2-3 days to use this bus. The authorities promise that there will be more buses running as soon as more fuel is delivered to the town. But people do not want to wait; they are leaving, changing several buses as they travel.
Our bus is crowded when we arrive in Sendai. Now that the roads are open again, people are finally able to travel to look for their family members and loved ones.
The capital of the Miyagi Prefecture, a city with a population of one million people, is located almost on the very seashore. But the view of the city from the ocean is blocked by high hills, through which there is a tunnel leading to the city. As our bus comes out of the tunnel, all the passengers turn their heads to look out of the windows – we see that the small downtown district appears intact. The wave did not reach that far inland. But it swept through the seaside Arahama, a Sendai suburb, destroying it completely.
Arahama stretched inland for about 2 kilometres from the seashore. The waterfront houses belonged to businessmen and wealthy families; further away from the shore were the modest houses of local farmers. The wealthy people’s houses were made of brick and concrete. The economical farmers built theirs with lightweight blocks and processed timber. The former drove expensive German cars, the latter – little Japanese cars with tiny wheels... But in the face of the raging elements, all were equal. The mighty waves first swept over the brick and concrete mansions and the heavy German cars; unstoppable, they then destroyed the farmer’s small houses. It was no longer a wave of water; it was a moving mass of rocks, iron and broken cars. They say that not a single person at home there at that time survived.
The prefecture’s shoreline is now an endless field of debris, consisting of fragments of cottages, furniture, and equipment. It looks as if the town has been put through a giant meat grinder.
The rescue teams working in Sendai have not yet found all the bodies. In Arahama alone, there are hundreds of people still missing. Fire brigades from Tokyo are helping in the search. The Okinawa authorities have provided two helicopters. Journalists are walking aimlessly along the empty beach in the wild hope of finding someone still alive. On Sunday, nine days after the earthquake and tsunami, an 80-year-old woman and her 16-year-old grandson were found alive.
That greatly encouraged the rescue teams working along the shoreline. The search for people possibly still alive has intensified. Not far from here, a German shepherd called Boris – part of the rescue team from Virginia, USA – is helping look for people. But it is very difficult, even for specially trained dogs, to move in the debris of what is left of the ruined towns and villages. They have to put special protective footwear on the dogs’ paws.
On Tuesday, the country’s police announced the latest officially confirmed figures – 21 thousand people are either missing or dead.
“The whole country is waiting for a miracle”, says Yoska Watanabe, a reporter for the Tokyo newspaper Asakhi. “Everybody is hoping that all the thousands of people swept away by the sea will come back. Or, at least their bodies…”
But the ocean does not give back its dead. Not even the heroes, like the mayor of Otsuchitown, who rushed to warn the people in his town of the approaching tsunami as soon as the earthquake began. He never came back. There is a similar story about a female coast patrol officer, who saw the gigantic wave and remained in her booth to use the megaphone to warn the people and urge them to run away. That booth is no longer there.
Such stories are numerous. People bravely remained where they were until the very end. There is also a story about a surfer, who instead of running for his dear life made phone calls to the Sendai police to warn the people in the town. That surfer was never found.
For the last fifteen minutes, a man named Fijitsu has been looking through the long lists on the bulletin board near the Sendai town hall. The lists are updated every hour but the lists of the dead whose bodies have been found are not getting longer. Let alone the lists of those found alive. Fijitsu is 37, but he looks 50: unshaven, with red eyes and dishevelled hair. “They haven’t found them yet”, he says about his wife and 11-year-old daughter and starts back slowly towards the shelter camp. But then he stops and turns around. “I will wait a bit longer”, he says. “I think they will find them very soon.” And he comes back.
I cannot bear to look at him. I do not know what to ask him and whether I should ask him anything at all. When the earthquake began, he was in his office in the City, far from the seashore. He had no time to duck under his desk and something heavy fell off a shelf above him, hitting him on the head. He was unconscious for about half an hour; when he came to, he immediately ran to the parking lot, got into his car and drove to the village on the seashore, where his wife and daughter were. While on the road, he kept calling them on his cell phone. His daughter picked up the phone and said that her mother was out helping the elderly neighbours to get out of the house; then they would all get into their car and come…At that moment, they were disconnected. Leaving the downtown district, Fijitsu saw the tsunami taking over the seashore and moving towards him … I gave all the medicine and radiation protection means that I had to Fijitsu and other people in the camp, just as the people in Fukushima had asked me.
I spent a week - perhaps the most difficult week in the country’s history - side by side with the Japanese people. With them, I felt no fear; I think I have learnt from them how not to be afraid. But one observation still perplexes me. How do these people manage to combine two incompatible - for a European, at least – features: absolute privacy and heartfelt, almost family-like, concern for others in trouble? I once saw a weirdo walking in the street in Tokyo’s downtown in a bikini, ignoring the looks the people around were giving him. Suddenly, he fell down in a fit of epilepsy. Everybody around rushed to help him. Somebody put their cell phone in his mouth to help him breathe.
I don't know how they do it. But it seems that it is somehow connected with the famous super-compact residential construction tradition: houses (the small detached houses and big apartment buildings) are always built very close to each other – one or two metres apart. Neighbours are always close to each other – in the literal, physical, sense of the word.
But they never have windows overlooking one another’s houses.
P.S. The radiation levels in the north-east of Japan are changing by the hour, depending on the direction and strength of the wind. In the period from Saturday to Tuesday, the radiation levels even in the Fukushima Prefecture, where the nuclear plant is located, had not been significantly high. But late on Monday, there was white smoke bursting out of the plant’s second and third reactors. The workers had to leave the site. On Tuesday, it was announced that the radiation level in the 20-kilometre radius exceeded the norm by a factor of 1600.
It has been raining all over the country for the past two days. The authorities are imposing bans on all food produced or grown in the Fukushima Prefecture.
Radioactive iodine and cesium have already been detected in the water supply system in five prefectures in Tokhoku, including Tokyo. On Tuesday, yet another scheduled power shutdown is expected in Tokyo. Each of Tokyo’s five districts will be disconnected from the electric grid for 3 hours and 40 minutes.