Surviving Fukushima: My Time During The Disaster

My very first year here, the 3/11 earthquake hits. Welcome to Japan.

I’m eating at Kappazushi, a rotating sushi restaurant, and there’s a sign above the counter, detailing the latest addition to the menu, trembling.

“Huh…”

Whoa, I think, as the trembling escalates into a roaring shake. A real earthquake. I’m from the east coast of the U.S. and have been through plenty of hurricanes, but quakes are virgin territory. Should I exit the building in a calm, orderly fashion? Maybe get under the table? Scream like a prissy twelve-year-old girl?

A woman near me groans and puts her head down on the table. Motion sickness. An old man looks up from his sushi like someone tapped him on the shoulder, shrugs, then continues eating. My man.

Cool, I think. My first earthquake. I knew Japan suffered from quakes, but the only thought I’d given them is how interesting an experience on would be. So my earthquake response amounts to gazing around stupidly until the shaking stops, thinking of how I can brag about this on facebook.

When it’s over I update my facebook status like this:

“Just had a small earthquake. No problems.” Another feather in my hat.

So when the “are you okay?” messages pour in I’m quite pleased to know that everyone is worried about me. Thanks guys, I feel the love! Don’t worry, I’m okay!

My cell rings. It’s my coworker. “Nathan! That was huge! Are you okay?”

“It was huge?”

“It was flippin’ huge! We were hiding in the doorway for like how many minutes!”

“I was eating sushi.”

What?

“That was big?”

“Are you kidding me?”

“That was my first quake.”

We talk more and I check my facebook again. My best friend’s sister messaged me.

“Nate, that was NOT small. It was magnitude 9.”

I blink a few times, stunned, then quickly set about answering all those messages.

“I’m okay, everyone. Don’t worry. It wasn’t so big here.”

My aunt messages me. “Were you in the tsunami?”

There was a tsunami? What’s going on?

“No, don’t worry. I’m surrounded by mountains.”

“Are you sure you’re safe? I saw on the news the tsunami was really big, and Japan is so small…”

On the news? In the U. S.? It just happened.

“Don’t worry. A tsunami would have to go over Mount Fuji to reach me.”

“Okay, Nate. I’m glad your okay.”

I go home and turn on the TV to scenes of a horizon of floodwater stretching towards a highway. There’s people driving on that highway, and no possible way for them to escape. Is this happening now?  I check the internet news, which tells me the tsunami has devastated a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. The very next thing I do is check google maps to see just how far away this Fukushima is.

About 400 kilometers. Is that good? I convert it to miles. About 250. That’s good, isn’t it?

Now, I’m freaking out. I should call home and tell them I’m…okay. Am I? Am I okay? Nuclear radiation could be raining down on me right now as I sit in my beanbag chair in my coffin-sized apartment. I look over at the big sliding door nervously, then slide the curtains closed. Just in case. Never hurts to be too careful, right?

I’ve been on my computer nonstop since the disaster. I get an email from mom. She’s terrified.

Writing a mail back isn’t enough for mom.  I give her a call.

“I want you to come home, Nathan.”

It might at that, but…

“I’m going to see how things play out.”

“I want you to come home, Nathan,” she repeats, sternly.

“No one really knows anything yet. I don’t want to overreact.”

“I don’t want you to under react.”

I spend the next day on the computer, watching and reading and worrying about a situation looking more dire by the hour. Tokyo isn’t safe. People are being told to stay indoors. Radiation is heading south on the wind, towards me.

I’m 200 miles away from Chernobyl. 

The next day we have to go to work, but before students arrive we get a call from the higher-ups in Tokyo. Many schools in Kanto have suffered damage from the quake. Unless we think we’ll be able to open, we should close until any damage can be repaired.

The three of us look around the office. It’s as pristine as we left it before the quake.

“There’s a sign that fell,” I point out.

“Here’s another!” The part timer holds it up.

“That’ll take forever to clean up,” the Japanese staff nods. “No choice. We have to close this weekend.”

After rehanging the signs, my coworkers turn to me. They’re living together, and invite me to spend the night with them. “You want to come over? You shouldn’t have to be alone tonight.”

“Thanks,” I say appreciatively. It’s definitely not a good idea for me to be alone tonight. I’m a nervous wreck with an overactive imagination, my mind weaving horror stories pretty much 24/7 now. Also, one of them is Japanese and can translate the news if we need to evacuate.

Evacuate, I think with a laugh. I’ve never needed to “evacuate” before. That’s something that only happens to people on the news. But I guess that’s me now.

We hang out at my coworker’s house, playing cards and ordering pizza until the other teacher informs us she’s up for a little evacuation herself.

