By Grace Sung
At 2.46 pm on March 11, 2011, a deadly 9.0-magnitude undersea earthquake struck off the northern coast of Japan. Its 9.0-magnitude force unleashed a towering tsunami that travelled at the speed of a plane to the coast, and swept the northern Pacific coastline. Within minutes, communities were turned to matchwood, and whole families had drowned.
The tsunami waves also crashed into the Fukushima nuclear plant, sparking reactor meltdowns and explosions that spewed radioactive materials to the vast farm region, and setting off the worst atomic crisis in a generation. The triple disasters killed 15,884 people in Japan and left 2,636 people still unaccounted for.
On the third anniversary of the disaster, we look at how life has changed - or not - for the survivors and the country.
1. Reconstruction of devastated areas: A slow and difficult process
The disasters displaced some 470,000 people. Some lost their homes in the tsunami, others were forced to leave their communities due to the nuclear plant meltdowns, yet others were evacuated due to health concerns over the radiation fallout.
The number of displaced people has gone down to 270,000, but about 100,000 still live in temporary housing. Others have found shelter in new cities or with relatives.
Despite the government pledging billions of dollars in reconstruction aid, reconstruction in disaster-hit regions has been slow. Japan has so far built only 3.5 per cent of the new homes promised to disaster refugees in heavily affected Iwate and Miyagi prefectures.
It remains unclear how many more years it will take to build all the needed post-disaster housing. That has sowed doubt among many people, with some 77 per cent of Japanese saying the pace of reconstruction has fallen short, according to a poll conducted by Kyodo News and other media organisations in March.Rebuilding works have been slowed down by a severe shortage of labour and construction materials in Japan, caused by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's promotion of public works projects nationwide to simulate the economy. The chronic shortage means the cost of reconstruction has gone up.
There are other problems. The local government of Fukushima prefecture does not even have a number for how many new houses it needs to house evacuees.And the local authorities face difficulties rebuilding homes where coastal settlements were obliterated by the tsunami. They have identified 332 sites on high ground, but only about half have been secured. The biggest issue: Identifying the owners of these sites, many of which have not seen transactions for years.
2. Nuclear crisis at Fukushima: A volatile situation, environmentally and politically
Little progress has been made towards decommissioning units 1 to 4 at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, which continues to produce tonnes of contaminated water every day, some of which is leaking into the sea.
The March 11, 2011 quake and tsunami sparked the world’s worst nuclear accident for 25 years. Killer waves caused reactor meltdowns and explosions that spewed radiation over a swathe of Fukushima, an agricultural area long known for its rice, beef and peaches.
The crippled plant remains volatile and engineers say the complicated decommissioning process will take four decades, as fears persist over the long-term health effects of leaked radiation. The accident forced tens of thousands to flee from areas around the shattered site.
Although no one died as a direct result of the atomic accident, at least 1,656 Fukushima residents died due to complications related to stress and other conditions while their lives in evacuation become extended.
A 30km radius around the plant was declared a no-go zone, forcing 160,000 people from homes where some had lived for generations.
Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) has warned that it is running out of storage space at the site for the thousands of tonnes of water it dumps into the overheating reactors to keep them cool. Many experts believe the water will eventually have to be dumped into the sea after being scoured of its most harmful contaminants - an idea that, unsurprisingly, is opposed by local fishermen, neighbouring countries and environmental groups.
Adding to the litany of ongoing problems at Fukushima, Tepco last year said around 300 tonnes of radioactive liquid were believed to have escaped.
The crisis forced the shutdown of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors, forcing the country to turn to pricey fossil-fuel alternatives to plug the energy gap.
Despite Tokyo’s push to boost alternative energy, power sourced from wind farms and solar energy remains a fraction of Japan’s needs. Atomic power once supplied about a third of the resource-poor nation’s energy.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for the reactors to be turned back on to power the world’s third-largest economy, but anti-atomic sentiment ripples through communities big and small in the country of 128 million. Tens of thousands of citizens turned out for an anti-nuclear rally in Tokyo March 9 to voice their anger at the nuclear industry and the government.
3. Survivors of the tsunami: A painful healing process
Small towns across Japan’s north-eastern coast are rebuilding, but far from healing three years later.
In Rikuzentakata, Kesencho, which lost all of its homes to the disaster and where one in 10 residents died, nearly everyone lost a friend or family member on March 11, 2011. Around 5,000 people, a quarter of the town’s population, are still in temporary shelters with their lives on hold. Many have chosen to suffer alone rather than seek support.Survivors can find it especially difficult to seek help in a country that still stigmatises mental illness and prizes stoicism, experts say. "Japanese hesitate to use mental health support – not only mental health support, but support in general,” said Mr Tsuyoshi Akiyama, the chairman of the disaster support committee set up by the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology.Most of the debris has been cleared in Rikuzentakata, but the town still has only a few paved roads and after sunset, there is only silence. Some residents say they believe in ghosts and a few taxi drivers say they refuse to pick up passengers after dark after some claimed to have seen apparitions. The sound of the ocean is faint, but many survivors say they avoid the seaside at night.There are no comprehensive statistics on the depth of the tsunami’s psychological impact on survivors, but Rikuzentakata’s city hall so far counts three disaster-related suicides.
Mental health professionals say resentment has built among survivors because some have managed to get their lives back on track faster than others.
