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Japan's Broken Coast Struggles To Recover


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The disasters arrived in waves: the earthquake first; then a massive tsunami that swept ashore on the northeast coast of Japan; a combination that then triggered meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Even in a country alert to tsunamis, more than 19,000 people died. In a country painfully aware of radiation, many worry about the effects of exposure in the air, in the water, in the soil, in the food. Even in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, hundreds of thousands are still displaced. They live in temporary housing, and many worry they'll never be able to leave.

If you have family living in the tsunami zone, Tohoku, or around the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, call and tell us their story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, an argument that Aaron Swartz was right on The Opinion Page this week. But first Japan two years after the tsunami Fukushima power plant meltdowns. Joining us now is Yuri Kageyama. She's Tokyo correspondent the AP and joins us on the phone from Tokyo. Good to have you with us today.

YURI KAGEYAMA: Yeah, thank you for having us.

CONAN: And let's start with those hundreds of thousands still displaced. What kind of housing are they living in?

KAGEYAMA: Well, there are some that are living in temporary housing that has been built. They're sort of like barracks that are in rows. But some people have also, like, you know, opted to look for other kinds of housing like company dormitories or their relatives' homes or apartments of their own, or - it's, you know, various forms.

But there's still a lot of people in those homes and because they're still waiting for a more permanent way of living.

CONAN: So Yuri Kageyama, as - are some of those people displaced by the wave, others by radiation?


CONAN: And what are their prospects of finding new homes?

KAGEYAMA: Well, the recovery, the rebuilding has been very slow. And also some of the people are farmers or fishermen, or they're a lot more tied to the land than urban dwellers like us in Tokyo. And so it's very difficult for them to make the adjustment. They really want to go back to their homes, and they keep hoping that they can go back, and also a lot of them are old, some of them are sick. So it's just very difficult.

CONAN: Some of them in the immediate area of the reactors will never be able to go back to their homes, certainly not their lifetimes, and others who lived in the tsunami zone, their houses were destroyed by the waves. There's no plans to rebuild there because it's too dangerous.

KAGEYAMA: Yes, the rebuilding in the area where that was devastated by the tsunami, I mean it's a huge area, but there are a lot of factors that they have to consider because a tsunami might come again. There's a lot of cleanup. There's a lot of debris. And of course as you say with the area right close to the plant, it is just - there's just - the contamination is so great and the risks to health so great that it will be a no-go zone for years, just like in Chernobyl.

CONAN: And there's just been an election in Japan, there's a new government. Was the fate of the people in Tohoku, the northeastern region there, was that a factor in the election? Are people - do people still care the same way as they used to?

KAGEYAMA: I think people do care, and the outpouring of, like, donations and volunteers has been great. But, you know, people have, outside of Tohoku region, they have other lives and other things they have to take care of. So now there's a lot of anger toward the previous government and how they did not act quickly enough to get the recovery going or how the dealt with the disaster in general.

And even the people in Tohoku, too, they said that they didn't want to vote in for the same government. So what we have is a return to the government that we had, you know, before, and that government is actually much more pro-nuclear energy. So we have government that's now actually ironically saying that nuclear power is very safe and that, you know, they would put in some more new regulations, and they want to try to see if they can get nuclear power going again.

CONAN: Some plants in fact were - work was stopped after the disaster two years ago today. Those projects have begun to rebuild, start again.

KAGEYAMA: Well, yes, that's what the prime minister is said. The action is slow going toward that because the distrust is so great, and there are protests all the time again restarting any of the nuclear power plants. And only two out of the 50 that are working, not the four that are not working in Fukushima Daiichi, they two - only two have been able to be restarted.

CONAN: Well, joining us now is Nikki Kininmonth, she's a freelance translator based in Tokyo and spent time in Tohoku, that's the region affected by the earthquake and tsunami. She joins us now by Skype from Hiraizumi in Japan. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

NIKKI KININMONTH: Hi, good to talk to you, too, Neal.

CONAN: And take us back to two years ago. What did you see in the first days after the disaster?

