Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan's Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan's Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

by Lucy Birmingham, David McNeill

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Blending history, science, and gripping storytelling, Strong in the Rain brings the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Japan in 2011 and its immediate aftermath to life through the eyes of the men and women who experienced it. Following the narratives of six individuals, the book traces the shape of a disaster and the heroics it prompted, including that of David Chumreonlert, a Texan with Thai roots, trapped in his school's gymnasium with hundreds of students and teachers as it begins to flood, and Taro Watanabe, who thought nothing of returning to the Fukushima plant to fight the nuclear disaster, despite the effects that he knew would stay with him for the rest of his life. This is a beautifully written and moving account of how the Japanese experienced one of the worst earthquakes in history and endured its horrific consequences.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137050601
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/30/2012
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Lucy Birmingham is TIME magazine's Tokyo-based reporter and covered the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. Since coming to Japan in the mid-1980s, her work has appeared in Bloomberg News, Newsweek, Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Forbes, Fortune, The New York Times, Travel&Leisure, and U.S. News and World Report. A board member of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, she lives in Tokyo.

David McNeill writes regularly for the Independent, the Irish Times, and Japan Times, while teaching at Sophia University in Tokyo. His work has appeared in Newsweek, New Scientist, The Face, Marie Claire, New Statesman, the International Herald Tribune, The Chicago Tribune, on the BBC, RTE and CBC and in many other outlets. He is a board member of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan and chair of The Foreign Press in Japan. He lives in Japan.

Lucy Birmingham is Time magazine’s Tokyo-based reporter and covered the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. She is the co-author of Strong in the Rain. Since coming to Japan in the mid-1980s, her articles have appeared in Bloomberg News, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe. She is also an editor and scriptwriter for NHK, Japan’s national television and radio broadcaster. A board member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, she lives in Tokyo.
David McNeill is the Japan correspondent for The Independent and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the co-author of Strong in the Rain. He writes for The Irish Times and The Japan Times, while teaching at Sophia University in Tokyo. His work has appeared in Newsweek, New Scientist, Marie Claire, International Herald Tribune, Chicago Tribune, and on the BBC. He lives in Tokyo.

Read an Excerpt

Strong in the Rain

Surviving Japan's Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

By Lucy Birmingham, David McNeill

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2012 Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-05060-1


The Quake

Strong in the Rain
That is the kind of person
I want to be.
Kenji Miyazawa

"THE WORLD IS HEAVY ON US SOMETIMES," SAYS Katsunobu Sakurai, recalling the day it almost crushed the life out of his city. The disaster began for him, as for millions of other Japanese, at work. The mayor of the coastal city of Minamisoma, Sakurai was with a group of visiting delegates on the fourth floor of the city hall when the building began to shake, gently at first, then in jerky, violent movements that seemed to go on forever. In some parts of the building, he could hear people crying. Others began pleading to the distance, to God, perhaps to the ground itself: "Tasukete!" (Help!); "Tometekure" (Please stop). Cracks opened up in the walls above his office. It was, Sakurai found, difficult to stay upright. He looked up at the ceiling of the 40-year-old building, then focused on a jug of water on the desk in front of him, catching it before it tipped over and spilled, jolted by the power of the quake. He was surprised to find himself not especially afraid. What will be will be, he thought.

There was nothing on the morning of March 11, 2011, that suggested it would be different to any other, or that Sakurai would become one of its unlikely heroes, his pinched, exhausted features beamed across the planet during the depths of the crisis. As he did every weekday since January 2010, when he was elected mayor, Sakurai strolled through the main entrance of the shopworn local government building, cheerfully greeting clerks before walking upstairs to his third-floor office overlooking a lattice of dense, squat housing stretching to the coast about seven miles away. When the summer sun shines, the coast is famously beautiful, anointed in the azure waters of the Pacific, attracting thousands of surfers to Kitaizumi Beach. In the winter, the majestic mountains to the west turn snowy white, throwing the dun-colored, aging buildings in the city below into sharp relief.

