At exactly 15 minutes to three in the afternoon, on Friday, March 11, 2011, Japanese time, in the moments just preceding the 9-magnitude earthquake that in the space of three minutes would wreak more havoc on Japan than that country has experienced since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Natsuko Komura was riding a horse along the Pacific coast in the northeastern city of Sendai. Rie Wakabayashi, 36, sat in a bus in Tokyo bound for a business meeting in the high-end Roppongi Hills complex. Chris Nixon, a 35-year-old American employed in the financial services sector, was working from his home in Chiba prefecture, next to Tokyo, his new wife, Aya, nearby.
In those same moments, 125 km off Japan’s east coast and 10 km beneath the ocean surface, the Pacific plate abruptly dove under its tectonic neighbour—the North American plate atop which northern Japan sits. That geological event, the consequence of eons’ worth of pent up energy, tore a gap into the Earth’s crust 400 km long and 160 km wide and pushed Honshu, Japan’s long main island, almost three metres. So gargantuan was the shift, scientists later calculated, that it rejigged the position of Earth’s axis by 16 cm and sped the planet’s rotation up by 1.6 microseconds, imperceptibly shortening our days. It was the largest quake in Japan’s history and tied for fourth largest in the world since 1900.
Just as Wakabayashi felt the ground move, then begin to shudder violently for more than two minutes, her transit bus had rolled under a Tokyo overpass; so intense was the quake that she feared it would collapse and crush her. Around 370 km north of her, in Sendai, Komura jumped off her horse, ran to her car and sped away from the coast. “The traffic lights had stopped working and there was massive congestion—rows and rows of cars,” she later told the BBC. In Chiba, Nixon and Aya stepped outside their home and held onto an outer wall.
Lebanese national Carole Chemali, a student at Tokyo’s Rikkyo University, told Maclean’s she’d never felt anything like it. “I ran under the table. Then it started coming in waves, and the building was squeezed. You could hear it cracking. It feels like being punched. You want it to stop so badly, it’s all you want,” she said. “My Taiwanese friend was crying, and screaming. I was yelling, ‘Stop!, Stop!’ and praying.”
Not far away in Urayasu, east of Tokyo, the Earth’s movement twisted sidewalks with a grotesque licorice ease. Across the region, high rises swayed, looming left and right, for a full three minutes. Up and down Japan’s eastern coast, fires broke out. Engulfed in flames, an oil refinery in Ishihara, a city in Chiba, became the picture of Dante’s hell.
The temblor prompted the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, based in Hawaii, to issue alerts in regions stretching from Japan to Oregon and California, and triggered similar warnings to sound in over 50 countries and territories around the Pacific Ocean. A radio announcer reporting live on the quake from northern Japan described ships and flimsy seaside structures being dragged out to sea, a phenomenon that precedes a major tsunami. Within about an hour, a swell of ocean water displaced by that great tectonic shift washed over northeast Japan, in some places reaching 10 m high, equivalent to a three-storey building. In Sendai, a port city of a million people that’s also known, for its famed greenery, as the City of Trees, a black and shapeless mass of sea oozed over the shore, erasing the landscape.
Amid wailing sirens, squat fishing vessels somersaulted inland upon an incoming wave travelling at speeds of 800 km/hour, fast as a jet liner. The rushing waters collected soil, the matchstick skeletons of old post-and-beam homes and burning buildings, amassing all, still ablaze and smoking, inland over rice fields, farmsteads and rambling villages. Video footage from north of Sendai in the port town of Miyako, in Iwate prefecture, showed a torrent of furious white water effortlessly picking up automobiles, the sound of their eerie, water-logged collisions like the click-clack of mah-jong tiles spread across a table.