KININMONTH: Well, I found myself in Sendai about three days after 3/11 two years ago. I was asked to join a group of Dutch TV crew to just film what was there. And what I saw was just a lot of people who were really not sure what had happened. I mean, they had been struck by the tsunami in their seaside town off Shichirigahama in Sendai.

And we spoke with the people who had safely been able to evacuate themselves to the town halls, which are very basic places. They just had blankets and, you know, canned food. The toilets had no running water, so they had to have lots of buckets to just clean themselves. And we just asked them so, you know, what's going on, and what do you plan to do, and really just their answers were we're just waiting for the government to give us a direction. We're just finding remnants of our houses, our fridges on the beach. We're just picking up food that we can eat and waiting for a new day to come.

It was really quite surreal what I saw.

CONAN: That is quite a scene. I have to ask you: Two years later, in some respects people are still waiting for the government.

KININMONTH: They - sure. I mean, at the moment everyone has been able to live in temporary housing. As Yuri was saying, these are very, sort of, basically built barracks that have got four walls and a roof, but they're very small. I've heard of stories about people getting very depressed because the tight community that they used to once have has been completely dispersed. People have been scattered all over throughout the region. And it's been really difficult for them, especially for the old people who have lost their families, or who've been living alone even before the disaster. They just have no way to find a purpose in life, people who've lost their livelihood like farmers and fishermen.

They can't work, so they just spend their days just wandering around smoking or going through the pachinko gambling parlors. And it's been very hard for the people who've lost their direction in life.

CONAN: And I wonder: Have you detected a change in the national attitude? This was a national crisis two years ago. Is it still seen that way?

KININMONTH: Well yes, completely. There's a very strong attitude in the media, especially in the first few weeks and months after. There was a lot of talk of rebuilding Japan, the tight - the bond between Japanese people. This was a time when the nation had to be strong and support itself. But I personally felt, living in Tokyo, even just a couple of months after March 11, I was starting to feel that people just wanted to get back to their own lives because there was only so much that people felt they could do.

So of course there was a lot of donations and volunteers coming in who were really eager to do their part. But, I mean, this wasn't just about an earthquake and a tsunami. This was also about a catastrophic nuclear disaster. And it's been very difficult for people and local governments to know what exactly to do next.

Like you hear all these towns, they're all about rebuilding themselves, but into what direction? Even just a simple figuring around the question of where do we rebuild a town. Do we just build our houses where they used to once stand? But what if another big tsunami comes in the exact same spot? It's just the physical direction as well as also philosophical direction of where we're heading as a country.

There's a lot of debate and arguments, and I think people are just getting a little bit tired, and it's just too much for them to handle, especially those not (unintelligible) directly affected by it all.

CONAN: Yuri Kageyama, I wanted to turn back to you for a moment. There is of course the trust that people had in government shattered by the experience particularly of the nuclear disaster when, not to put too fine a point on it, they were repeatedly lied to.

KAGEYAMA: Yes, I think they - that that's - seeing how the government dealt with the nuclear disaster or how they did not deal with the disaster unfold over the months, and also most of the people had been told that nuclear power, the way the Japanese did it, was safe. And so of course that was already shattered.

But then they told publicly that there was no meltdown repeatedly, and then of course there were multiple meltdowns, and it was the same for me, as well, as the reporter because I had already - we were already talking to experts who told us immediately that all the signals meant that there were going to be, you know, meltdowns.

And then we saw the government denying that and the authorities denying, regulators denying it repeatedly. I mean, it was awful. Just the lying was - you know, as you were right there and seeing it, you know, it does things, and I don't think Japan will ever be the same.

CONAN: We're talking about what happened two years ago today and what has yet to happen in Japan two years after the disaster of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants, the explosions and meltdowns there, the tsunami and earthquake, of course, that caused the disaster and also caused the deaths of 19,000 people. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. With hundreds of thousands of Japanese still in temporary housing two years after the tsunami, clearing debris and rebuilding on the island is a clear priority. But the effects of the catastrophe in Japan are also being felt abroad as tsunami trash, pieces of everyday items from bottle caps to toothbrushes, from houses to boats, wash up in the Hawaiian islands.