“This was only a working holiday, nothing to risk radiation sickness over. You want to go to Osaka with me? Get away from here to somewhere safe where you can think about things with a clear head? I’m catching a plane out of here.”

I think this is good advice and the next morning we make a brief stop at my apartment where I pack up what I absolutely need in case this turns out to be a one way trip.

Early the next morning we’re on the road to Osaka, traveling by bus. As for whether to stay or head back, I still can’t decide what to do.

“What are you gonna do?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you think you might do?”

“I honestly don’t know.” I tell her about how don’t want to leave when I’ve just started to understand this country. This all has happened just when Japan had started to open up to me, and I’d only begun to really get what I wanted out of moving abroad.

“But this is your safety we’re talking about.”

“I know…”

“Well, who do you respect most?”

I had been looking out the window. I turn now to look at her. “Huh?”

“A friend or family member. Who’s opinion do you respect the most in the world? Call them and ask them what they think.”

More good advice.

But I don’t have their number. After phone tag with some family members I manage to get it.

“Hey, it’s Nate.”

Nathan! Are you all right?”

“I’m trying to figure that out, actually.”

We talk, and decide that what I’m doing is best. Get away from it so you can make a decision with a clear head. The feeling I got from the news was that by the end of the weekend they would know what’s going to happen with the Fukushima reactor. Either it was going to blow or remain stable. So, see how things play out at the plant and then make your decision. Don’t put your life at risk.

“Thanks.”

And that was how I ended up in Osaka.

Since we’re in a radiation-free zone, she wants to do some sightseeing to take our minds off the disaster. But I can’t help but check the news every hour, on the hour. Tokyo citizens are being advised not hang their laundry outside. They’re using some measurement that I don’t recognize, terabecquerels, to explain how much radiation is escaping through the blasted roof of the FukuShima Daiichi reactor. It’s hard to really understand what’s happening. I do get though, that radiation is pouring into both the air and the Pacific ocean.

“Well, sushi is off the menu.”

I’d been through countless hurricanes, some quite severe, but I’d never had the feeling that anything more than my convenience was in danger. It’s all hidden behind a psycological wall, distancing you from a very real danger, a safety mechanism that sets you in a bubble of “everything will turn out okay in the end.”

But this is all very real to me. The bubble burst a long time ago and I’m teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

I’m praying under my breath as I check to see if there are any advisories placed on Yamanashi, but so far there’s nothing. That’s good, I guess. Though I almost wish there was. The absence of information is just as stressful. Not knowing is not better than knowing. Not knowing leaves you in limbo where reality depends on how many worst-case-scenarios your imagination can conjure. At least when you know, you have ground to stand on.

In the meantime I tag along with my coworker, fretting and sightseeing. We go to the Osaka aquarium, and for a few minutes I manage to forget about things, which I really need.

Osaka Aquarium

We go to the Umeda sky building next, which was really…a monumental waste of time. Just a building with a few pictures of its own construction sprinkled around–a monument to itself. Though the disappointment is comforting in its own way, bringing a sense of normalicy to a situation balanced on a razor’s edge.

Umeda Sky Building

At the end of the day we head back to the hotel, where they inform us there are no vacancies tomorrow. Osaka had a surge of incoming visitors, all escaping the radiation up North like ourselves.

In Osaka

I spend an hour on the phone, calling every hotel google maps can find. Nowhere has two rooms.

“Hey, is a twin okay?”

She doesn’t either bother responding except to give me an are you crazy? look. We ain’t married.

I call around some more. “Two rooms? You do? Yes! I’ll take them.”

I walk over and knock on her door.

“I found one,” I say when she lets me in, taking a seat at the table.

“How much is it?”

I tell her the price. Not as cheap as I would have prefered, but it’s a bed.

“No, let’s just stay at a hostel. It’ll be cheaper.”

“Don’t worry,” I smile. “It’s your going away present.”

“Hmm…okay, thank you.”

It’s pricey but I don’t care. I need to stay somewhere comfortable so I can think. It’s not for her, but it looks like I would be getting a going away present out of the way too.

That night we check the news online. It seems that the situation at the reactor has stabilized–as in, not getting worse. There is still no kind of advisory anywhere South of Tokyo. For the time being, the need for escape may not be so imminent. Reports say that since it hasn’t gotten worse, it’s not going to. Reports say, but the Japanese news has been downplaying the disaster since day one. Nope, everything’s fine. Disaster? What disaster? Oh, that disaster. Don’t worry about it. Huh? Radiation? We don’t see any radiation. Oh, you can’t see radiation, that’s right. But it’s okay. Just don’t hang your clothes outside.

So I get my news from outside sources. I scour the internet for anything that might give a hint of what’s really going on. There’s a New Zealand site saying it’s all a conspiracy. French scientists say there’s already been a meltdown. Countries are getting their citizens the heck out of Japan, all except the U.S., which says everything is fine with it’s Asian buddy.