In Natori, just south of Sendai, where a single line of trees stood sentinel between land and sea, the wave crudely ripped in and burst the Natori River through the river’s seams, flooding the city with water now the colour and consistency of pitch. The sea hurled cars, boats and trains into fields and buildings and obliterated roads and highways. Four commuter trains and a ship carrying 81 people wrenched from its anchor lines disappeared completely, and fighter jets were tossed like model planes atop hangars. At places along the Miyagi coast, some waves penetrated as far as 10 km inland. In satellite images captured over Sendai, red shipping containers can be seen scattered like a game of pick-up sticks a kilometre in from the coast. As it spread, the rising water destroyed homes by the thousands. In a country known for manufacturing miniature Potemkin cities, only to film them trampled and demolished by men in elaborate monster suits, here was a diabolical, awful echo.
Elsewhere in Japan, people watched the onslaught of water in mute disbelief. In the major city of Nagoya, 260 km west of Tokyo, hundreds congregated around TV sets in cafés and electronics stores. There, beamed onto the screens, images of Sendai were suddenly displaced by live helicopter footage of the tsunami slamming into the coast. The camera followed people on the ground as they ran or drove frantically away from the rushing water. Until the last moment: before they were swallowed up, the cameramen pulled their lenses away. (The ghastly footage has not been re-broadcast.) The viewers remained calm: watching but resigned, strong, stoic. No one said a word, no one pulled their neighbour’s arm, no one appeared to react.
Despite the destruction, many Japanese living inland had little idea what the earthquake had wrought. In Japan, where quakes are as common as bad weather, many people keep tennis shoes at the office and walk home once a year to memorize the route. The Toyota Motor Corporation’s Tokyo headquarters maintains a three-day supply of food and water and regularly conducts earthquake safety drills. On Wakabayashi’s bus, some passengers began watching television on their mobile phones to learn what had happened. Still intent on making her business meeting, on the 31st floor of a high-rise in trendy Roppongi Hills, Wakabayashi, a paralegal, hailed a cab. She soon discovered the building evacuated, office workers huddled outside in the cold wind. An open Starbucks provided warm coffee, and people lined up in an orderly fashion. With cellphone networks overloaded, queues also formed at public telephones. Soon, people were sitting in the streets.
And still the aftershocks that typically follow powerful earthquakes continued—83 in the 21 hours immediately after the 9-magnitude temblor. Chemali and her friend had stepped outside after the initial quake but had then returned indoors. When an aftershock struck, Chemali says, “I was in the bathroom. I ran out, half-naked.”
Meanwhile, Nixon and Aya huddled at home, drawing up an inventory of supplies that included water, canned goods, a full tank of gas and heating oil (with little central heating, most residents of Japan depend on high-efficiency propane space heaters). The Nixons’ electricity and Internet remained up, but there was no phone. Indeed, the loss of telephone and cellphone communications posed a significant problem for Japanese seeking news from relatives. (On Friday evening, Google launched a person-finder application—an open database that permitted users to record searchable updates.)
In the greater Tokyo area, shuttered rail and subway lines hobbled a city in which literally millions of commuters depend on mass transit each day. After about an hour and a half of waiting outside Roppongi Hills, Wakabayashi decided to head home. Finding the trains shut down, she hopped on a bus going to the busy commuter hub of Shibuya, in west Tokyo; what would normally have taken 15 minutes took over an hour. Approaching Shibuya the bus became enmeshed in a molasses of people, cars and transit buses surrounding the station.
Everywhere in metropolitan Tokyo, with its densely packed population of 30 million, the situation was the same. With traffic snarled, the streets grew thick with people. Wakabayashi was one, picking her way home through Tokyo’s complicated, circuitous streets using the GPS on her cellphone. Many stopped along the way at discount department stores to purchase cheap bicycles, sweaters for the unexpected cold, and to replace painful high heels with flat footwear. Shops and restaurants posted signs inviting passersby to use their toilets, and bakeries handed out free bread to marching commuters. At convenience stores, where the food sections grew empty as early as Friday night, the teenagers working behind the counters handed out free maps to commuters unsure of the way.
That night, the U.S. Navy ordered warships at Pearl Harbor to remain in port and ready to support rescue missions. In Tokyo, tens of thousands of people not lucky enough to work within walking distance of their homes found themselves sleeping at hastily organized shelters in train stations and schools, unable to communicate with loved ones.
