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Fukushima: Nightmare in the city of ghosts

Memories of the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan

At a magnitude of 9.1, announcers were saying it was the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan and the fourth most powerful earthquake ever recorded on earth since measurements began in 1900. (Used by permission of Stone Bridge Press.)   © Getty Images

Excerpted from "Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys... And Baseball" by Robert Whiting. (c)2021 Robert Whiting. Used by permission of Stone Bridge Press.

I was at home in Toyosu sitting on our new high-tech john on Friday, March 11, 2011, when the Tohoku earthquake struck. I was used to quakes, dating back to childhood in California, and experienced any number of them living in Japan. There'd be some shaking -- sometimes violent shaking -- and then it was over, usually in a matter of seconds. No reason to panic. But this one was different. It refused to end. There was a dramatic swaying back and forth, punctuated by sudden, huge horizontal jolts and the sound of creaking walls that went on and on and on. It lasted an excruciating six minutes.

When I emerged from the bathroom, no books had tumbled from the bookcase in the room I used as an office and no lamps or vases had fallen over. Everything was still in its place. The new tower my wife and I lived in, sitting on reclaimed land, had incorporated the latest in earthquake-resistant technology -- its builders had taken the trouble to mix the sand and dirt beneath with concrete -- and the building emerged unscathed, save for a couple of easily repaired cracks in stairwell walls.

But the scene in cities and towns in the Tohoku area 150 miles to the north, telecast live on the flat-screen Aquos TV set in my office, was one of chaos and horror. Buildings everywhere had collapsed. Roads and railways were damaged, and fires had broken out in many different places. At a magnitude of 9.1, announcers were saying it was the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan and the fourth most powerful earthquake ever recorded since measurements began in 1900. It was later discovered that Honshu, the main island of Japan, had been moved 8 feet to the east and that the axis of the Earth had been shifted several inches.

The quake triggered tsunamis, arriving an hour after the initial tremor, of over 130 feet in height, tidal waves that traveled as far as 6 miles (9.7 kilometers) inland upriver, in some cases carrying with them vehicles, buildings, fishing boats, and debris. In the process, they destroyed highways and other infrastructure, wiping entire towns off the face of the Earth. Thousands of smartphones were capturing the hellish scenes.

The assault by nature left what would later be calculated as 15,894 dead -- more than 90% by drowning -- including several hundred school children. The Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, lost 74 children and 10 teachers who were caught by a wave while attempting to flee to higher ground. The scope of the tragedy overwhelmed morgues and crematoriums, forcing mass graves to be dug. A total of 2,562 went missing, never to be found, and thousands more were injured.

More than 200,000 people would be left homeless, including 80,000 forcibly evacuated from their homes due to concerns over radiation leaks from Fukushima's damaged nuclear reactors. Many of them were forced to live for months in cramped, crowded evacuation centers, often with no running water or other basic amenities of life. The radiation, along with hundreds of very substantial aftershocks, exacerbated their fears.

The enormous scale of destruction -- in all, about one-third of Japan was crippled by the disaster -- dwarfed anything that had gone before. Some residential houses and condo buildings built on reclaimed land in Chiba Prefecture sank or tilted due to ground liquefaction and had to be abandoned. Roads, railways, and dams suffered structural damage.

A reporter swamped by the Tohoku Tsunami. Overall, the assault by nature left what would later be calculated as 15,894 dead -- more than 90% by drowning -- including several hundred school children. (Used by permission of Stone Bridge Press.)   © Getty Images

In Tokyo, the harm was less severe, if still significant. Sidewalks had buckled in spots and there were cracks in the facades of some buildings. Bridges were closed and trains were stopped as engineers checked for problems, while power outages and reductions dimmed the world-famous neon signs of Ginza and Shinjuku. The surrounding suburbs suffered rolling blackouts.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan was housed in the north tower of twin buildings that were designed to "roll" to mitigate the effects of a quake, so the club, perched on the top floor, experienced violent motion. Glasses filled with water literally flew off the tables. From its superb vantage point, members were witness to a large explosion at a liquid propane storage facility to the east in Chiba, which subsequently went up in flames.

My wife was shopping in Hibiya, in central Tokyo, at the time of the quake, about to enter the Hibiya Line subway station. The station was immediately closed, and she came home by bus. My wife's niece who worked in Tokyo could not get back to her home in the suburb of Omiya and had to sleep at our apartment, after making a three-hour hike in high heels from the Toshiba Building in Hamamatsu-Cho where she was employed, all the way around the shoreline of Tokyo Bay, to Toyosu.

There were many scary moments during those early days -- mostly from the major aftershocks, which were announced twenty seconds in advance on our apartment building's intercom system, and also from the reports of radiation clouds in the morning hours after the quake, prompting a state of emergency to be declared in the Tohoku area. People living within 12 miles of the Fukushima reactor sites were ordered to evacuate, while those living between 12 and 19 miles (19.3 kilometers to 30.5 kilometers) from the plant were told to stay indoors due to fears of exposure to radiation.

