When​ I met him, Otsuchi city administrator Kozo Hirani, a substantial, balding man in a brown pinstripe suit, was on the upper floor of a warren of small-scale temporary buildings that now house the town’s administration. To reach him I had flown to Tokyo, taken a train more than three hundred miles north to Morioka, the capital of Iwate Prefecture, then got into a van with seven people from Tokyo’s International University who’d decided to see the disaster zone for themselves and help me while they were at it. Two were continental Europeans, five were Japanese, including one young man with the face of a warrior in a 19th-century Japanese print. His only job was to hand over exquisitely wrapped boxes – almost certainly containing some kind of sweet – in pretty shopping bags to everyone we visited, starting with Hirani. A huge cardboard carton of these items had been loaded into the van in which we travelled through the disaster zone.

When the city administrator first saw the wall of black water coming at him, it was so vast and incongruous that he didn’t recognise it for what it was. Hirani survived the tsunami that swept the mayor and most of the small town’s higher-ranking officials away in the middle of the afternoon on 11 March 2011, leaving him with the burden of responsibility for the recovery of his town. ‘I lost five of my subordinates. One sank in front of me. It was 24 hours before the helicopters came,’ he told me through an interpreter. ‘I was rescued by helicopter and when I saw the city from the sky I thought everything was at an end. It is very tough. My subordinates were in their twenties and thirties – I am 55. Why did I survive?’ Almost 10 per cent of the town’s population of about 15,000 died in the tsunami, one of the highest per capita death tolls in the affected area along the north-east coastal prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima (which is the name of the prefecture as well as the inland city).

As we approached Otsuchi through mountainous countryside, we saw heavy equipment dismantling wrecked buildings, their twisted steel girders exposed. I thought we must be near the coast, but we kept going for a long time through wreckage and neat hills of debris; in the flatlands nearer the sea not much was left besides foundations. Some buildings were standing here and there, but they didn’t look as though they would be rehabilitated. A few brightly illuminated drink vending machines stood like crazily cheerful sentinels in the ruins. There and elsewhere along the coast, I saw many buildings whose first storeys were utterly destroyed, their second storeys damaged, and the rest increasingly intact the higher they went. I had been to New Orleans six months after Katrina, before the real clean-up began in many neighbourhoods, but the deluge there now seems gentle by comparison. A long double row of cars – hundreds of them; in Japan even wreckage is made neat – was lined up in the dirt of Otsuchi, twisted and crushed by the extraordinary force of the sea. In one of the houses, still standing but torn open, I saw a family’s pretty blue and white china dishes, a stack of five-sided bowls, flowered side plates, a little oval dish, unbroken and unclaimed.

I hadn’t understood that the tsunami, at its height, was 140 feet – 40 metres – high. It had been about 33 metres high on the peninsula that protects Otsuchi to the south, and so the wall of water that hit the town, according to a map published in the Asahi Shimbun on the anniversary, may have been only about 22 metres high. I say ‘only’, but that’s a wall of water the height of a seven-storey building, and because of the narrowness of the valley and the steepness of its walls it ran far inland, scouring everything it touched, turning a fishing town into splinters strewn with corpses.

As the tsunami approached, Hirani took refuge in the city hall, which was surrounded by water and out of contact with the rest of the world. ‘So our biggest worry was what happened to our families.’ His wife and father, who lived locally, were OK, though they feared he was dead, as did his children further away. He added with a faint smile that the children ‘now appreciate me much more’. But he lost a lot of his friends. ‘This loss is so big. We can rebuild – but the heart, the sorrow.’ There were practical things to deal with – cases of burn-out among emergency service workers, trauma with all the survivors. One government employee killed himself and many were in counselling. A friend of Hirani’s had examined 450 waterlogged bodies in the course of looking for his mother. He found her, but it didn’t end there. ‘In his dreams his mother comes with this changed body and the other bodies come and ask for help.’ He took indefinite leave and died in a traffic accident.

