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Waving or drowning?

By Gillian Handley - posted Friday, 18 November 2011

On 11 March 2011 Japan faced a triple catastrophe – the worst the world has ever known. The TÅhoku earthquake that struck off the country's northern coast, recorded 9 on the Richter scale. It shifted the country two metres closer to the US, sank Japan's coastline by a metre and spawned a tsunami that devoured towns and farmland. It was followed by the worst nuclear emergency since Chernobyl as three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station went into partial meltdown while spent fuel rods at another reactor caught fire, spewing radioactive material into the sky.

Six weeks prior to the TÅhoku earthquake, I stood in the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima, trying to come to terms with the harrowing and unutterably tragic exhibits: a watch still intact but frozen at 8.15 am on 6 August 1945 – the moment the atom bomb exploded; a young boy's skin and finger nails kept by his mother to show his father who was away fighting when the bomb fell; hair taken from dead children; carbonised school lunches still neatly packed in tins. In the Peace Memorial Park a bell tolls steadily. Hushed visitors leave bottles of spring water to comfort the souls of those who died blistered and seared by a roiling furnace that blasted temperatures close to that of the sun's surface. I thought about my father and how he was starving in Changi as a prisoner of the Japanese when he heard about the attack on Hiroshima. Two sides of the same coin.

By the end of 1945, approximately 140,000 people in Hiroshima, and 70,000 people in Nagasaki died because of the atom bombs. The Registers of the Names of the Fallen Atomic Bomb Victims of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki contain the names of roughly 420,000 people, with more than 200,000 A-bomb survivors living today.


John Herseys' classic Hiroshima follows a handful of survivors through the bombing and the days and years of suffering that followed. His book describes scenes of hell, of unspeakable agony and despair; of selflessness, courage, humility, grace and hope.

Mr Tanimoto arrived in the city immediately after the bomb fell. He felt such guilt as a survivor in the face of unimaginable horror and tragedy that he called out to the burned and lacerated people, 'Excuse me for having no burden like yours!' A German priest gave water to victims whose faces had disintegrated from flash burns. Despite their agony, they raised themselves to bow to him in thanks.

The survivors seemed to share what Hershey describes as a kind of elated community spirit, similar to what Londoners felt after the blitz; a pride in the way they had survived. Just three days after the bomb fell, the Hiroshima citizens had managed to get some street cars running and electricity working.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people and destroyed more than 112,000 homes and buildings. The final toll of the nuclear disaster may not be known for decades. The immediate economic impact was severe as industrial production ceased in many factories, infrastructure was destroyed and supply chains broken. A shortage of Japanese components also affected global markets. By April 2011 the Japanese government estimates of the cost of the direct material damage were revised upwards, to US$300 billion. All this was in the face of a weakening global demand that would slow Japan's recovery.

The same spirit of civility, consideration, forbearance and pride that was seen in Hiroshima was evident in the aftermath of the 2011 catastrophe. Volunteer headquarters in the northeast were inundated with offers of help – so much so that they had to relocate some of the helpers to shelter facilities closer to Tokyo. Many people gave up their holidays to catch up with work, making up for lost time during the initial first weeks of the disaster. Kaori Shoji, writing for the Japan Times on 16 May 2011, describes a surge of national feeling with the media carrying slogans like, 'Let's connect, Japan' and 'Let's Move Forward, Japan'.

Within four months of the tsunami, more than 5,700 safes containing approximately $30 million had been recovered from the three hardest hit prefectures, including Fukushima, and nearly 96 per cent, or nearly $29.6 million in cash, had already been returned to its rightful owners, or closest relative.


The Japanese agricultural ministry reported that by the end of July 2011, nearly half of the 22.63 million tons of debris in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures had been removed. By mid-July 73.7 per cent of farming businesses affected by the quake and tsunami in eight prefectures had resumed operations while 35.5 per cent of fishing entities had returned to business. (Figures exclude Fukushima because of the ongoing nuclear crisis.)

But, survival in Japan is not easy. Some scars are not immediately obvious and take longer to heal. Victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are called 'Hibakusha', which means 'explosion-affected persons'. The Japanese avoided the term 'survivor' when referring to these people as they felt it diminished the dead in some way. After the war many people, particularly employers, were prejudiced against the Hibakusha.

In Hiroshima there had been an unthinkable failure of authority following the explosion of the atomic bomb as those in power were left helpless in the face of a disaster all the more incomprehensible because it was brought about by human design. The situation was not helped by the strict censorship that was enforced so that not even the Japanese knew how bad things were in the broken city.

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About the Author

Gillian Handley is a freelance journalist based in Sydney, Australia.

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All articles by Gillian Handley

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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