“In the first year, there is a collective feeling of working together, of overcoming this together,” said Ms Ayako Sato, a psychologist hired by the Rikuzentakata city board. “In the second year, everyone wants to help each other because everyone suffered a loss in the disaster. But by the third year, you start to see a rift in living standards. People drift apart."
Life is also challenging for parents and guardians of orphans in the disaster zone. A Yomiuri Shimbun survey found that they are often on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Of the 241 orphans in the three worst-hit Tohoku prefectures, around 90 per cent are being raised by relatives, such as grandparents, uncles and aunts. They face various challenges, including old age and the resulting weakened health and physical condition.
Many also found themselves unprepared for the foster-parent role they were suddenly thrust into. Professor Michiyo Kato, the head of the Support Office for Children in the Aftermath of the 2011 Japan Earthquake, said: “Many of these foster parents are devoting themselves to raising children out of a sense of responsibility, thinking that it’s natural for them to do so as the children’s relatives. But they also feel sad themselves over losing family members. “Some of these people aren’t able to voice their complaints openly.”
Noriko Tarukawa, associate professor at Tsukuba University and a researcher into the psychological effects of foster parentage on children, pointed to another problem, saying: “As their lives grow more stable, some foster parents feel overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness or find themselves lashing out."
4. Children of Fukushima: A life of fear, stress and emotional trauma
A study funded by Japan’s Health Ministry found that about 30 per cent of children in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima who were aged between three and five at the time of the disaster exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as flashbacks of their horrific experiences, and needed professional help. The three Tohoku prefectures were most badly hit in the disaster.
There are now more children playing truant and some daycare centres don’t celebrate Mother’s Day or Father’s Day any more because so many children lost at least one parent.Some of the smallest children in Koriyama, a short drive from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, barely know what it’s like to play outside - fear of radiation has kept them indoors for much of their short lives.
Though the strict safety limits for outdoor activity set after multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in 2011 have now been eased, parental worries and ingrained habit mean many children still stay inside.
And the impact is starting to show, with children experiencing falling strength, lack of coordination - some cannot even ride a bicycle - and emotional issues like shorter tempers, officials and educators say.
“There are children who are very fearful. They ask before they eat anything, ‘does this have radiation in it?’ and we have to tell them it’s okay to eat,” said Mr Mitsuhiro Hiraguri, director of the Emporium Kindergarten in Koriyama, some 55km west of the Fukushima nuclear plant.
“But some really, really want to play outside. They say they want to play in the sandbox and make mud pies. We have to tell them no, I’m sorry. Play in the sandbox inside instead.”
Koriyama recommended shortly after the disaster that children up to two years old not spend more than 15 minutes outside each day. Those aged three to five should limit their outdoor time to 30 minutes or less.
These limits were lifted last October, but many kindergartens and nursery schools continue to adhere to the limits, in line with the wishes of worried parents. "I try to keep from going out and from opening the window," said 34-year-old Ayumi Kaneta, who has three sons. "I buy food from areas away from Fukushima. This is our normal life now."
5. Fishing industry in the disaster zone: An uphill struggle for recovery
The nuclear crisis hit the agricultural sector - particularly the fishing industry in the disaster zone - hard. Considerable progress has been made in the reconstruction of disaster-hit fishing ports and vessels in the past three years, but the catch volumes landing at major wholesale markets in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima have reached only about 70 per cent of levels before March 11, 2011.
The government in 2013 designated the Momonoura area of Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture as a “special fisheries reconstruction zone", the first such measure to be put into effect. This has led to hopes of fresh investments in the area but there are no prospects yet of the special zone system being expanded to other areas.
About 40 countries, including China and South Korea, still restrict the import of farm and fisheries products from Japan, so the recovery for the industry is still an uphill battle.
Sources: AFP, Reuters, Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network
You might be interested in these stories from our archives:
Lives still in limbo, buildings in ruins one year after tsunami in Japan
A year after the devastating triple disaster, rebuilding lives and industry along Japan’s north-eastern Tohoku region, especially the three hardest-hit prefectures, has been painfully slow.
Coastal towns picking up the pieces a year after triple disasters in Japan
One of the streets in Ishinomaki hardest hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in north-east Japan – is showing signs of recovery.
Helping nature restore Japan’s tsunami-battered coast
Mrs Takako Niinuma, 75, has vowed to return the Takata Matsubara forest devastated by the March 11 earthquake to its former glory for the sake of future generations.
Japan scrambles to find alternative energy sources
Japan is scrambling to find alternative energy sources as the lights go out at its nuclear power plants this year.
Survivor's frantic search for four children and teacher
Mrs Naomi Hiratsuka is now still searching for four children and a teacher whose bodies have not been recovered.
It still feels as if it happened yesterday, says tsunami survivor.
Mrs Masako Karino cannot bring herself to return to what is left of Okawa Elementary School. The battered shell of the school was where both her children died when the tsunami hit.
'Nothing really prepared me for what I saw when disaster hit Japan'
Singaporean Lai Ying Loong has been making weekend trips to the Tohoku region about once a month, joining other volunteers first in clearing debris and then in bringing cheer to survivors.
She makes final farewells less traumatic for Japan's disaster victims
Ms Ruiko Sasahara, a mortician by profession, has been volunteering since disaster struck last year, repairing battered faces so that surviving relatives can say their final farewells.
Ghost towns trapped in red tape two years after disaster in Japan
Red tape and lack of skilled manpower are holding up the reconstruction of disaster-hit areas in Japan, even two years after it was slammed by giant tremors and tsunami waves.