A typically busy schedule lay ahead: In the morning, a meeting was scheduled with his staff, followed by a speech to hundreds of youngsters at a graduation ceremony in a local middle high school. By the end of the day, about one hundred of the city's children would be dead, some laid out in a makeshift morgue, and he would wonder, when he found time to ponder such things, if any were among the graduates he had met. After lunch, he was to meet a delegation of politicians from the Diet, the Japanese parliament, who were visiting the city. In the evening, he would see his elderly parents, both in their late 70s and struggling to manage.

A diminutive, birdlike man, Sakurai's unprepossessing appearance hid a formidable will. Locals around Minamisoma were used to seeing him jogging around the countryside, training for marathons. He had been driven into political life partly by anger. After working the land locally for a quarter of a century, he watched in despair as Fukushima Prefecture, where Minamisoma is located, licensed an industrial-waste processing plant close to his five-acre farm. All the hard work that he and other farmers had done to build up the reputation of local organic rice and vegetables, purifying the soil of chemicals, was ruined, he thought. They took the plant operator to court in the nearest big city, Sendai, in nearby Miyagi Prefecture, but after a 12-year battle, lost. Throughout the fight, Sakurai was harassed and sometimes threatened by violent Yakuza gangsters, who control much of the labor for dirty, dangerous work in such factories and who resented his attempt to block its construction.

The clash with corporate power and the sense that it had conspired with officialdom against him and other small farmers left him shell-shocked. "We weren't even allowed in the courtroom to hear the verdict," he recalls. "I was angrier than I've ever been in my life. How could people far away from us make decisions that would affect our lives so profoundly?" He decided there was no point in just using the law to fight; he had to be in government, and so he ran for office.

Sakurai's waking life was effectively parceled out among the coastal city's employees and 71,000 citizens. The days filled up with school visits, speeches, reports, and meetings with parents, farmers, and workers — an exhausting commitment to public service that left little time for his parents, with whom he shared a house. Most days he was in his office till dark, toiling beneath framed pictures of his stern-faced predecessors framed on the wall above his head.

At 55, Sakurai considered himself steady in a storm, the embodiment of his favorite poem by Kenji Miyazawa, with whom he shares an alma mater, Iwate University: "Strong in the Rain / Strong in the wind / Strong against the summer heat and snow / He is healthy and robust / Unselfish / He never loses his temper / Nor the quiet smile on his lips / That is the kind of person / I want to be." Those qualities were to be tested to the limit.

The explosive force that Mayor Sakurai and the townspeople felt at 2:46 P.M. had been released by one of Japan's most unstable faults, about 60 miles east of his office and 19 miles beneath the sea. The earth's crust is made up of eight large tectonic plates that have been moving and grinding against each other for millions of years, and the largest — the Pacific Plate — dips under the slab of rock underneath Japan's main island, Honshu. Eventually, the stress of that friction is released, but seldom as violently as on March 11. Scientists would later estimate its force at over one million kilotons of TNT — the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 released fifteen kilotons. The force of the quake tugged the Pacific coastline 8 feet closer to the United States. Ancient Japanese blamed earthquakes on the angry gods. Even modern inhabitants of one of the planet's most technologically sophisticated societies sometimes wondered if they were not right.

The shaking subsided. It had lasted perhaps five or six minutes. Sakurai took a deep breath to collect himself, led everyone he could find out of the building, and then began to round up his 15-member executive team. They would have to set up a temporary disaster response headquarters outside the building. As Minamisoma was a coastal city, a tsunami was very likely. The 40-year-old city building was too far from the sea to be threatened, and it had withstood the initial quake shock waves, but nobody would bet on it surviving aftershocks. People shivered in the bitter cold, but nobody wanted to risk being inside. Men and women began dialing cell phones to check on relatives, some crying when they realized the network had crashed, overwhelmed by data traffic 60 times heavier than normal. The huddle of voices around the mayor was tinged with fear, panic. Unknown to Sakurai, some of his townspeople were already dead, crushed under roofs. A 23-foot tsunami was 40 minutes away. And at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant 15 miles to the south, the power was out, detonating a chain of events that would, in a few days, turn Minamisoma's incipient disaster into an existential crisis.