Japan estimates 1.5 million tons of junk floated away, and it's littering the Hawaiian coastline and showing up in fish and bird stomachs. It's also arriving on the coast of Washington state and in Alaska, as well. That debris is more than just trash, though. It's little bits and pieces of the lives of the Japanese families that lived in the tsunami zone, many hundreds of thousands of whom are still displaced.

So if you have friends or family living in Tohoku or around the Fukushima Daiichi power plants, call, tell us what you're hearing from them, 800-989-8255. Email is You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Yuri Kageyama is the AP correspondent in Tokyo, and Nikki Kininmonth is a freelance translator based in Tokyo. They're our guests. Joining us now is Marie Mutsuki Mockett, the author of the forthcoming memoir "Above the Waves," which is about her family in Japan. We spoke with her a couple of years ago about how her family was doing in the days following the tsunami. We decided to follow up to see how they're doing two years later. She joins us now on the phone from Hadano. Nice to have you back on the program.

MARIE MUTSUKI MOCKETT: Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: And when we spoke a couple of years ago, your cousin was staying at a small Buddhist temple 30 miles from the Fukushima power plant. He said it was his responsibility to stay there as long as anybody remained in the town. How's he doing now?

MOCKETT: Well, they're all doing fine. The way that the Buddhist temples work in Japan is they are run by families. And so there's the temple structure, and then right next door is the family home. And my cousin lives there with his wife and his three children, and he did indeed say that he wasn't going to leave, although I was on the - when I finally got through to him, I kept asking him to please leave the area because it was unclear what was going to happen with the nuclear power reactors so close by. But he felt strongly that he had to serve his community.

CONAN: That is laudable. Not all of the priests, sadly, felt that way...

MOCKETT: No, they didn't all feel that way. I - when I was finally able to see my family about four months after the tsunami, I said: Were there priests who stayed, or were there priests who ran away? And they, you know, they very sadly said to me yes, there are plenty of examples of priests who ran away or who used their facilities to house friends and relatives but not their dankasan, those are their parishioners who they're supposed to take care of. And so you hear all kinds of stories, you know, in the months after the disaster.

CONAN: And you have been a periodic visitor in the months since the disaster.


CONAN: How have things changed?

MOCKETT: Well, in the beginning, I mean, I think you've got a pretty good description. Everything was so surreal. And it's funny because from a distance, I was most concerned about the radiation and the long-term effect of this on my family. But my family, on the other hand, for, I think, easily a month didn't have any water. And so if I talked to them about their experience, this is the thing that comes up repeatedly, how difficult it was to live without water.

And when I finally saw them four months later, they were exhausted. They were mentally exhausted. They were - very unusually for them, they were heavier than they had ever been. I mean, people in Japan are very fit and very trim, and they had all put on weight because they hadn't gone outside. One of the young guys in the temple said to me that he and his wife very, very much wanted to start a family, but he didn't know if he should, and actually here he'd brought up radiation as the reason why.

Although I'm going up in a week, and I did learn that this young man's wife is pregnant. So I think there's a - they have a little bit more of a sense of optimism than they did before. But certainly this has had a tremendous impact I think not just on the community but probably in the way that they think about the work that they do as Buddhist priests.

CONAN: It also reminds us that Japan is a society that has suffered disasters on enormous scale many times in the past.


CONAN: We of course remember the devastation of 1945, but there have been other earthquakes and other tsunamis. It's a resilient nation, a resilient people.

MOCKETT: Very much so, and Tohoku I think in particular the thing you always hear is that people in Tohoku are very, very tough, which is true. They're - it's - when you tell people in Japan that you're going to Tohoku, and certainly before that tsunami earthquake, people in the southern cities or the western cities like Tokyo and then Kyoto, et cetera, would say oh, Tohoku, well, that's a wild place, or that's a very strange place because it's a little bit disconnected from the other parts of Japan and for a long time was considered a little bit less civilized, and people had it a little bit harder, and a lot of farmers, very rugged people. So they are very, very strong and very resilient, and they do take a lot of heart from that, and they do cheer each other on quite a bit.

But it is a really - it is a disaster that has very, very strongly affected them. And I think one thing to remember is there was the earthquake, there was the tsunami, and then it's certainly - in my family's town there was a very large earthquake on April 11, which did even more sort of structural damage to the temple than the one in March.

