It was the disaster that tore Japan apart and cost tens of thousands of lives. But it was also the first natural catastrophe to play out in real time on 24 hours news channels - and crucially - through social media. Across the world, people stood transfixed with horror in front of millions of computers and television screens as vast waves tore apart everything in their path. Here, CNN correspondent KYUNG LAH recalls a day of terrible destruction and how her country was changed forever.
From the moment the ground shifted underneath me, I sensed something was different. As the Tokyo correspondent for CNN, I’d felt innumerable earthquakes in Japan, but on Ma rch 11, 2011, this quake felt unlike all the others I’d experienced.
I was in the subway, shooting a light feature story. At 2:46pm, I felt the earth move. The vending machines rattled on the concrete. The electronic signs creaked overhead. And then I heard a gasp of panic. I turned to see a middle-aged passenger leaning against the subway wall. She was gripping another woman, hunching down, but looking at me with a face frozen with fear.
The Japanese pride themselves as a culture of emotional self-restraint and decorum. I had rarely ever seen a flicker of emotion on a Japanese public street from passers-by, especially during an earthquake. This woman's face told me this was a disaster.
I had only begun to understand the power of the earthquake, tsunami and the resulting Fukushima nuclear meltdown that would alter modern Japan.
One year on, and the disaster’s power is now fully understood across the world, thanks in large part to the incredible footage shot on mobile phones by those caught at its epicentre.
In Japan every person has at least one mobile phone, and when the tsunami tore across its north eastern coast, thousands pulled out a device from their pockets and started filming, making last year's disaster one of the most recorded in history.
This week I met 16 year old Mao Takahashi, who used his camera to record the moment the tsunami struck his neighbourhood in Ishinomaki.
It has been viewed more than two million times on YouTube. A blue car rushes by in the raging brown water. Moments later a whole family house is carried down the centre of the flooded street before an even more frightening sight: a young man trapped in the rising water clinging to a telephone wire.
Takahashi said he did not think about what he was doing or that he might be recording a piece of history. 'I was simply panicking,' he explained.
In Takahashi's case, what his video doesn't show is the most important part of his story: he stopped recording, removed his clothes and waded into the frigid waters, which had subsided as the tsunami retreated.
He then grabbed the young man clinging to the telephone wire and carried him back into his house. He doesn't know what happened to the man, other than he survived.
Takahashi and his family are now living in temporary housing and their future is still uncertain; he doesn't know where they will finally end up. He still likes to look at the video that's still on his camera, even though it shows the fury of that traumatising day. "It has a happy ending for me," he said.
But for so many people in the devastated coastal regions, there was no such happy ending. Amid the many stories of heroism, there are also those of regret and deep unspoken sorrow.
Fumiko Suzuki is a nurse at Takata Hospital in Rikuzentakata, which was completely destroyed. CNN met her a year ago, right after the tsunami hit. She was in shock then, as she recounted how she left bedridden patients to drown in their hospital beds. “The patients couldn’t walk,” she said a year ago. “I looked out and the wave was as high as the fourth floor window. “’I’m sorry,’ I told the patient, and I ran upstairs. It is the biggest regret I have.”
Today, Suzuki is working at the temporary building that’s now the city’s hospital. She was set to retire this year, but says she lost her home and relatives in the disaster. She sees little joy in giving up what’s left in her life. “One year isn’t enough to heal,” she says. “My job is to be with people and share their pain.” Without the survivors’ personal sacrifice and determination to stay and rebuild, she says, the town will simply disappear.
Rikuzentakata’s entire downtown was gutted by the tsunami, at an estimated cost of US $1.6 billion. Time is in short supply for the town’s mayor, Futoshi Toba. While the town has successfully cleared away much of the rubble, the shells of many of the larger structures still stand.
The mayor has laid out an 8 year reconstruction plan and recently secured funding from Tokyo. That he himself lost his wife in the disaster is a source of constantly returning pain. He still expects to hear her voice when he wakes in the morning. He still anticipates that she’ll help their two young boys get dressed for school. Alone, he drives his children to their schools, two structures elevated above the tsunami-devastated downtown, which is why the boys are alive. He doesn’t like to drive by his house, where his wife perished. He doesn’t like to see it, he says, unless he has to.
Toba’s only respite is that there is so much work for him to do as a single father and the mayor of Rikuzentakata that he has little time to grieve. “My job as mayor takes precedence to being a father right now. I don't have time to be alone. I don’t have time to feel sad or cry, which may mentally help me survive right now,” he says. “It is hard for me to live without the person who was supposed to always be with me. I feel her telling me to work hard for this town.”