Japan has an earthquake detection and warning system second to none. The nationwide online system detects tremors, calculates an earthquake's epicenter, and sends out brief warnings from more than a thousand seismographs scattered throughout the country. The system first detects evidence of P waves (for primary), which have fast, short wavelengths and do little damage. These are followed usually several seconds later by the destructive S waves (for secondary) with longer wavelengths. These snakelike seismic waves are the terrifying movements that destroy buildings and create landslides.

The system is run by the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention, but it is the Japan Meteorological Agency that sends out the earthquake warnings. It takes only seconds for a seismometer located on land, closest to the epicenter, to detect enough signals to determine if an alert is necessary. The alert is automatically issued to factories, schools, TV networks, radio stations, and mobile phones. Damaging S waves travel at about 2.5 miles per second, so they would have seriously rattled towns along the northeast coast in about 32 seconds. The S waves would have reached Tokyo, about 190 miles to the south, in approximately 90 seconds. Although the systems can only give warnings from seconds to one or two minutes before the powerful S waves hit and shaking gets serious, it can mean the difference between life and death. It can be just enough time to take cover, drive a car to the side of the road, step back from getting on an elevator, or stop medical surgery.

Tsunami warnings take longer because more calculations are involved. A regional tsunami warning was made nine minutes after the March 11 quake struck. In the areas hardest hit by the tsunami, residents probably had only about 15 to 20 minutes of warning. The March 11 quake was so powerful that it triggered a tsunami that traveled all the way to the Antarctic, where it cracked an ice shelf. But despite a long history of such deadly tsunamis, years of false alarms had inured local people to the perils of coastal life all along Tohoku.

Few believed that it would be destructive, not least Mayor Sakurai as he climbed up to the rooftop of the building to observe the quake damage. As he squinted into the distance, he saw a huge cloud of dust, known as tsuchikemuri, rising high up in the air. "Is that a fire?" he wondered aloud. "No," he was told. "That's the tsunami hitting the shoreline." He was astonished by how big it was. "I went speechless. I realized that a huge one was approaching." Even as he spoke, the deluge was drowning the old, the young — even whole families on the coast. The waves had traveled across the sea at the speed of a jetliner — up to five hundred miles an hour — then slowed and elongated as they hit the shallow coastal waters, funneled still higher by the hills that ringed the coast. Nobody could remember water reaching as far as National Highway 6, a few miles from the coast, let alone Sakurai's parents' house further inland still. Later, he learned that the water had lapped into the first floor of the house. His parents had fled. It would be days before he'd get word of whether they had survived.

ABOUT 15 MILES FROM MAYOR SAKURAI'S OFFICE in Minamisoma lay Okuma, a small town of 11,500 where Kai Watanabe was born and raised. It received the brunt of the disaster and felt the gravest global consequences. For better or worse, Okuma basked in the warm commercial glow of the local six-reactor nuclear power plant. The complex provided work to hundreds of local people, and its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), had, along with the government, pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the surrounding economy in a process that nuclear opponents likened to drug addiction. TEPCO had put down deep local roots, rebuilding the local sports center and constructing a playground. It organized school tours to the Fukushima Daiichi plant and even screened cartoon movies for children in public halls because Okuma had no cinema.

Opposition to Japan's dash for nuclear power flared sporadically in the late 1960s and '70s as experts warned about the dangers of building plants on some of the world's most seismically unstable real estate. The experts found a largely indifferent, even hostile media during a period when the economy boomed and nuclear power was considered a badge of national pride. Some found their academic careers derailed and were treated somewhat akin to traitors.