In Sendai, which had borne the brunt of the tsunami, police said they found some 300 bodies among the rubble; 70,000 people had been evacuated to shelters. It was a death toll that would rise considerably. But the waters had left behind another legacy. Early that Friday evening, the Japanese government revealed that the Tokyo Electric Power Company was scrambling to contain a cooling issue at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex, located 250 km north of Tokyo, not far from the earthquake’s epicentre, and within the path of the tsunami.
In response, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the government had declared an emergency, but maintained there had been no radioactive leak. A little later, Tokyo Electric Power admitted that levels of cooling water had fallen inside Fukushima’s reactors, and that its nuclear fuel rods risked being exposed, opening the door to the potential for meltdown, when the core of a reactor overheats and melts, resulting in the escape of radiation. After initially evacuating several thousand residents from a two kilometre radius, the government now extended the area to three.
Not long after that, the government said radiation had indeed leaked from one of the Daiichi reactors. Over the coming days, the news was to follow a similar pattern of contradiction. Incredibly, the news was all about to get much worse.
Dawn broke on Saturday at 5:57 a.m. over a landscape obliterated by an unholy mixture of fire and water. Cities burned from Chiba, just east of Tokyo, to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, almost 500 km above the quake’s epicentre. Meanwhile, in the northeast, the map of Japan had been devoured by ocean. Half the population of Minamisanriku, a seaside town north of Sendai, had vanished—9,500 people—just a fraction of the 88,000 people the Kyodo News service said remained missing up and down the coast. “I saw the bottom of the sea when the tidal wave withdrew and houses and people were being washed out,” one Minamisanriku resident later recalled. “I couldn’t watch anymore.”
An hour and a half north of Minamisanriku, the coastal town of Kesennuma, which lately had been drenched in floodwater, now burned furiously. In Fukushima, a broken dam caused dozens of homes to be washed away. Aftershocks continued—a 6.2-magnitude quake hit Nagano and Niigata prefectures early Saturday morning, bringing landslides and avalanches and toppling wooden houses. “It really doesn’t get any worse than this—I’ve never seen anything so bad,” Patrick Fuller of the International Red Cross Federation said in Otsuchi, a coastal town 200 km north of Sendai. “There are just kilometres of wasteland, twisted metal and people picking though it all for bodies. It’s a scene from hell, absolutely nightmarish.”
Soon, the stories began to flow. Japanese media began broadcasting interviews with survivors, including one man in his 30s or 40s with a black eye, bruises, scratches and cuts on his face and hands. The man told how, when he was pulled underwater, the image of his family flashed before him; he thought, “I’ve got to survive for them.” He survived, but his family remained missing.
In many places no rescuers came, and relief work was still days away, delayed by impassable roads and highways. Yet Saturday morning revealed a Japan different from that which had weathered the Kobe quake of 1995, when some 6,000 people died but the government refused offers of international aid. This time Japan’s foreign minister announced that 25 countries had offered assistance, including rescue teams and relief supplies.
The U.S. Navy dispatched seven ships toward Japan and sent aircraft and helicopters from its controversial base on the southern island of Okinawa. Japan’s military, largely neutered after the Second World War and called the Japan Self-Defense Forces, mobilized thousands of troops, hundreds of planes and dozens of ships, launching a massive relief operation.
Six million homes—10 per cent of households—were said to be without electricity. Nixon and Aya drove to Tokyo, bypassing closed highways. There they picked up Aya’s wedding dress and visited friends offering Costco goods. Indeed, stores were running out of food, water and gasoline as refugees arrived from the northeast.
Some 215,000 people were in emergency shelters in the affected areas in eastern and northern Japan, where, like much of rural Japan, the overwhelming majority of residents are 65 or older. Meanwhile, rescuers struggled to pull survivors from collapsed homes. Always looming in the background was the spectre of the Fukushima nuclear reactors.