And then there were earthquakes every day after. So there just was a constant sense of anxiety, you know, is another one coming, how big is this earthquake going to be, what's going to happen next, really, really hard to relax.

CONAN: Nikki Kininmonth, I wanted to ask you about that reputation of Tohoku, this area of the northeast part of Japan. You are based in Tokyo. Had you been there before? What kind of place did you find it?

KININMONTH: Actually, it was really my first time ever to visit the northern part of Japan. This was my first experience, and although before 3/11, I had lived in Fukushima briefly, working in a hotel for about 10 months. So my first impression of the people in Fukushima was that they were really just hospitable people.

You know, I met some very lovely people during my time before 3/11, and it was really saddening for me and as I started, you know, hearing about this horrible nuclear disaster, although the part of Fukushima where I had stayed was about 60 kilometers west of Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

So although they weren't really directly affected by the radioactivity, basically the whole of Fukushima has been hit by - hit hard by this impression that anything that comes from Fukushima must be contaminated or is poisoned, or it's going to make you sick, whether it's the food or just simply going there for a visit.

And that really makes me sad because when you actually look at the map of Japan, you see how Fukushima is laid out. And it's not just simply getting a compass and drawing a clear circle around Fukushima Daiichi and saying anything within this radius is contaminated because as people now know, that contamination has now spread out in a very kind of sporadic manner just depending on natural elements like the wind, of course.

And so there are parts of Tokyo or even west of Tokyo that are more contaminated, we call them hot spots. There are more radioactive hot spots in certain parts of Tokyo than there are in (unintelligible) parts of Fukushima. So all this information about, like Fukushima, oh, it's a very dangerous place, it's simply not true. But unfortunately we don't really have the proper kind of specific detailed information as consumers living in these parts of Japan, which kind of leads me on to want to talk about the food issue because we have a nationwide campaign called Eat and Support, which is basically saying let's support the farmers and the fishermen, the local people of Tohoku, by buying and eating their produce, which is all very good, and I totally support that.

However, there's a lot of fear, especially for mothers with children, who are feeling a little bit reserved about feeding their children potentially contaminated food. And these have been detected, not by governments but by citizen groups with their own Geiger counters, and they measure various kind of food gathered in all parts of the country.

And surprisingly enough, a lot of foods that are already on the markets have considerably high ratings of radioactivity, which, you know, most consumers wouldn't even think about. And it's...

CONAN: People remember the hot spot phenomenon after the Chernobyl disaster, as well. There were places as far away as Wales that had very high radiation readings. Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Derrick(ph) is on the line with us from Round Lake in Illinois.

DERRICK: Yes, thank you so much. It's a good program. I actually used to live in Japan. My wife is from there. And I go business very often. I recently actually covered the Fukishima and the Tohoku situation for Foreign Policy and Focus magazine. The problem is, as your guests specifically stated correctly, that people in Tohoku are tough. The question - basically, the comment I'd like to make is that rarely you had no choice. If you're (unintelligible) by the Japanese government, there's absolutely no rebuilding or any kind of construction going on in areas which were affected.

And also there's a degree of rather inhospitable feelings towards a lot of different people. For example, the term (unintelligible) came back which is actually radiation affected where a lot of refugees who had been displaced to other parts of Japan are experiencing a high degree of animosity - I would say even discrimination, among their own people. So it is a very, very difficult situation. And the government seems to be totally helpless or unwilling to really readdress those issues, such as that.

CONAN: Yuri Kageyama of The Associated Press, is - are there - is there some sort of shame being heaped upon these people because they're - they have been exposed to radiation?

KAGEYAMA: Well, there's not an active campaign to do that, but the people who are in that situation have said that they're afraid of that, and the experts are also afraid of it. They would tell you that informally. That's because Japan is a very insular community and - society, I mean. And there has been cases of discrimination like that, similar to that, for example, people who were victims of the - who are there when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and there was discrimination marriage, you know, about not wanting to marry them because they're worried about genetic defects and that kind of thing, all unfounded, of course.