From a practical standpoint Hirani thought they should adopt an approach whereby family members don’t look at a body until there is a DNA match. Bodies were still showing up. The previous day they had found two in a car, and officially 470 people were still missing. Japanese officials are reluctant to classify all the missing as dead, and so the statistics still name thousands of missing along with the nearly twenty thousand dead. ‘We live near the ocean,’ Hirani said to me, ‘and our joy is the ocean. The ocean might get very harsh once in a hundred years but usually people have respect but not fear.’

Some Sea Shepherd activists trying to document porpoise slaughter in the region were also in Otsuchi on 11 March. One of them wrote soon afterwards:

The police, who had taken up a post at the only place we could pass, were frantically motioning for everyone to get through the gates in the tsunami wall. We got through. These walls and gates are massive structures that appear to be built to withstand military bombardment. They extend high up into the air and rim the entire harbour area of the town. It was not long before the water drained from the harbour and then refilled. We learned from the firemen to expect to see several cycles of this draining and refilling. The water then rapidly refilled the harbour and rose right up to inundate all of the areas on the water side of the wall. It happened very quickly. It drained again, this time almost down to the mud. Then the returning water pushed past and over the draining water creating a wall of black howling water. This time the water rose even faster and topped the wall. It kept rising up on the hillsides and filling the valleys and crevices beyond. Several times this happened and all the while aftershocks were happening. Then it started to snow. Mixing in with the snow was ash from the many fires burning in the hills and damaged buildings. The smoke was choking.

They tried to rescue a woman stranded on floating debris and then to direct a boat to get her. But darkness shut them in and they didn’t succeed. Power was out in most of the disaster region and they spent the night in blackness, with the fires gleaming in the hills.

I heard a similar story from a carnation grower in Miyagi Prefecture to the south, who was trying to find his way back to his farm in the darkness that night and heard the cries of trapped people all around him. The roads were blocked with debris, so he walked, through water so cold he went numb, past rubble, past the sounds of the desperate and the dying. He eventually responded to one woman who was pinned against a wall with water up to her neck. He managed to get her to a safer place but ignored many of the others, convinced he could do nothing, torn, and consumed with worry about his farm. In the light of day on the 12th he saw ‘many fires and dead bodies lying on the roadside’. It takes time to get carnations going, and so he had no income last year, but he did at least start growing them again. He complained that those who remained in their own homes, however shattered, did not receive the assistance that the displaced did.

An earthquake can be a great social leveller at first, but policy and prejudice will decide who gets aid and recompense and compassion later, and it will never be equitable, as this farmer knew well. Disaster solidarity often fractures along these lines. But it is important to keep the generosity in mind: Hirani estimated that between ten and twenty thousand volunteers had come to his small town alone. Last year young Japanese people were volunteering in large numbers and at least in some cases rethinking their ambitions and purpose in life. Every disaster leaves a small percentage of people committed to ideals they might not have found otherwise.

There is no such thing as a natural disaster, the disaster sociologists say. In other words, no matter what the origins of a disaster, human systems – physical, cultural, political – can amplify, channel or mitigate what happens. In an earthquake it’s not the shaking of the earth but the collapse of buildings that’s responsible for nearly all loss of human life. Japan may be the best country in the world when it comes to seismic safety codes, and its tsunami alert system worked fine too. They even have an earthquake early-warning system that responds to the P-waves which precede the more damaging S-waves, giving people several seconds to prepare – not much, but maybe time enough to get under a table or into a doorway, pull over to the side of the road, turn off power or gas, take stock.

Later I met Yoshiteru Murosaki, the director of the National Research Institute of Fire and Disaster, who told me that one of the reasons for the many tsunami deaths was that a lot of people sought refuge in places that would have been safe in the last several tsunamis. But this one was much higher, as high as the 1896 tsunami, if not quite as high as the monster waves of 869 are said to have been. Others trusted the seawalls to protect them, but the water overtopped them and kept coming. Roughly two-thirds of the dead were over sixty, people less able or willing to evacuate (in Hurricane Katrina the elderly made up a disproportionate percentage of the dead for similar reasons, and the same is true of many disasters). Murosaki told me that the way to deal with tsunamis is to have good evacuation procedures rather than to avoid building on the seacoast. Twenty thousand died here, but in countries without building codes, without sirens and evacuation drills and awareness, the number of dead might have been many times higher. Nevertheless, many communities are retreating from the tsunami zone and rebuilding on higher ground.