Late Saturday afternoon, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Agency reported that a small amount of radioactive Cesium had escaped into the atmosphere, a leak that officials admitted could well have been caused by the melting of a fuel rod, and Tokyo Electric Power described a hydrogen blast at Fukushima as injuring four of its workers and ripping the roof off a reactor. Puffs of smoke spewed from the plant. Alerts carried on television warned nearby residents to remain inside, switch off air conditioners and not to drink tap water. Those who had to venture out were told to cover up exposed skin and don masks and wet towels. Soon officials announced that one worker had died and that the remaining three were suffering radiation sickness. A government spokesperson asked people to evacuate a 10-km radius; soon that was extended to 20 km. So dire was the situation that officials quickly resigned themselves to cooling one of the containment structures with sea water, essentially writing it off, and made plans to distribute iodine tablets to ward off radiation sickness. At least three people randomly selected from evacuees exiting Futaba-machi, a town not far from the Fukushima plant, tested positive for radiation exposure.
That night, in a daring high-seas rescue, Japanese naval and coastguard helicopters set upon a missing ship, airlifting all 81 workers aboard to safety.
On Sunday, Natsuko Komura, the rider who had abandoned her horse to escape the Sendai seaside, returned in search of the animal. What she found was devastation. “Words fail me because there is nothing here,” she told the BBC, standing in a daze amid flattened houses. “The things that are supposed to be here, everything is gone.”
Even a bright spot amid the destruction—the rescue 15 km from shore of 60-year-old Hiromitsu Shinkawa, floating on the roof of his ruined home—only seemed to illustrate how low Japan had sunk in two days. Shinkawa and his wife had fled their house in Minamisoma, south of Sendai, but returned home to collect belongings after the earthquake. Swept up in the subsequent tsunami, he became separated from his wife yet survived. Picked up after the Japanese destroyer Chokai spotted him waving a piece of red cloth, Shinkawa drank some water and burst into tears.
Increasingly, there was the sense that anything was possible—as long as it was also destructive and beyond human control. After a period of quiet, the Shinmoedake volcano on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, almost 1,000 km from Tokyo, chose Sunday to begin coughing ash and rock thousands of feet into the air, shattering windows four miles away. It was the volcano’s most significant activity in half a century.
By Sunday, Sendai had been transformed into the headquarters of a makeshift yet massive disaster relief centre. The Defense Ministry dispatched 50,000 Japan Self-Defense Forces personnel, 190 aircraft and 25 ships. Military personnel quickly commandeered Sendai’s eight-floor city hall. At the same time, a team specializing in radioactive contamination now manned a command post near the Fukushima reactors. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported Japan had now evacuated 140,000 people from around the reactors, where a 6.3-magnitude aftershock with an epicentre not 150 km away was felt that morning. And relief teams from two of Japan’s traditional adversaries—China and South Korea—were soon due to arrive. The country needed all the help it could get: SOS distress signs had begun to appear, scrawled into playgrounds, the roofs of public buildings or fashioned from bed sheets, across the northeast.
The uncertainty began spreading Sunday into even the most quotidian corners of human life—light switches and neon signs. Due to the ongoing challenges in Fukushima, and in order to prevent massive power disruptions, Tokyo Electric Power announced plans to institute rolling blackouts around Japan—even in Tokyo. Hachiko Square, the glitzy vista of moving billboards west of Shibuya Station, would be dimmed. It matched the city’s grim mood. Stores were closed, transit remained largely suspended, office towers were half lit, and the lights on the iconic Ginza shopping strip had been extinguished.
Ambient noise came from the emergency choppers flying above. Now that gasoline sales in the city were limited to 20 litres per car, few vehicles were on the road. Store shelves were stripped bare of most goods, and shoppers wandered the city with bags full of ramen and batteries. In Tokyo, people were bracing for a forecasted 7.5-magnitude quake; no one knew if the city could handle it. Meanwhile, the winds shifted at night, blowing south from Fukushima.