So there's a lot of fears about that. And also there's also division within the community, from - between people who have - are really nervous about the radiation versus those who are not nervous about the radiation - the same thing that we were talking about earlier about the food. Some people want - are actively promoting the food be consumed whilst others are really like jittery and don't want - or don't want anything to do with the food that may be contaminated. So it's very difficult for these people because they're a lot more tightly networked than we are in the urban communities, and they're tied to their land, as I said before. So it's difficult on many fronts.

CONAN: Derrick, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DERRICK: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about the triple disaster that struck Japan two years ago today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And our guests, again, Yuri Kageyama, the correspondent for The Associated Press in Tokyo; Nikki Kininmonth, who's a freelance translator based in Tokyo and interpreter; and Marie Mutsuki Mockett, author of the forthcoming memoir "Above the Waves." And I wanted to turn back to you, Marie Mutsuki Mockett.

As you talk to people about these towns that have been eradicated, some of them, just completely gone, these are places that were there for hundreds of years that had traditions like no other place.

MOCKETT: Yeah. It's true. You know, I was looking through some old journals that I kept when I was really, really little, when I was about four and a half or five and a half. My mother would take me to Japan in the summer. We always went to Tohoku. So I'll just interject quickly and say one of the things that makes me so sad is when we talk about Tohoku now, of course, it's linked in our minds with this disaster; but in my mind, it's a wonderful place with wonderful traditions.

And in the minds of people who are kind of experts on Japan, Tohoku is the place you went to, to find authentic Japan. Tokyo had become too Westernized, but Tohoku is still very, very authentic. So one of the journal entries that I have from the summer in the '70s my mother had taken me to see these horse races in a town called Soma, and I have a little childish drawing of a man and a horse holding a banner. And, of course, Soma is one of these towns that was very close to the exclusion zone. I think parts of it are in the exclusion zone.

And I remember reading, last year I think it was, that an effort was being made to put on a smaller version of this horseracing festival that would have been handed down to the citizens of the town from feudal times. That made me very emotional just to think of people still trying to put on this (unintelligible) that's a festival that had been going on for so many hundreds of years. And I wondered what was going to happen to it. And it's, you know, it's very upsetting.

And there are also strange things that happened with the tsunami. When you go and visit one of these towns that's been struck, it's so clear how the flat area of the town was a very dangerous location to build any sort of settlement because it just opens right up into the sea. If you were in the town before the tsunami struck, there would have been buildings and roads and streetlamps. And there's so much stuff that you couldn't see how you were on a plain that opens right out into the ocean.

And in some of these towns, half of the town was perhaps swept away, and then half of it or a portion of it that was just a little bit higher up in the hill is still intact. And that - you just sort of have this sense of arbitrary fate or even just the bad luck to have had your house a few feet lower, it's very, very upsetting. And as your other guests have said I mean it's so unclear how one is supposed to proceed forward. And when I was here in Japan last August for the Obon festival, which is kind of a day of the dead in Japan, it's a weeklong or so period in which the souls of the dead are said to return home.

And it kind of has this spirit of like Thanksgiving for us in the West, where when Thanksgiving comes we go home to be with our parents and our families. Similarly for Obon, you - if you're Japanese, you might go home to stay with your parents and eat some good food and remember your relatives who have passed away. And there were so many stories - last summer, people who were able to get home, or, in some cases, people who were able to go to their hometown to visit the graves of their ancestors for the first time, but then had to leave to go back to wherever they were staying. It's very - this disaster has really stuck right at the fabric of what keeps people together. And I think it's the fabric of what makes so much of this part of Japan so beautiful.

CONAN: Thank you very much for being with us, Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Her forthcoming book again is called "Above the Waves." Appreciate your time today.

MOCKETT: Thank you.

CONAN: Our thanks as well to Nikki Kininmonth, who freelance interpreter based in Tokyo. Thank you, Nikki.

KININMONTH: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And to Yuri Kageyama, the - or correspondent of The Associated Press based in Tokyo. We appreciate you taking the time. We know it's late there.

KAGEYAMA: Thank you.

CONAN: After Internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide, the word JSTOR became part of the national conversation. Our next guest says Swartz was right to crusade for access to academic publishing. We'll have more on the Opinion Page after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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