That much can be said for the foresight and prudence of the Japanese government. Then there’s Fukushima Daiichi, the six nuclear reactors that were also battered by the tsunami: not by the highest waves, but by waves high enough to overtop the little protection that existed and to flood the basement where the emergency generators were fecklessly located – the generators that instantly became useless. Thus the nuclear power plant was completely disabled as no such plant had been before. As Arnie Gundersen, an energy consultant, put it,

There were numerous red flags indicating potential problems for anyone following Tepco [the Tokyo Electric Power Company] during the past decade. Crucial vulnerabilities in the Fukushima Daiichi reactor design; substantial governance issues and weak management characterised by major frauds and cover-ups; collusion and loose regulatory supervision; as well as understanding but ignoring earthquake and tsunami warnings, were key ingredients of the March 2011 disaster. Moreover, all these crucial vulnerabilities had been publicly highlighted years before the disaster occurred.

One of the casualties of the disaster was the relationship between the people and the government. Almost everyone I spoke to, even the most mild-mannered, said they no longer trusted the government, and they said it bluntly, or angrily, or with a deep sense of betrayal. Activists and radicals – with whom I also spoke – didn’t have a lot of trust to lose. But for many people, recognition of the initial failures and cover-ups, the secrecy, lies and tolerance of contamination, the prioritisation of business over protection of the vulnerable, has meant a great and terrible rupture. ‘We have to fear properly,’ Murosaki said. ‘Not too much, but enough. What is proper fear?’

Governments fear their people. They fear we will exercise our power to change them, and they fear we will panic. The first is a realistic if undemocratic fear, since changing them is our right; the second is a self-aggrandising fantasy in which attempts to alter the status quo are seen as madness, hysteria, mob rule. They often assume that we can’t handle the data in a crisis, and so prefer to withhold crucial information, as the Pennsylvania government did in 1979 at the time of the Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown, and the Soviet government did during the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. Panic is what you see in disaster movies, where people run about doing foolish things, impeding evacuation and rescue, behaving like sheep. But governments and officials are not very good shepherds. During the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, the university authorities locked down the administrative offices and warned their own families, while withholding information from the campus community. The Bush administration lied about the toxicity of the air near Ground Zero in New York after 9/11, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk for the sake of a good PR front and a brisk return to business as usual. Disasters often crack open fissures between government and civil society.

Around the time of the anniversary it emerged that, early on, the prime minister had looked at the possibility of evacuating Tokyo. But you cannot evacuate a city of 35 million densely packed people. Where would they go? It would have been a crisis on the scale of the Second World War for Japan and a huge blow to the international economy. A couple of weeks after the anniversary it was revealed that the most damaged Fukushima reactor had nothing like the water-cooling levels it was thought to have and was now hotter than it had been at the time of the accident. This is the worst disaster the country has faced since the end of the war, and it occasioned the first public speech by a Japanese emperor since Hirohito announced defeat on 15 August 1945, less than a week after the second American nuclear bomb exploded over Nagasaki.

Emperor Akihito, Hirohito’s son, made his first broadcast on 16 March last year. Now 78 and recovering from heart surgery, he made his second in Tokyo for the anniversary. Along with an audience of media personnel and local officials, with bereaved families in the front rows, I watched the feed in the huge theatre of the International Centre in Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture and the largest city in the disaster region. The stage held an enormous triple bier of white flowers, before which a huge screen dropped down to show the stage in Tokyo, with its own elaborate array of white flowers. The empress was dressed in a traditional kimono, her eyebrows raised into a single line of perpetual distress, next to the emperor in an elegant dark suit. They bowed deeply before the flowers and the inscription – ‘spirit of the victims’ – and the emperor spoke. ‘As this earthquake and tsunami caused the nuclear power plant accident,’ he said, ‘those living in the designated danger zone lost their homes and livelihoods and had to leave the places where they used to live. In order for them to live there again safely, we have to overcome the problem of radioactive contamination, which is a formidable task.’ This passage was censored by the networks when the speech was broadcast.