On that evening, a Saturday, Hiroki Allen, a friend of mine formerly in U.S. Military Intelligence, emailed to say that there was a radiation cloud "on its way to Tokyo." The message read: "Leak has been going since last night and it is still not under control. If you absolutely have to go out, wear a mask, and a hat if possible. Take a shower immediately after you return home and wash your clothes."

Another friend, a Tokyo-based management consultant named Mitch Murata, brought over some KI, or potassium iodide pills, as well as something called "Prussian blue" in the case of contamination from cesium, a notably hazardous form of radioactivity. He also brought along some Isojin, a PVP-iodine used for gargling, available at any local pharmacy, and some ordinary iodine for cuts as a topical antiseptic.

"Swabbing the skin with a tincture of iodine," said Mitch, one of those people with an encyclopedic grasp of any number of subjects, "may be an effective home remedy to prevent serious radioactive contamination of the thyroid gland from iodine-131, which will be emitted in the event of a major nuclear reactor breakdown."

The Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company initially denied, but then admitted, that greater problems existed with the nuclear reactors, and that the numbers of radiation poisoning victims in Fukushima were steadily increasing. Two days after the quake, the total stood at 160. This prompted many foreigners to start leaving Tokyo.

That Sunday, on the advice of their top nuclear scientists, the French government sent emails to all French citizens living in Tokyo recommending that they leave the city, citing the risk of further earthquakes and the uncertainty about the situation of the damaged nuclear plants in Fukushima. The German and Australian embassies followed suit. A number of Tokyo-based foreign companies also ordered their charges out of the city and, in some cases, out of the country.

In London, Britain's Foreign Office advised against all nonessential travel to Tokyo and northeastern Japan. So did the U.S. State Department in Washington, DC. Air China canceled all flights to Tokyo from Beijing and Shanghai.

By Monday, foreign residents were shelling out thousands of dollars to fly to Hong Kong, Singapore, and other points considered safe. Concerns about a potential nuclear holocaust were not helped by hyperbole and fearmongering in press reports out of Japan. The BBC's website ran photos of commuters wearing face masks, or "radiation masks" as they called them, implying that they were trying to protect themselves against radiation when in fact the simple white surgical masks were what a great many people in Japan wore in the early spring as a preventative measure against pollen allergies.

Fire on March 11, 2011, at a propane storage facility in Chiba prefecture. The Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company initially denied, but then admitted, that greater problems existed with the nuclear reactors and that the numbers of radiation poisoning victims in Fukushima were steadily increasing. (Used by permission of Stone Bridge Press.)

CNN continually ran alarmist banners along the bottom of the screen. "Nuclear Cooling Has Failed. Radiation Cloud Could Reach U.S. Friday," went one. The station reported fewer people in the streets of downtown Tokyo, attributing the decrease to a "mass exodus" from the metropolis -- people "fleeing" rather than perhaps just staying home as a result of transportation difficulties or on instruction from their places of employment.

Neal Cavuto of "Fox's Your World with Neal" showed a screen graphic depicting two nonexistent nuclear power plants in Japan, including one in the densely populated Shibuya quarter of Tokyo called the "Shibuya Eggman," which was actually a nightclub.

But perhaps the most hysterical was a story in the March 17 edition of the London tabloid "The Sun," six days after the quake and tsunami, headlined "Nightmare Warning to Brits as Nuke Crisis Continues, Get out of Tokyo Now." It featured a telephone interview with a Tokyo resident, a British woman, who described Tokyo as "a city in fear of nuclear catastrophe -- with food, water, and fuel running out and radiation levels from Japan's stricken nuclear reactors reaching 10 times normal."

Subtitled "My Nightmare Trapped in City of Ghosts -- in Tokyo," the article quoted the woman as saying, "I'm stuck in a part of the city that resembles a ghost-town. Normally the streets bustle like nowhere else on earth. But I look outside now and they are completely deserted. It's like London in the zombie movie "28 Days Later." The streets are silent. We live near the center of Tokyo and yet there is no movement at all... There is no petrol, no water, no food... What if every day the radiation continues to double?" This was followed the next day (March 18, a Saturday) by a Reuters wire service report that said millions in Tokyo remained indoors on Friday, fearing a blast of radioactive material.

I found such reporting surreal because on the day cited in the "City of Ghosts," I had taken the Yurakucho subway line from Toyosu to Yurakucho for a dinner meeting at the FCCJ. Life seemed pretty normal to me. Boys were playing baseball in the park across the street from my house as I passed on my way to the subway station.

The Yurakucho Line was operating at 80% capacity, but the cars were as crowded as they always were, and so was Bic Camera, the multistoried electronics store in front of Yurakucho Station, although the indoor lights were somewhat dimmed. The schools were open, if on a voluntary-attendance basis, and salarymen were at work. There was no rationing at the Lawson convenience store on the ground floor of the Yurakucho Denki Building, except for batteries, and the lights were all on at the twentieth floor Main Bar of the FCCJ, the reporters swapping tsunami stories on their way to getting hammered.