I look at the official reports and the nonofficial ones and decide that the truth is somewhere in between. Finally, I find a map of the radiated zone. Yamanashi is just outside it.

“So, what are you going to do?”

I tap my finger on the table, staring at the latest news report from the BBC. “Unless things get worse, I’m staying.”

“You sure?”

“I’ve checked just about every scrap of information floating around the net there is about Fukushima. The reputable ones seem to agree that the reactor, for now, isn’t getting worse. If it blows though, I can’t stay.”

“Good luck, buddy.”

That was hardly the end of it.

Maybe a week later, the single most terrifying moment of my life happened.

I’m worn ragged. My nerves are frayed. Every morning I check the government’s site monitoring the level of radiation falling on Japan. Yamanashi has nothing above naturally occuring amounts, except when it rains, but I’m still too nervous to go out except when absolutely necessary.

It’s eleven o’clock at night. I’m on my bean bag chair in front of my TV. The news is on, but I’m really messing around on my laptop because I can’t really understand the Japanese news very well. I’m still checking everyday for new developments with the plant.

Suddenly, the entire building creaks like it struck an iceberg. The ceiling lamp over my head starts whirling in circles. I rush to the wall, immediately realizing the opposite way would have been better, since I could easily just run out my door if the building starts to collapse. It’s an ancient cockroach motel that my company installed me in when I arrived and I’m waiting for the contract to expire so I can find a new one.

Finally the shaking stops and I, exhuasted and trembling, rest my head against the wall. Screw this. Screw this country.

Crap, I realize. That was stronger than before. If the first one crippled the plant, this one destroyed it.

A map pops up on the news. The earthquake was in Shizuoka, just South of Yamanashi. Fukushima wasn’t affected at all.

I collapse into my bean bag chair, reconsidering my decision to stay

Turns out those French scientists had been right, and the meltdown happened right after the disaster. All that pumping water into the plant to prevent a total meltdown had been for nothing, basically. So instead, Japan now pumps tons of that same radioactive water into the Pacific after an apology that amounts to “sorry, but we had to. There’s nowhere to put it.”

Fukushima produce and meat becomes untouchable, but soon Japan’s food industry starts to rally around it. Support Fukushima! Buy there produce! News reports start showing happy customers buying Fukushima produce that has passed some kind of government radiation standard.

I ask around. “Are you really buying that stuff?”

“Heck no,” they say. “The beef is dangerous too. It’s contaminated. Buy Aussie if you go to the supermarket.”

Pretty soon I’m shopping at the local supermarket, avoiding anything from Fukushima, when a camera crew sporting “support Fukushima” vests shows up promoting products from the crippled pefecture.

“Excuse me sir.” Japanese. One of them taps me on the shoulder and gestures to a certain table. “Would you like to support Fukushima by buying some Fukushima agriculture?”

I bet you want a shot of a foreigner buying your nuclear carrots. “I don’t speak Japanese,” I answer in English, then bolt away. I quickly learn the kanji for the prefectures affected by the radiation. Produce in Japan has a place of origin stamped on it, and I don’t want to mistakenly buy anything dangerous.

Later I’m convinced to go to a local sushi place with some friends, where I see a sign on the bar saying “we support Fukushima by using their fish in our sushi!”

Now, I admire many things about the Japanese community mentality, but when you place most certainly dangerous food in front your customers for the sake of the group, that’s going too far. I order only Altlantic salmon while I watch my friends and everyone else in the restaurant munch on contaminated fish.

Over time Fukushima gradually slips from the news, save for a few supportive pieces extolling her people’s endurance. Now I only hear about the disaster area through stories of people who have gone there to volunteer. They go for a few days and come back, helping when they can, but mostly just listening to the survivor’s stories.

Everyone knows someone who was killed. Farmers and fishers struggle to make a living on product that has become untouchable. It’s not their fault. They’re just victims forced to suffer even after the disaster that took so much from them, unable to support themselves with a product considered tainted even after the government declares it safe.

Still, I can’t bring myself to actually buy any. Not now or for a long time. But maybe, someday, I will.

So two years later things have calmed down, mostly because the news doesn’t cover recovery efforts anymore, which are slated to last forty years. It’s all out of sight and mind, but no one has forgotten. The terror has subsided, and we can finally accept the reminder that people actually live there now. And they’re working to get back to a normal life, and so are we, because even in the face of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, life goes on.

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One Comment on “Surviving Fukushima: My Time During The Disaster”

  1. justahugfromafar
    October 1, 2013 at 6:12 am #

    I wish you would leave. The nuclear contamination hasn’t. Do you at least have a good Geiger counter?

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