Overcoming the problem of contamination remains a formidable task. The government’s preferred approach has been to play down the problem and call for team spirit. With radiation present in the vicinity of the nuclear reactors, the official exposure safety limit was at first raised to twenty times its previous level. When no one wanted vegetables from Fukushima the Ministry of Education decided to buy them up and put them in school lunches. This put the burden on parents and children to opt out, not an easy thing to do in a society that values harmony and conformity. Nicely dressed mothers in Tokyo met with the heads of their municipalities to demand that school meals be tested; they were assured that everything was fine. In Fukushima just over half of the 59 municipalities test for radiation in school lunches, some before the children sit down to eat, some afterwards. Whether or not they change the menu when the levels are too high is not clear. Several municipalities complained that they didn’t have the measuring equipment, and citizens have sometimes obtained the equipment themselves. People often find that the government is obstructive or useless in disasters and do much of the crucial work themselves as members of ad hoc or non-governmental organisations. In Japan measuring radiation is now one of those activities.

An old man in Tokyo proposed that the elderly should volunteer to consume the rice from Fukushima, since they are less susceptible to the effects of radiation, but in November it was still being prepared for school lunches in Fukushima Prefecture. There, notices to evacuate were given late or not at all, and by stopping short of declaring many contaminated areas unsafe, the government has avoided the burden of compensation for residents, who of course have no buyers for their homes. Even so, more than 63,000 people have evacuated the vicinity of the plant. Like the people who fled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fukushima evacuees feel they must conceal their origins when they move elsewhere. I also heard about a teacher who was ostracised by his colleagues for expressing a desire to leave. Fear of ostracism sometimes outweighs fear of radiation.

Disasters in the West are often compounded by the belief that human beings instantly revert to savagery in a calamity, with the result that the focus shifts from rescue to law enforcement and the protection of property, as it did recently in Haiti and New Orleans, and in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. In Japan the greater problem seems to be conformity. In Fukushima, children who refused to drink the milk in their school lunches were called to the front of their classes and humiliated by their teachers. ‘They were treated like traitors during the war,’ a woman said in a video clip I saw on television (she was telling the story to the chief cabinet minister and the trade and industry minister, who chuckled in response). A mother I met in Sendai was told by the in-laws she lived with that she could leave if she wanted to, but her husband and child were not going anywhere. Leaving meant leaving the group.

Seigo Kinoshita, a 67-year-old evacuee in Iwate Prefecture, told me in the small parlour of his temporary housing that he was tired of people saying ‘ganbare’, an exhortation that roughly translates as ‘do your best.’ Even the milkbox next to his front door had a sticker on it that said ‘ganbare’ and, in English: ‘Never give up!’ It’s hard to be lectured by your milkbox. There were four calendars on the walls of the tiny room in which we talked, maybe because they were the only decorations he had, maybe to make time pass faster or express how greatly it weighed on him in the little terraced house on a roadside high above the wiped-out town of Rikuzentakata. He had initially taken refuge in a chilly Buddhist temple with three hundred others, including eighty children from a daycare facility, not all of whom had parents to claim them when the roads opened three days later. Now he was a displaced person.

Some of the most powerful anti-nuclear demonstrations since March 2011 have been orchestrated and dominated by mothers. Many disaster-zone families are emotionally or physically divided, since women tend to be more concerned about the radiation and often it is the women and children who have fled, leaving the husband/ father behind because his job ties him down or because he worries less about his health. On 1 November 1961, women in more than sixty American cities demonstrated against nuclear weapons, and for years Women Strike for Peace remained one of the most extraordinary activist organisations in the US. The atmospheric nuclear detonations – dozens a year between 1945 and 1963, mostly in Nevada – were contaminating breast milk and leading to fears about children’s health. Women Strike for Peace played an important role in bringing about the end of above-ground testing and, later, in the creation of the anti-Vietnam War movement. After Fukushima, too, breast milk was contaminated, meaning the most elemental act of nurture could be deadly. You can clean up after an earthquake or hurricane but you can’t see what may be inside you, ready to harm the children you may one day have – that is terrifying at first, then demoralising. Often in disasters people feel tremendous solidarity with all the others who have undergone the same upheaval and loss, but in a situation like this it isn’t clear who has sustained what damage and when, if ever, it will be over.

