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Shimada, Iwasaki look back on 2011 Japan quake

June 12, 2012


Japanese artist Tsugako Shimada and her friend and translator, Tomoko Iwasaki, were fortunate.

When an earthquake in March 2011 spawned a tsunami that ravaged Sendai, Japan and damaged three nuclear reactors from the country’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant, Iwasaki was living in Tokyo, and Shimada was living in the nearby Kanagawa prefecture. Both said damage to their homes was minimal and they were outside the evacuation zone for Fukushima Daiichi’s nuclear fallout.

“Right now, Tokyo is stable,” Iwasaki said. “We’re getting less radiation, but still we are very cautious. There are still many families living in my (area) and (Shimada’s area) that have evacuated. We were told in the near future, five years or 10 years, Tokyo will be hit by a big earthquake. We were scared, but we can’t tell when it will come. We learned a lot (from) this experience.”

While visiting Starkville for Shimada’s art exhibit at the Greater Starkville Development Partnership’s gallery, Shimada and Iwasaki shared their experiences with the earthquake and the fallout from Fukushima.
At 83 years old, Shimada’s perspective on the disaster is rare — she remembers the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of World War II.

“When the bomb hit Hiroshima, it was shaped like a mushroom,” Shimada, as translated by Iwasaki, said. “This time was (different), because (the radiation from Fukushima) was invisible.”

Shimada said her primary memory of the war was evacuating to the mountains to escape other bombs from Allied planes, which burned her home. Her parents have also told her stories about the 1923 Kanto earthquake that happened before she was born, she said, but from what she saw on television, the 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami was the worst she has seen in her lifetime.

When the quake hit at 2:46 p.m., Shimada said she was at home in Kanagawa, where the shocks were not as strong as elsewhere.

“It was big, but at first it didn’t feel like a big earthquake,” Shimada said. “Nothing fell down (from my shelves.)”

Iwasaki said she and her sister were shopping in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward, on the eighth floor of its Keio Department Store. Tokyo buildings are designed absorb shock from earthquakes by swaying with the seismic waves, she said, so the swaying on the eighth floor was intense.

Glass broke. Elevators stopped. People hid under and held onto tables, Iwasaki said, and some were crying and shouting. A man nearby took pictures of the shaking with his cell phone, she said, and when the shaking stopped, he became others’ link to the outside world.

“At first I (thought,) ‘Oh, this is a (major) earthquake hitting the Tokyo area,” Iwasaki said. “We knew from him a tsunami was coming ... so (we were) scared.”

By the time Iwasaki and her sister evacuated, she said, several people were already on their way home. With the trains disabled, she said, many faced a long walk.

“The highways were jammed,” Iwasaki said. “Walking was faster. Public telephones, you could use, but cell phones, no. I was very fortunate that I could stay overnight at my sister’s house because she lives nearby — about a 15-minute walk from the (nearest train) station — but other people had to stay overnight in the train station, school, city hall and places of that sort. Soon after, limited bus service was resumed, and by around midnight, limited train service resumed.”

In the days after the tsunami, Iwasaki said, only half the evacuees in Tokyo were displaced by the tsunami — the other half were evacuating from Fukushima Daiichi’s fallout.

Many shortages struck: electricity shortages, food shortages and shortages of other basic supplies like toilet paper. Iwasaki said she had two weeks’ worth of supplies stored because she typically buys in bulk, but not everyone was as well-prepared. A younger generation, she said, had never experienced such shortages or periodical, planned blackouts like the ones in the wake of Fukushima Daiichi.

Power shortages also hurt the economy, she said. Large industrial plants, such as Toyota, continued to operate Monday through Sunday, she said, but on a limited basis to save power. Other plants which made parts for such companies were also damaged, she said, limiting supplies of adequate materials.

She said the power shortage began a national dialogue in Japan on alternatives to nuclear power. Many urged the government to shut down at-risk nuclear reactors, but when the government did so, she said, many of the same people were pushing to turn them back on.

“We have to find some other means, like wind (or) solar,” Iwasaki said, “but (those are) not enough yet. A factory like Toyota, a big factory, needs lots of power.”

Shimada said her daughter, Chizuko, volunteered for cleanup in the Sendai area about half a year after the tsunami; before then, the area was unsafe for all but the most experienced volunteers. To this day, people are still cleaning debris in Sendai, she said, and the damage looks like that of an atomic bomb.

“People suffering from the tsunami were very thankful for the volunteers, so she wants to go again,” Shimada said. “Half of the places hit by the tsunami were flattened. The American government was the first to respond to the earthquake/tsunami disaster, and the Japanese people were very grateful for the help.”

There is more to recovery than cleanup, Shimada said.
“The people who have suffered from the tsunami or nuclear plant (fallout), they (may) have to wait many years for a job,” Shimada said. “(In) one year or two years, we cannot recover. It may take half a century.”

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