|About 20,000 people are estimated to have died in Japan’s earthquake and subsequent tsunami [GALLO/GETTY]|
Trying to understand, show or measure what Japan has suffered this year in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami is difficult because the story is an ongoing one of compounding loss on multiple and enormous scales.
The magnitude 9.1 earthquake and massive tsunami rocked the country’s northeast coast, leaving swaths of several prefectures destroyed, entire families missing, and the world’s third largest economy battered.
Between the roiling earth and tsunami waves as high as 39m in some areas, the coastal towns and fishing villages did not stand a chance. Roughly 20,000 people are estimated to have perished from the twin disasters that left nearly a million homeless and in emergency shelters in the still-snowy and bitterly cold late winter.
In the weeks and months immediately following the disasters, the island nation was left to deal with several logistical challenges – moving people into shelters, repairing downed power lines and disrupted transit routes and coping with a shortage of food, water and medical supplies in the affected areas.
And they were doing all of this in the shadow of a meltdown at the damaged and ageing Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in the Fukushima prefecture – a meltdown triggered by the earthquake and tsunami. This third disaster, manmade, has proven tough to bear.
The wave of initial panic that rippled through the country that had been hit by two atomic bombs in World War II was palpable, as was the deep mistrust of both the government and the operator of the plant, the Tokyo Power Electric Co, (TEPCO).
After early reports of fires and explosions at the plant, people started packing into trains and heading as far south as they could. Mothers worried over what was safe to feed their children as they did not trust the authorities who said that contamination levels were low or non-existent.
The government and TEPCO are largely seen as downplaying the amounts of radiation leaking into the sea, air and soil, bringing the ordinarily reserved Japanese society to a boiling point. People began confronting public officials – in meetings, demanding their children’s urine be tested for radiation, and on the streets, with large protests calling for accountability.
What happened in Fukushima – a meltdown more severe than Chernobyl 25 years before – has given pause to countries that are considering building more nuclear plants or are concerned with how to deal with ageing ones. Several countries vowed to move away from nuclear energy all together.
Nearly 10 months after the start of it all, with almost 80,000 people evacuated from the towns and villages nearest to the nuclear plant in Fukushima, the government announced a 40-year plan to decommission the Daiichi plant. But the full implications of the meltdown – environmentally and politically – are still decades away from being fully understood.