Saturday, February 17, 2018

Japan reflects on disasters that reverberate in economy, psyche

TOKYO — Sirens blared, trains stopped and mourners bowed their heads Sunday as Japan marked the one-year anniversary of a twinned disaster that killed just over 19,000 people and set off a nuclear emergency.

At a theater in Tokyo, Japanese Emperor Akihito, 22 days after heart bypass surgery, stood for a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m. — the precise moment when one year ago a 9.0-magnitude earthquake pulsed 80 miles off Japan's northeastern coast.

In the many small towns devastated by the quake and the resulting tsunami wave — 45 feet high, in some cases — survivors dressed in black and laid flowers in spots where loved ones had died, places that now look like empty construction sites.

And at a baseball stadium in Fukushima, the prefecture (or state) where a radiation-spewing nuclear plant forced the evacuation of 90,000 people, antinuclear protesters gathered to speak out about an energy source that has turned into one of Japan's most divisive, and unresolved, issues.

One year later, the mega-disaster — 3/11, as it's known here — remains a present crisis more so than a part of history. It left many jobless and homeless. It caused at least $200 billion in damage to ports, roads, buildings and other infrastructure, straining an already stagnant economy. Government bickering delayed the passage of reconstruction budgets, and authorities' much-criticized response to the nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Dai-ichi facility led to a breakdown in public trust.

The disillusionment with government shows in the current debate over nuclear power, where many local communities refuse to allow the restart of reactors on their shorelines. At the moment, just two of Japan's 54 reactors are in operation, a sharp reversal in a country that depended on nuclear power for one-third of its energy.

The reversal comes with a cost, because utility companies have been forced to import fossil fuels to maintain a reliable energy supply, potentially leading to higher bills for consumers.

More than 300,000 people still live as evacuees, either in temporary housing units, in hotels, or in homes of relatives. A recent Asahi Shimbun survey of evacuees found that 40 percent had lost their jobs or sources of income. Separate surveys show higher levels of depression and insomnia among survivors.

"It's probably impossible to make life comfortable right now," said Yoshinori Sato, a worker at the city hall in tsunami-hit Ishinomaki. "Even I suffer from insomnia, though I didn't lose as much as most people here. I have to take sleeping pills just to fall asleep. Even drinking sake doesn't help."

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