One year on, there are also voices of anger and protest. The town of Tomioka is inside the government-mandated evacuation zone. But that hasn't stopped Naoto Matsumura, 52, a life-long resident and fifth generation farmer, from refusing to heed the mandatory evacuation since the nuclear meltdown. "I'm full of rage," says Matsumura. "That's why I'm still here. I refuse to leave and let go of this anger and grief. I weep when I see my hometown. The government and the people in Tokyo don't know what's really happening here."
His defiance began with a simple desire to feed the animals on his farm. The government evacuated 78,000 residents around the exploding plant without a plan to rescue pets and valuable livestock. As Matsumura began to feed his own animals, the neighbourhood's desperate cats and dogs started showing up. He started to feed them too and decided he couldn't leave them behind to die. When Matsumura ran out of food, he slipped out of the zone, bought dog and cat food, and then snuck back into town.
Animal carcasses litter the zone. "It's shameful," says Yasunori Hoso with United Kennel Club Japan. "We kept asking the government to rescue these animals from the beginning of the disaster. There must have been a way to rescue the people and the animals at the same time following the nuclear disaster at Fukushima."
Last December, the government allowed animal rights groups like UKC Japan to enter the exclusion zone and rescue any surviving animals. Hoso entered with his members, carrying cages and food. On one of those days, Hoso's group approached a house. A six-week-old female puppy lay dead in the living room. From the back of the house, the UKC volunteers heard weak barking. The puppy's two brothers were still alive, hiding in another part of the house. The volunteers rounded up the puppies and their mother.
Those dogs now reside at the UKC Japan shelter near Tokyo. 250 dogs and 100 cats, all from the exclusion zone, live there in cramped cages. UKC Japan, which survives on donations, says it has tracked down 80% of the owners. But that hasn't meant the animals can reunite with them. Shelters and temporary apartment housing have not allowed the owners to live with their pets, Hoso said. The owners can't live with their animals because they are homeless themselves.
Matsumura hopes the anniversary of the disaster will see the international community remembering the risks of nuclear energy. "You see what can happen. US, Russia, Japan - this is the third nuclear accident, the third time something we created ended up hurting us. This is the third time, but we haven't learned our lesson yet."
He lives without electricity and gets water from a nearby well. He slips out of the exclusion zone only for food and then returns to feed any animals he can. He's been tested for radiation contamination, and results show his body is "completely contaminated," he says. But he'll stay, he pledges, as the sole citizen of Tomioka, to keep tabs on the government. "We have to decontaminate this area or else this town will die. I will stay to make sure it's done. I want to die in my hometown."
For some, the best way to express their feelings over the tragedy, and the ongoing impact of the nuclear disaster, is through protest. I met a band known as The Scrap, whose punk-influenced favourite song screams in anger at the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the crippled Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant.
Its lead singer, Nobutaka Takahashi, who lived just a few miles from the plant itself, says he has lost his home and his job, and feels betrayed. "My family far apart, looks up at the same sky, shattered by earthquake and betrayal. There is no such thing as the truth," said Takahashi, sharing the lyrics of the song. "I can't go home," he said. "I want to tell people the pain, sadness and isolation I feel because I can't go home."
However, if anyone embodies the fighting narrative of Japan’s year, it is Homare Sawa. The 33 year old captain of the country’s national women’s soccer team led the underdogs to an unlikely triumph: beating the United States at the World Cup in a made-for-TV, David-versus-Goliath tale.
'We fought for ourselves and for Japan,” said Sawa, looking back at the tournament. Sawa says their coach showed the team images of the tsunami-devastated towns before the matches.
'It was hard to believe the images were of Japan. I became very sad, even though it was right before our matches. The images urged us to move forward as a team and we strongly felt that we had to get to the finals,” she said.
As the team beat bigger and faster rivals in the World Cup, the final loomed against the formidable US favourites. Across Japan, fans watched in the early morning hours, crying and screaming as the team emerged victorious.
Now preparing for the Olympics, Sawa, who was recently crowned FIFA’s female player of the year, acknowledges that the win inspired Japanese fans. “I want to communicate the importance of having a goal,” she says. “It’s easy for people to want to see results quickly, but it takes time. I’d encourage them to keep at it.”
After a year facing up to some brutally tough challenges, it’s advice that her country is certainly taking to heart.
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