Andy Lunt, owner of a Tokyo izakaya—a traditional Japanese tavern—told Maclean’s of the fishmongers at the famed Tsukiji market who’d told him to buy all he could, so unlikely did they think their return would be the next day, given the fuel shortages. Milk and other farm produce normally supplied by the northeast had dried up. People queued for hours at grocery stores, as they began hoarding batteries, diapers, toilet paper and kerosene, not to mention food.
In Chiba, Chris Nixon and his wife, Aya, had become so concerned about the Fukushima nuclear reactors, the constant aftershocks, and the impending privation that they decided to drive west toward Nagoya. “You’re talking about a metropolitan area of 20 million people with a limited amount of heating, more importantly a limited amount of just daily supplies and logistical support that need to occur,” Nixon told Maclean’s at the time. “That’s a dangerous situation.” With Tokyo behind them, Nixon gassed his car up near Ebina. “They filled ‘er up, noted the oil needed changing, and took care of it right on the spot,” he told friends.
Most foreigners had fled. The debate surrounding whether to stay or to leave Tokyo raged for days, particularly among the remaining outsiders. Bruno Marques, a Portugal-raised architecture student, described the situation for Maclean’s: “You start packing, then someone says, ‘Wait, the radiation hasn’t hit yet—it’s more dangerous in the train than it is here.’ We missed the train because of that debate. At the end of the day, each person has to rely on himself. Because another earthquake might happen, and you might die here. You have to decide for yourself.”
Of particular concern was the possibility of a radiation cloud blowing in from Fukushima and descending on Tokyo—and the confusing information. “You can’t trust the news,” said Marques. “Each source says something different—10-km radius, 20, 16? We don’t know. Plus the French and Spanish embassies called people yesterday and told them to get as far as possible from Tokyo.”
Panic became a potent impulse in the quake’s aftermath. One young man staying at a University of Tokyo dorm woke up his neighbours at 4 a.m. to tell them the evacuation radius around the Fukushima reactors had been enlarged; within two minutes an Austrian student had booked a flight home and fled. Strangers threw tantrums, others hunted for iodine to ward off radiation sickness. “More than radiation, more than earthquakes, I’m running from the panic,” said Marques. “Every day we wake up to an earthquake, to anxiety, fear.”
But among many Japanese, stoicism prevailed. Paul Nolasco, who works in Tokyo as a Toyota Motor Corporation spokesman, compared the attitude to “fatalism.” One root of the Japanese sense of calm was a deep, though not blind, faith in the inherent good of the state, Chemali said: “If their government says everything’s okay, they will think everything’s okay. If they hear on TV that something is going to happen, they do something about it.”
Even among Japanese, however, the mood on Sunday appeared subtly to change. “The problem here is a deeply traumatized populace,” said John Harris, a Canadian ex-pat living in rural Onjuku, Chiba prefecture, 75 km from Tokyo. “On top of the trauma of an earthquake, a tsunami, now a nuclear disaster—it’s terrifying. The mood shifted over the last 48 hours. People had been calm, but I felt a change. People who had been coping, had been ramped up, began to freak out.”
Up north, closer to the quake’s epicentre, news reports described customers at the few shops that remained open queuing without pushing or shoving. Yet another attitude was also emerging. In a country not given to public displays of emotion, television now crackled with images of reunited family members weeping at the sight of those they’d presumed lost, hugging with abandon. It was little wonder: land lines and cellphones remained down, forcing people to wander from shelter to shelter seeking loved ones and posting hand-written signs about their own well-being.
Late on Sunday night, Naoto Kan, the Japanese prime minister and the fifth man to hold that office in five years, captured the sense of moment when he compared the present crisis to the end of the Second World War. “I think that the earthquake, tsunami and the situation at our nuclear reactors makes up the worst crisis in the 65 years since the war,” he said, adding: “If the nation works together, we will overcome.”
