Book Review: Japan's Catastrophic 2011 Temblor

Anyone who was in Japan on March 11, 2011, when the 9 pt. Richter Scale Earthquake struck, has a story to tell. As for myself, I was in a downtown travel agency, ironically making arrangements to leave Japan on a short trip when I was badly shaken. Making my way to the railroad station to find a way home, I saw one of those big screens repeating the word "Sendai" a large city 200 miles to the north.

I thought to myself: "If it is this bad here, Sendai must be devastated!"

In fact, Sendai survived the earthquake and tsunami with relatively little damage. The same could not be said of the numerous much smaller cities and villages hugging the Pacific Coast that were demolished by the quake, and more importantly the 13 meter-high wall of water that came crashing through shortly after.

Nearly two years after what the Japanese call the "triple disaster" of earthquake tsunami and the multiple nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, some of the stories are now being told in books, of which perhaps the best in English is Strong in the Rain by two veteran Japan correspondents, Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill.

No definitive count has yet been made, or perhaps can ever be made, of the number of people who died that day, many presumably swept away in the deluge. The general figure of about 20,000 is used. The tsunami was particularly hard on the elderly, who formed a large part of the population in this rather depressed part of Japan.

One intriguing figure in the book amid those large numbers is 575, which is the number of elderly, infirm and ill people whose condition was too delicate to withstand the trauma of evacuation from hospitals or nursing homes that were located within the 20 km mandatory evacuation zone surrounding the nuclear plant. It is a useful figure to keep in mind when one hears that no deaths resulted from meltdowns.

The authors' approach is anecdotal. They tell the story through individuals, such as Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of the town of Minomisoma, or David Chumreonlert, a Thai-American who was teaching English, or Kai Watanabe, an ordinary worker at the Fukushima nuclear plant, even Marine Cpl. Kevin Miller, a US Marine who was among the many American servicemen mobilized to help.

The confused and chaotic response in the early days of the disaster is surprising considering how vulnerable Japan is to earthquakes and other natural disasters. The country has an extensive earthquake monitoring and prediction system, but nothing similar to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The nuclear crisis was handled mostly on the fly from the prime minister's office in Tokyo.

The most useful service was probably provided by the Self Defense Forces (Japan's military). Early on Prime Minister Naoto Kan mobilized about 100,000 troops, nearly half of the total armed forces, for duty in the stricken area, where they did the gruesome but necessary work of recovering the bodies as well as providing shelter and food for the many who had lost their homes.

The US pitched in, providing some 24,000 service men drawn from the bases around Japan in what was billed as Operation Tomodachi (friend in Japanese), and may have been the country's largest disaster response. It was largely unheralded in the US but not forgotten by the Japanese, whose respect for both the Japanese and US military was enhanced.

This part of Japan has a history of devastating tsunamis stretching back as far as the 8th Century. Yet the planning was haphazard at best. A few small towns were prescient enough to build breakwaters and sea walls that were tall and strong enough to withstand the force of the tsunami. Many others were simply bowled over by the wall of water.

The authors recount the often wrenching decisions that many foreigners living in Japan had to make in response to the crisis. Many embassies, though not the American ome, moved out of Tokyo or advised their citizens to leave the capital or Japan entirely. In all, about 30 foreign missions left Tokyo in the first two weeks of the disaster, setting up temporary operations out of hotel rooms in Osaka and Kobe. They would filter back into Tokyo as the fears of radiation receded and workmen seemed to be making progress in stabilizing the nuclear plants.

Those who left Japan earned the local sobriquet "flygin", a play on gaijin, the word for foreigner, sometimes leaving their Japanese business associates or fellow teachers in the lurch. In their defense, many were hearing heartfelt pleas from families and relatives abroad, frightened by often sensational accounts of radiation heading to Tokyo, to get out of Japan immediately. Many found the pleas hard to resist.

Strong in the Rain is a relatively thin volume, more in the line of a first draft of history rather than a definitive account of what's been called the worst disaster in Japan's post-war period. And it is fairly comprehensive, covering the tsunami, the nuclear disaster, reactions in the rest of Japan and abroad, even funeral arrangements and an epilogue of where the story tellers are now.

Many mysteries are still buried in the ruble of the devastated coastline or deep in the bowels of the nuclear reactors, where technicians are still don't know the exact condition and precise location of the melted cores. The authors have done a good job of collecting stories. There are many more to be told.