By the time Kai Watanabe was born in 1983, the intense discussions and protests sparked by the decision to start building the Fukushima plant in 1971 had subsided. TEPCO had become one of Japan's most powerful companies, monopolizing electricity supply to Tokyo, controlling the production and distribution of a third of the nation's electricity, with "substantial" influence on politics at all levels. When he graduated from high school in 2001, there was little debate in his family about where he would work. Some of his friends left for Tokyo, for college, or for the big city firms. Kai didn't even consider university. His parents ran a small Japanese restaurant and couldn't afford to send him to one. "It was seen as a perfectly natural choice for me to work at the nuclear plant," he recalls. "The plant was like the local air, and I wasn't afraid of it at all."

A 27-year-old lover of rock music, cars, and electronic gadgets, Kai was stocky and strong. His maternal grandfather had worked at the plant for over 20 years. The presence of the family patriarch, now nearly 80 and still healthy, dispelled any lingering worries about the nuclear complex. "Other people might have worried about getting cancer or leukemia or explosions or whatever, but we never discussed it once," he says.

Kai began working as a maintenance worker, checking for pressure inside pipes, opening and closing valves, measuring radiation when it was needed. He liked the work, which he felt was important. "I thought we were on a mission to provide safe power for society, for Tokyo. I was proud of that." It paid 180,000 yen (US $2,267) a month — roughly the same as a junior office clerk in Japan. A decade later, he was still being paid the same amount — plus 1,000 yen a day (US $12.60) as "bento [lunch] money."

On March 11, Kai rose as usual in the house he shared with his parents and brother, a couple of miles from the plant, and took the bus to work. In the morning, he walked around reactors one, two, and three, working from a list, checking pressure values and gauges for signs of abnormality. He went back to his office to eat lunch, then returned to work in the afternoon, finishing early at about 2:45. As he walked back to his office, he felt the building begin to sway back and forth and heard the creak and rattle of old pipes and metal on metal. Earthquake, he thought, his heart instantly beating faster. There had been a string of quakes in the previous weeks; some of his colleagues even joked that the big one was coming. But this was no joke. As the shaking grew stronger, he froze in his tracks. It was the strongest quake he had ever felt, and he was in the belly of one of Japan's oldest nuclear power plants. "I knew right away it was the start of something really terrible," he recalls. "I wondered if I'd live or die."

Where is the epicenter? he thought as he ran for the exit. Probably Miyagi Prefecture farther up the coast from Fukushima — there was a big one due there. He remembered reading about the earthquake four years previously in Niigata Prefecture to the west, almost directly underneath the world's largest nuclear plant — Kashiwazaki-Kariwa. It had killed eight people, burst pipes, triggered the release of radioactive steam, and forced a revision of quake preparedness at Fukushima Daiichi, including the building of its new, state-of-the-art emergency center. How many would die this time? What would be the outcome of this explosive collision of state-of-the-art atomic power with primordial seismic instability? The building was now in darkness. An alarm wailed.

The exit was farthest away from the six reactors facing the Pacific, a mile or so from the sea. Once he was outside, his town, Okuma, was a few miles away. Just outside the exit on the right was the visitors' center, festooned, like many similar facilities throughout Japan, with cartoon characters. A deep 18-foot crack ran right through the silver lettering on the wall, dislodging the Chinese characters for nuclear power: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. If he had seen it in a movie, he would have snorted at such contrived and far-fetched symbolism. Maybe two hundred men were crowding around the exit, waiting to return radiation-monitoring equipment before they could get out. Line managers were counting off their staff, making sure nobody was missing: there were 6,415 people on-site, of which over 5,500 were subcontractors like Kai.

"What will happen?" some were asking. "Where do we go?"


Excerpted from Strong in the Rain by Lucy Birmingham, David McNeill. Copyright © 2012 Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Prologue: March 11, 2011,
1 The Quake,
2 Tsunami,
3 Close the Gate,
4 Meltdown,
5 The Emperor Speaks,
6 Telling the World,
7 Flyjin,
8 Help Us, Please!,
9 Departures,
10 Tohoku Damashii,

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