"Did you see this bullshit Reuters report," boomed Karel Van Wolferen as I walked in. "I can't believe the bullshit these bullshit reporters put out. Doesn't anybody look out the window for Christ's sake?"

None of us could find any evidence of an imminent doomsday blast of radioactive material. In fact, the radiation in Tokyo that day was 0.053 microsieverts according to the Asahi Shimbun, which ran daily readings, a figure that was lower than the annual average of 0.078.

Like many other foreigners living and working in Tokyo, I was deluged with messages from relatives and friends abroad, wondering if my wife and I were all right and asking when we were going to evacuate, suggesting strongly that it was time for us to fly back to California.

But leaving was out of the question. We had family and relatives in the city and its environs who needed our help. My wife's brother was in the ICU at the hospital after an automobile slammed into his bicycle, his artificial respirator running on an emergency generator. We never really considered leaving.

The aforementioned Hiroki Allen helped put the weird disconnect in perspective. Hiroki, a big, robust West Point graduate and former special ops officer, was then working in Tokyo as an equities trader, but, as a member of the U.S. Army reserve, he moonlighted as a liaison and interpreter between the U.S. Military in Japan and the Japan Self-Defense Forces. He also knew his nuclear reactors, having been trained during his Army days to sabotage them.

He pointed out an interesting fact he had discovered: When Hiroshima was hit with an airburst atomic bomb attack in August 1945, radiation effects on the city of Kobe 170 miles away were minimal, and not recorded. When Nagasaki was hit with a plutonium bomb, Fukuoka, less than 200 kilometers away, did not suffer radiation effects either.

"Some people with no background in physics, engineering, or military training, they might freeze at the word 'radiation,'" he said. "They believe radiation is some kind of death ray that kills upon contact. Not so. High-intensity gamma rays, perhaps. Windblown radioisotopes, no way. Cigarette smoke is proven to be a nastier carcinogen than radiation at these current levels. The air in Hong Kong is filled with other nasty smoke such as sulfurous fumes from Chinese factories, heavy-metal vapor from industrial activities in Guangzhou, and a lot of automobile exhaust as well as cigarette smoke. Anybody who evacuated to Hong Kong from Tokyo to avoid health issues made the wrong choice."

Almost 10 years after the catastrophe, tens of thousands of Fukushima residents are still homeless, living in shelters or temporary refugee housing, and tens of thousands of others have moved away to other parts of Japan, unlikely to return to their former homes. (Used by permission of Stone Bridge Press.)

Of course, no one yet knew about the long-term effects of radiation in Fukushima. It was too early. Although there was some preliminary evidence that the incidence of thyroid cancer among children in the Fukushima area, normally something like one in a million, had gone up by double-digit numbers, medical authorities have denied that the cause can be traced to radiation. We would all just have to wait and see.

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo initially advised American residents to remain calm and stay the course. However, when it was discovered that one embassy official had quietly sent his family out of Japan, alarm bells went off among embassy dependents, so a decision was made that those who wanted to leave would be provided with a charter flight out of the city.

The disaster did have discernible effects in Tokyo, making life somewhat inconvenient and disrupting the normal course of business. Periodic electricity stoppages affected the public transport system for employees commuting in and out of central Tokyo. Then there was the reduction in electricity usage that caused escalators and elevators to stop running; perhaps the biggest inconvenience I suffered was having to walk up six flights of stairs to our apartment.

Subway station lights were also dimmed -- a queasy circumstance for anyone who had been under threat from the yakuza -- but nothing untoward occurred. There were also temporary shortages and rationing for certain items -- AA batteries, bottled water, bread, rice, toilet paper, and fuel. Another concerning factor for the "fly-jin," as the non-Japanese escapees were called, was the lack of information coming out of the power company, lending credence to some of the scariest of the rumors. It was some time before the company finally admitted that a melt-through had occurred in Reactor 1.

But it was Fukushima where life was truly miserable: Vast crowds of people huddled in shelters without food, heat, or water, sleeping on a hardwood gymnasium floor or a city-center hallway and depending on donations for hot meals and warm jackets and other necessities of life like toilet paper and sanitary napkins. That was where the living hell was. Not Tokyo. Nevertheless, people continued to leave the capital. Records show that from March 19 to April 8, a total of some 210,000 non-tourist foreigners departed the city.

Many of them eventually made their way back but, as of this writing, almost 10 years after the catastrophe, tens of thousands of Fukushima residents are still homeless, living in shelters or temporary refugee housing, and tens of thousands of others have moved away to other parts of Japan, unlikely to return to their former homes.

Through it all, the fabled honesty of the Japanese persisted. In the five months following the disaster, more than $78 million in lost cash was turned into the authorities.

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