Monday morning Japan took the hit of a different kind of tsunami: the Tokyo Stock Exchange began to tank as soon as trading began, driven down by concerns about coming aftershocks and the state of the Fukushima nuclear reactors. It was a massive sell-off that wiped $287 billion off the Tokyo stock market, triggering a 6.2 per cent nosedive in the Nikkei stock average—the biggest single-day dip since the financial crisis.
Markets around the globe struggled with the ripple effect of the Japanese dive. In particular, European insurers with operations in Japan plunged on expectations of heavy losses. But rescue efforts in the face of financial havoc were soon to come. By midday, the Bank of Japan had announced an $84-billion injection into the economy, meant to keep the national banking system going even as many of the country’s businesses closed or stumbled on at limited capacity.
Eyes glued to the dipping stock market figures were soon torn away by more bad news. At around 11 a.m., reports spread of a second hydrogen explosion—the first had occurred Saturday afternoon—at the Fukushima plant. Authorities said that the blast, which injured 11 workers, had not damaged the reactor’s inner containment vessel, which would increase the potential for meltdown. But what wasn’t immediately clear was the severe damage the explosion had done to the cooling pumps of another reactor. It was emblematic of Japan’s challenges that this news was only overshadowed by reports of yet another earthquake in Sendai.
Hours into the day, word arrived that the Japanese government had asked the U.S. for assistance with cooling the nuclear reactors. By Monday evening, ominous rumours circulated of a possible core meltdown at Fukushima’s reactor No. 2.
It was all almost too much to bear. Certainly it was for Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who described the disaster as “tembatsu“—divine punishment—brought down because Japan’s politics “is tainted with egoism and populism,” according to Kyodo News. Although Ishihara said he felt sorry for the victims, he also declared, “We need to use the tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time.” (He later apologized.)
As the sun set once again on Japan, news of the latest miraculous survival provided some comfort. Rescue teams had extracted a four-month-old baby girl from a pile of shattered glass, wood and rocks, three days after she was swept from her parents’ arms by the tsunami. Still wrapped in a pink wool bear suit, the girl found herself again in the arms of her parents, two survivors of the killer wave.
More astonishing tales of survival came Tuesday, when rescuers found a 70-year-old woman still alive in her house, four days after the tsunami had levelled most of the buildings around her. The septuagenarian, an Osaka fire department spokesman told the Associated Press, was suffering from hypothermia but was fully conscious.
That piece of good news could not prevent others from giving in to bitterness and panic. Reports that PM Kan was setting up a joint response headquarters with Tokyo Electric Power, and that he would personally lead operations in Fukushima, did nothing to quell a collective feeling of increasing distrust toward officials. “I don’t trust the government ministers when they say that it’s safe,” said one man.
Doubts deepened with reports of a third explosion at Fukushima, around 6 a.m., followed by yet more reassurances from Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano: “The possibility that a large amount of radiation has been released is low.” But hours later, foreign officials began hinting at the C-word: Chernobyl. “The order of gravity has changed,” said Andre-Claude Lacoste, president of France’s Nuclear Safety Authority, describing the incident as “at level six” on an international scale of zero to seven. The Chernobyl disaster ranked a seven.
At 10:30 a.m., Kan acknowledged in a televised speech that the radiation reading at Fukushima “seems high.” By the early afternoon, a no-fly zone was in place over a 30-km radius around the facility. Hours later, small amounts of radioactive substances could be detected throughout Tokyo. Long queues of people desperate to leave began developing at railway stations.
Japan was to experience three more shocks before the end of the day. The first came on Tuesday afternoon, when the Nikkei stock average closed 10.6 per cent down, having dropped as much as 16 per cent in two days, the worst single-day performance since 1987. The second hit at about 6 p.m., when reports spread of heavy radiation being released straight into the atmosphere due to a fire at Fukushima’s reactor No. 4. The third, reported after 10 p.m., was of two new aftershocks, one of them measuring 6.2 in magnitude, in the northeast and the Tokyo area.
As many Japanese prepared to attempt sleep in makeshift beds, the winds were blowing radioactive material toward the Pacific Ocean, away from Japan and other inhabited areas.
If only the wind could hold.