I met a graduate student in Sendai who told me that one of the major problems survivors reported was the presence of restless ghosts: the spirits of the dead that were still hanging around in need of comfort and propitiation. Right after the disaster and on Obon, the day of the dead in Japan, huge bonfires were lit on the beaches for the ghosts to find their way to shore. In the Tohoko region, my friend Ramona Handel-Bajema codirects large-scale relief with AmeriCares, an independent humanitarian relief organisation, and I drove out with her to see a small garden project that was not yet planted – mid-March is still wintry in northern Japan. Gardens are one way of restoring people’s lives, particularly those of the elderly with time on their hands. Ramona told me about people tending gardens in the foundations of their destroyed houses. To see ‘cabbages growing where their bedroom once was’ represented a consolation and rebirth of sorts. She also told me about a community she works with where the schoolteachers fell into an argument about evacuating the elementary school. One teacher took a handful of students to safety and the rest were drowned. Another of Ramona’s projects is taking care of the older siblings of these drowned children, whose parents are lost in mourning, and teaching them to enjoy the natural world again.

The priest in charge of a Buddhist temple in Sendai showed me how the stands of tall, thin pine trees that had been planted along the coast had been shattered into spears by the tsunami. He was now working on a scheme to turn the huge mountains of rubble into levees of sorts on which mixed forests of native trees might be planted. While many were preoccupied with the suffering in the present, he was thinking about preventing the next calamity, and pressed on me DVDs of a tree-planting superhero’s adventures – in English and in Japanese. In Sendai I met other Buddhist priests and – a rarity there – a Christian priest, all working as counsellors and social organisers dealing with the trauma: one with the Philosophy Café, where people could come and talk about their experiences; another with Café du Monk (monku means ‘complaint’ in Japanese). ‘The only thing I can do is stand beside people in grief – focus on listening,’ one of them said, but the ecumenical group was also working on more practical projects to do with displacement and housing, and with measuring radiation in food and breast milk.

Before I left Japan I went to Hiroshima and met two hibakusha, survivors of the atomic explosion. Both men are now in their eighties. They had been at middle school in that era when students were taken out of school to do manual labour for the war effort; neither had been ready to talk about what had happened to them until a couple of years ago, when their sense of posterity’s need to have this information finally outweighed their desire to leave the horror behind. It can take a very long time to come to terms with catastrophe – a year isn’t very long when it comes to knowing how a society will remember, regenerate and transform itself.

For me, Hiroshima was a stunning place. Throughout Japan, the old buildings, the bamboo groves, the Buddhist temples, all familiar from imitations and representations in the West, were startling at first-hand. I had first seen Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome in my teens in Hiroshima mon amour; as an anti-nuclear activist in the 1980s and 1990s I saw photographs of it all the time. It was the icon of the destroyed city, the symbol of why we were against these weapons. A long train ride from Tokyo, and a taxi ride to my high-rise Hiroshima hotel, and I was looking out of a 19th-floor window in the cold drizzly dusk at the skeletal steel frame of what, before the bomb fell, was the dome of the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. As one of the few surviving structures near the hypocentre of the explosion, it became a symbol of the bombing – and perhaps of the survival of some bit of the city even in the face of the most powerful weapon ever made. Walking there the next day I saw, directly in front of the dome, a sort of shrine with water bottles on it, as though the thirst of the survivors – or their ghosts – were still in need of slaking.

