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Japan: What happened next?

Fukushima prefectural police officers, wearing white protection suit, search for missing people in Minami-Soma, several kilometers outside the 20 kilometer no-entry zone around the troubled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture, June, 16, 2011. About 4,400 personnel began a large-scale search in Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures for people still missing in the wake of the March 11 disaster. ( The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )

The inevitable before-and-after photographs have begun to do the rounds: the east coast of the Tohoku region as a devastated pile of beached ships and rubble, contrasted with more recent shots of diminished rubble, with slightly fewer ships. The cleaning process is well under way – surviving hotels in the region report a boom in trade, with volunteers and construction workers block-booking for months to come. But progress here is all on the surface. While the rubble is clearly being shifted, real development needs to be worked into the re-laid foundations, and it’s here that the problems lie.

Tohoku is in dire need of a plan. But then this was the case long before the tsunami struck: the outer reaches of the Japanese archipelago have been in severe economic decline ever since the so-called Bubble Years of the 1980s drew to a close two decades ago. A combination of low birthrate and low employment mean that towns such as Kesennuma and Ichinomaki, both of which made world headlines as they washed away on that merciless black tide, have long been places whose population of young people is swiftly diminishing. In the 2010 census, Tohoku recorded a population decline of three per cent, the highest in the country, with no clear road map for regeneration.

Not that there aren’t ideas floating about, of course. In the days following the disaster, CNN’s Piers Morgan asked Yoko Ono what she felt could be done for the region. An odd choice for a post-quake interviewee, and clearly out of her depth, the artist declared the area an “architect’s heaven”, suggesting it was the ideal spot for international creatives to realise their ideas. A nice thought, perhaps, but sadly ill-informed. Even the most beautifully-designed cities would struggle without hope or industry.

On the ground

In Fukushima City, a lack of official information is causing social rifts at a time when the citizens need each other’s support the most. The reporter Hiroko Tabuchi, whose beat necessitates regular visits to the city, has described it as existing in a “dual reality”. Worryingly, she reports that pockets of the city have recorded radiation levels as high as anything in the evacuation zones (“It’s a city of 300,000; if it were smaller, I think parts of it would’ve been evacuated too”). She speaks of growing antagonism, of two factions split by the risks they’re willing to live with. On the one hand, there are people who live without fear (or with the ability to mask it extremely well), “drinking the water, eating the food, really criticising the people that are scared: saying they’re bringing a bad name to Fukushima with their paranoia”. The second group is fearful, made up largely of mothers, “keeping a close watch on radiation levels every day, not letting their kids drink milk or tap water, ordering vegetables from outside the prefecture, wearing masks all the time”. The only thing both sides can agree upon is that the information they are receiving is nowhere near sufficient.

A child receives a radiation screening at school in Fukushima prefecture


As well as having failed to present a clear plan for the region and keep the populace informed, the government does not seem to have harnessed one of the few valuable by-products of the disaster. The surge of energy and goodwill that came from the country’s younger population, a demographic much maligned for being greedy, apathetic and largely uninterested in anything beyond the latest fleeting fashions, was palpable. For long term observers of the country, it was both astounding and hugely encouraging to see young people give up their time and energy to help the relief effort.

Makeshift houses for tsunami victims


One young musician I spoke to had organised a gig where punters were asked to pay the entrance fee in fresh vegetables. As soon as the music was over, he packed the veg into his car and hit the motorway, driving through the night until he reached a refugee centre in Kesennuma. He unpacked his cargo, stayed a few hours to deliver messages of encouragement and hope to the assembled homeless, and then drove back to the capital in time for work the following day.

And this wasn’t an isolated incident, either. Everywhere you looked, someone was organising a buzz-generating event of some kind or another, for charity and solidarity.

An anti-nuclear protest in Tokyo.

The protests

But any youth support the government might have mustered in those early days dissipated as the Fukushima crisis spiralled out of control. Despite the claims the leak had been plugged, on 10th April 15,000 people marched through the streets of Koenji, a suburb to the west of downtown Tokyo known for its concentration of young artists and musicians. They were protesting against Japan’s dependence on nuclear power and the perceived cronyism of Tepco, Fukushima Daiichi’s parent company.

“Between April and June, barely a weekend went by without a demonstration taking place – unreported,

Initially, the street protests did not achieve much. Fifteen thousand protesters may not seem like the beginnings of a revolution, but it was certainly the biggest gathering the capital had seen in decades. And yet, mysteriously, it went all but unreported in the mainstream media. The rumours were whispered but few said it aloud: Tepco, with its vast spending power, could withdraw advertising to any media channel that covered the marches.

The protesters were unperturbed, however, and between April and June barely a weekend went by without a demonstration taking place – unreported, naturally, although blogs, Twitter, Ustream and YouTube made sure the word was out there if you wanted to know about it.

Soon, though, the mainstream media could no longer keep up the pretence. Three months to the day following the 11th March quake, more than 60,000 people took to the streets across Japan in unified protest. It’s unlikely that every one of these was protesting against the nuclear power industry, but the tide had clearly turned; the positive force of youthful energy was now a mood of intense dissatisfaction. And the saddest thing was that the politicians barely glanced up from their squabbling to register a missed opportunity.

On 2nd June, following weeks of pressure from critics in both his own party and the opposition, Prime Minister Kan offered to resign, doing so on the proviso that he be allowed to guide the country to a position of relative comfort first.

With all this political immaturity and radioactive uncertainty, it’s easy to see why the victims of the natural disasters, those futureless towns in the north, may feel as though they’ve been forgotten. Watching their increasingly infrequent appearances on domestic news channels, it’s still difficult to reconcile oneself with the idea that these people are living their lives on a day-to-day basis only a few hundred miles from us in untouched Tokyo.

Aside from the threat of power cuts, the worst the capital experienced was a day of confusion on 24th March, when minute traces of ‘radioactive material’ were detected in Tokyo’s tap water; it was declared fit to drink again only hours later. Nonetheless, panic buying of bottled water ensued, with a six-pack of Suntory mineral water (as bog standard as it gets) going for 18,800 yen (£148) on Yahoo Auctions. We could only hope that the 300,000 homeless, many of them hosed down after showing significant traces of radiation on their clothes as they entered communal refugee spaces, managed to miss the Tokyoites’ embarrassing behaviour when it made the headlines that evening.

At the four-month mark, ABC reporter Akiko Fujita tweeted the most up-to-date statistics she could find: ‘Exactly four months later, 15,547 dead, 5,344 missing, more than 500,000 buildings damaged.’ At about the same time, a new rumour began circulating, suggesting that people were unwilling to go to the beach this summer in case they came across the dead bodies they’d heard were washing up on the east coast. While the world’s media would like to see the plugging of the leak at Fukushima as a full stop in this tragic story, sadly it’s barely a comma.

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