Even now, Japan’s 2011 earthquake remains an ongoing disaster

Yokosuka Naval Base as seen from Weather Hill.<br>Trevor Andersen/Stars and Stripes
Yokosuka Naval Base as seen from Weather Hill.

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — For military families living in Japan three years ago, the Great East Japan Earthquake is an historical life marker.

They recall it as vividly as where they were when the World Trade Center towers fell, or as a previous generation remembers when John F. Kennedy was shot.

There are still a few here that remember the low rumble growing stronger; the hulking destroyers and carriers bouncing in Yokosuka’s harbor like bathtub toys; the confusion as phone lines stopped working and trains stranded millions; the video of city fires raging and lives washed into the sea; the debris-filled skies; the radiation spikes; the warnings to remain indoors; and the on-again/off-again, quasi-evacuation effort that lasted for weeks.

But for most on Pacific bases today, all of that is just something tragic they heard about on television awhile back.

The average overseas tour is three years, meaning that few were here for the disaster, or for Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. military’s 20,000-servicemember aid effort.

Stars and Stripes spoke with several people around Yokosuka Naval Base, and for the most part, the tsunami and the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant were viewed with little current relevance. However, the disaster is very much an ongoing one. It may not be constantly on the minds of most in the Tokyo area — military or otherwise — but it continues to affect everyone living in Japan to some degree.

For one thing, the aftershocks aren’t over.

A 7.3-magnitude earthquake off the Japanese coast in October was actually an aftershock of the 9.0-magnitude March 2011 earthquake, the Japan Meteorological Agency said at the time. JMA officials noted that the sequence of adjustments spurred by the earthquake has tapered off, but likely won’t end entirely anytime soon.

Radiation testing is now commonplace in Japanese cities and U.S. military bases. Water supplies outside of the Fukushima region have tested safe since shortly after the disaster, according to data supplied by military and Japanese government officials.

However, the continued safety of water, and especially the food supply, isn’t a given. More than 300 tons of groundwater flow into the Fukushima reactor daily, where it becomes contaminated and flows into the ocean. Tokyo Electric Power Co., widely criticized during official investigations for misconduct and lack of transparency during the disaster, is still broadly mistrusted.

TEPCO admitted in February that it knew about record high measurements of strontium-90, a long-lasting isotope linked to bone cancer, for five months before notifying Japan’s nuclear regulator.

Those in the military community who were here in 2011, have a prior connection to Japan or have endured natural disasters elsewhere say they are probably more aware of the potential risks than more recent arrivals.

Military family members who spoke with Stars and Stripes say these facts don’t leave them unnecessarily fearful — natural disasters can occur all over the world. However, the circumstances here have made them a little more cautious, and to a degree, changed the way they live. They have also spurred several to volunteer their time and money to help those displaced by the disasters.

Family concerns

Elizabeth Walsh spent March 11, 2011, holed up in the New Sanno Hotel, watching the disaster unfold on television. Soon after, her husband deployed on the USS Mustin, partly in service to the unfolding relief mission. She and her three children would be without him until November.

Walsh tends to kid her friends about getting nervous when a small earthquake hits, which isn’t all that unusual in Japan.

“By the same token, whenever we have one a little bit bigger, I automatically go into a mode where I think, ‘Where’s our bags?’ ” Walsh said. “I feel like I’m prepared for the worst. I tend to have water ready. I make sure the car has gas.”

Following the 2011 earthquake, several U.S. military bases restricted gasoline sales to government vehicles. Off base, drivers waited hours for fuel.

Walsh also purchases her produce and meats from a delivery service that sources its products and certifies them as radiation-free. Japan revised its food safety standards in 2012 to test for very small traces of radioactive isotopes, at a standard 12 times stricter than U.S. allowances. However, it isn’t unusual to see trucks pull up near train stations, where they sell unsourced produce at unusually low prices. It’s also unclear where many restaurants obtain their food.

Walsh realizes she may be overly cautious. But with her fifth child on the way, she says it’s a matter of “better safe than sorry.”

Alice White-Yeomans, a Navy spouse who has lived in Japan most of her life, also takes precautions when feeding her family. Like many Japanese, she remains concerned about TEPCO’s trustworthiness regarding the Fukushima disaster’s ongoing impact.

Nevertheless, she is less worried about radiation than she is about the potential for a large natural disaster closer to Tokyo.

“People who were here are more concerned about it happening again,” White-Yeomans said.

In 2012, researchers at Tokyo University estimated there is a 70 percent chance that a 7.0-plus magnitude earthquake would strike the Tokyo region by 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Charlotte Mason wasn’t in Japan during the 2011 earthquake, but she found kinship with some of the survivors of the tsunami and radiological fallout, some of whom have settled near Yokosuka.

Mason is a native of Biloxi, Miss., which sustained massive damage following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“I think we should give back to those who have lost so much, because we have been blessed where we are in our current state.”

She sent her daughter Shelby, now 16, on a trip with a base youth group to help survivors in the affected areas.

Mason also volunteers with Helping Hands For Tohoku, an unofficial military spouses group that helps support more than 100 families living in temporary housing, as well as a day care center in the tsunami-stricken city of Ishinomaki.

Tohoku’s challenges

There are still 44,589 households living in prefabricated, temporary housing in the affected Tohoku region, according to February’s Japanese government statistics. An additional 59,461 households live in public housing or privately leased homes as a result of the disasters.

Some will be able to return to their former neighborhoods eventually, but many who lived in low-lying or irradiated areas will not.

Finding permanent homes elsewhere is slowed by Japan’s traditions of land ownership, said Kosuke Motani, chief senior economist for the Japan Research Institute. There are few large landowners, and many small owners don’t want to sell to the government, Motani said, because being a landowner is closely tied to personal identity.

Meanwhile, the region’s economic outlook remains grim. The combination of an aging population and increasing industrial automation made for fewer economic opportunities prior to the earthquake, Motani said. Afterward, that problem was exacerbated by wiping out the area’s fisheries.

“The tsunami has revealed problems that already existed,” Motani said.

Despite the challenges, there are a few positive signs, Japan’s minister for reconstruction, Takumi Nemoto, told reporters recently. The cleanup in many areas is mostly done, meaning more homes and business will be built soon.

“Starting from now, there will be many more cases of commencement of construction,” Nemoto said. “You’ll be able to see visible and tangible progress.”

While such statements are welcomed by many, day-to-day living remains difficult for survivors of the disaster, say those who have volunteered to help.

As some of the last military families who lived through the disaster prepare to leave Japan, they expressed wishes that incoming families learn more about what happened in 2011; and that they learn how much the ongoing situation affects everyone in Japan, even if it isn’t always readily apparent.

“It worries me that when I leave, who is going to take my place?” said Walsh, who helps take up collections for the survivors. “I would hope people pick up the cause and continue to help.”

Masako Sullivan, one of the founders of Helping Hands for Tohoku, still coordinates the group’s efforts from San Diego. Those willing to help with their time, monetary donations or care packages can contact her at helpinghands4tohoku@yahoo.com.

“When someone comes to me and asks me what they can do to help, I always say ‘The fact that you are thinking of them itself means a lot to them,” Sullivan said. “Donations become priceless gifts that give the victims courage and hope.”

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