Fukushima City, Japan – What was anticipated to be a once-in-a-thousand-years event happened at 2:46pm on March 11, 2011.
That’s when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan, triggering a tsunami and a nuclear accident at the Daiichi plant in Fukushima Prefecture.
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At precisely that moment three years later, cities across Japan observed a moment of silence. In Fukushima City, the commemoration was a far more formal affair than in years past – an official hall packed with some local dignitaries and some local residents chosen by lottery, watched a larger version of the same ceremony in Tokyo. Flowers were placed at a memorial, heads were bowed. An actress read an ode to grief, accompanied by music.
Life has not been the same for those who survived the disaster. “It‘s been three years, but we cannot say that we‘ve completely come to terms with this,“ said Satsuki Kuni, 56. “There’s still an ongoing problem with the nuclear reactor and the government says it’s doing its best, but we see the reality.”
Her friend Satoko Muto, 60, added: “In our community, we had people who passed away [in the earthquake and tsunami] – we see the full extent of the loss.”
Mashiro Saito, 20, was evacuated from her home in Iwake for a month. Now, three years later, Saito said the community “can look back, but we can also finally start looking to the future as well”.
“Of course, I worry that something will happen and I will have to be evacuated again,” said Saito, a college student, when asked about the current state of the unstable Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Still-fluid casualty figures
While individuals can grasp the sense of loss, the scale of the disaster was so large that a number of agencies are still trying to get a handle on the number of dead and missing.
Al Jazeera called Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the national police, the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the national fire department and the National Reconstruction Agency in order to determine the latest casualty counts, as well as the number of missing and presumed dead.
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The number of confirmed dead ranges from 15,884, according to the national police, and 18,958, the number announced by the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, which operates under the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The discrepancy stems from different metrics to count the dead and the cause of death. For instance, the health ministry told Al Jazeera that it only counted the number of death certificates issued, and did not know how many of those certificates referred to bodies that were identified, as opposed to people who were missing and presumed dead.
The national police, on the other hand, told Al Jazeera that it “only counts bodies” and missing people. It does not remove a missing person (there were 2,636 at last count) from its database even if a death certificate is issued for him or her.
Missing persons’ next-of-kin must go through a legal process in the courts to have a death certificate issued, but there is no official count of those cases. “They do not have information on the number of individual cases related to the March 11 disaster,” said Tomoko Kai of the Supreme Court’s public relations department, referring to the court’s records. “They only track the total number of processes for ‘presumed dead’ but do not know how many of those are related to the disaster.”
It’s unknown how many families have yet to apply for a death certificate for missing relatives, although Kenjiro Kajiya, a clerk at the Ministry of Justice, explained that normally a person must be missing for seven years before they can be presumed dead. In the case of the tsunami, though, the period has been shortened to just one year.
On Friday, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency added another 465 to the official number of dead – bringing its total to 18,958 – due to what it said was a backlog of paperwork connected to the number of death certificates being issued for those missing and presumed dead.
The same agency announced that there are 2,655 people missing who are not yet legally presumed dead.
The nuclear fog
The explosions at the nuclear plant damaged more than the nuclear plant itself – they tore a major hole in the fabric of trust between the Japanese people and their government, triggering a rumour mill about politics and corruption.
It’s also created an echo chamber for those who oppose nuclear power. Tuesday’s commemoration of the earthquake and tsunami was preceded by a weekend of anti-nuclear events and protests.
“I want to know what the solution is – what are the alternative sources of energy – so this is an opportunity to learn about those,” said Kenzuke Shirai, 26. He added that he had not attended any pro-nuclear events or lectures to hear what those in favour of nuclear energy might have to say.
should be separate. But in Japan, that is a very difficult thing.”]
Indeed, it would be hard for Shirai to go to a pro-nuclear talk without making a political statement – as the Tokyo governor’s race in February illustrated. Anti-nuclear candidates lost to Yoichi Masuzoe, who was backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe is pushing to reopen the 50 nuclear reactors currently closed for inspection.
So groups such as the Society for Radiation Information are fighting an uphill battle in attracting the attention of the anti-nuclear crowd. Several members of the group subscribe to nationalistic, right-wing ideologies, while others have made statements about radiation that a panic-stricken public might find dismissive. For instance, radiation expert Hironobu Nakamura said that drinking and stress [Jp] cause more cancer than radiation.
Although the Society for Radiation Information may provide accurate analyses of the radiation situation at Fukushima, the group risks repeating the mistakes of radiation expert Shunichi Yamashita, whose responses to questions about Fukushima from frightened people were mocking and tone-deaf.
Still, one of the Society for Radiation Information’s officers, Sempei Takayama, said that like Copernicus and Galileo, it must persevere to try to dispel myths about radiation, which is why it is organising a conference on the subject in October.
Takayama said that in order to move the country towards greater use of nuclear energy, the government had to “convince the public that the plant is absolutely safe and that no severe accidents can occur” – claims that, he said, proved to be “unfortunately false”.
But after three years of mistrust and acrimony between the public, the government and TEPCO – the electric company that operated the Daiichi nuclear plant – it remains to be seen whether that rift can be healed with reasoned debate over political hyperbole.
Toshiaki Taji, 60, a business consultant from Osaka attending Tuesday’s candlelight vigil, said that classic Japanese reserve was preventing “good scientific information” from reaching people who are still reeling from loss and panic.
“They should be separate,” said Taji of science and politics. “But in Japan, that is a very difficult thing.”
Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @dparvaz