The word shima means ‘island’: Fukushima, meaning ‘fortunate island’, is now an ironic name; Hiroshima means ‘broad island’, perhaps because it is situated in the river delta, whose several tributaries divide the city into long narrow islands that stretch to the coast. In the basement of the Peace Memorial Museum, where I met the hibakusha, there was a map of the impact of the American bomb, with the hypocentre coloured red, making the city resemble an unfamiliar internal organ with veins flowing through it. The old men pointed at it as they described walking home through the burning, blackened, deadly heart on the morning of 6 August 1945, and spoke of how the dying walked with their hands outstretched, the skin hanging off them. One of them rolled up his sleeve to expose the burn scars from the fallout that descended on him and described a lifetime of wearing long-sleeved shirts even on hot days when everyone else was in short sleeves. The other talked about the varieties of cancer he’d developed. Children in utero in the summer of 1945 who were born with severe birth defects are now 67, and the care-givers they’ve lived with all their lives are dying off.

The northern tip of the central island in Hiroshima is a memorial space. On both banks of the rivers are shrines and sculptures; the Peace Memorial Museum includes dioramas, photographs and relics of the first nuclear bomb dropped on human beings. The walls near the diorama showing the city before and after the blast are papered with letters that the mayors of Hiroshima began writing in the 1960s, objecting to all nuclear testing, whether Soviet, American, British or French. Hiroshima has recovered in part by redefining its identity. Once a military garrison town, it considers itself a ‘city of peace’. And prosperity: it has elegant cafés, a vast mall where expensive European designer products are on sale along with more quotidian furnishings, clothes and snacks. Hiroshima has a major Mazda auto plant. What it means to be a city of peace is defined fairly narrowly, as being against nuclear weapons and nuclear war.

Japan is in crisis about nuclear power. While I was there the mayor of Kyoto told Kepko, the regional electrical power company, to close down its nuclear power plant and seek renewable alternatives. Fifty-two of Japan’s 54 nuclear power plants have been shut down and local governors are refusing contractors permission to continue with the building of new plants. On the face of it the country is fine without them but the long-term problems are serious. If Japan doesn’t return to nuclear power, the world’s third largest economy will have to step up its scramble for fossil fuels to keep its manufacturing and its cities running. It would have to backtrack on its carbon-emissions commitments, which would throw the delicate process of global carbon reductions even further off track. Japan can continue with nuclear power, which has proven so dangerous and mismanaged; it can abandon nuclear power and increase its reliance on oil and coal; or it can opt for decline. Add an ageing population and a low birth rate, and the tsunami begins to seem like the least of Japan’s problems. It’s possible to imagine a fourth option in which Japan embraces renewable energy and takes pride in building a new green identity, as Hiroshima built a new identity on its charred remains. But nothing suggests that this future is likely to be realised.

Disasters are often like revolutions, moments when people and government move far apart, and if government doesn’t seem criminal at such times it may seem superfluous, out of touch or incompetent. In Mexico City in 1985, an earthquake with casualties comparable to those of the tsunami in Japan changed the face of grassroots and national electoral politics. The authorities have reason to fear the aftermath of disaster. Mikhail Gorbachev regards the mishandling of the Chernobyl meltdown as the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Perhaps Japan’s disaster will come to seem like an integral part of an extraordinary year of upheaval – from Tunisia, Egypt and the Arab Spring to Chile, Spain and Greece, as well as everywhere that Occupy has reached. As in these other places, the relationship between people and government in Japan has been ruptured, but in Japan there is no insurrection as yet.

I met anti-nuclear activists who were proud of a demonstration in Tokyo in which ten thousand people had participated, raucously: impressive for Japan, but in a city of 35 million not so huge. Demonstrations and protests do not yet seem to be a force that catalyses change in civil society, though the shift away from nuclear power may be happening anyway (and the impact of Fukushima Daiichi on the global future of nuclear power should not be underestimated). The alienation and distrust that is everywhere has yet to find an adequate outlet. Perhaps change here will be subtle and slow. But it’s clear that Japan will never be the same.

Rebecca Solnit would like to thank Yayoi Mashimo, Masako Tsuno, Etsuko Yamasaki, Sabu Kohso and Rin Odawara.

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