Thursday, March 17, 2011

Growing human cost in Japan

Lost life after lost life, the growing human cost of the magnitude 9 earthquake and massive tsunami is becoming clearer by the day. Official figures suggest more than 14,000 may be either dead or missing, but it may be many days before the full picture emerges.


Town and villages all along the north-east coast of Japan have been wiped from the map leaving either a flat wasteland or piles or rubble. Japanese troops and rescue workers sift through the wreckage daily. Cars, boats, piles of wood and twisted metal are strewn across vast stretches of land. Sniffer dogs find the occasional survivor, but search and rescue teams are mostly finding the dead. Every day more victims are being dragged from the rubble and being boxed up in anonymous coffins, adding to a growing statistic [BBC]. Many people may not be found. Thousands are believed to have been washed out to see as the massive tsunami retreated.

For those who have survived, there is not the despair that might be expected. Many speak of not being able to locate loved ones, missing mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. But there are few tears. No images of distress or grief. Many may still be in shock. The grief may come as days pass and it becomes clear that their relatives and friends will never come home.

Few miracles

There are miracle stories. One 83 year old woman spoke of her escape from the tsunami by cycling away on her bicycle [CNN]. A 60 year old man Hiromitsu Shinkawa was discovered clinging to the roof of his house more than 15 km out to sea [BBC]. Shinkawa told his rescuers that the tsunami had hit as he and his wife returned home to gather some possessions after the earthquake, and that his wife was swept away. She is still missing.

Most had not been able to out run the tsunami however. Those that survived had made it to higher ground or to the roofs of stronger buildings, or else they had been beyond the reach of the tsunami which swept up to 10 km inland.

Some had been out of town and return to their shattered homes later. Little was left. No possessions, no car, and in so many cases, no family. But there is a resolve to carry on and to rebuild.

Altruism in face of adversity

Amid the rubble there are no signs of looters. In so many similar disasters around the world, criminals take advantage of the situation and plunder the homes of the victims. But this is Japan, a country proud of its low crime rate and high morals. Despite shortages of supplies customers queued patiently for hours outside the few shops open in quake stricken Sendai. There have been no reports of stealing or looting, even from amongst the rubble.

The Japanese are held together in solidarity and even news crews are offered a warm reception with offerings of food despite the scarce supplies. The contrast of altruism even in such adversity has surprised much of the western media who are more used to reporting on the looting and chaos seen in places like Chile after its massive earthquake or in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in the US [Telegraph].

Nuclear fears

Despite the positive spirit amongst many, there is a growing concern over the threat from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Many people are frustrated at the lack of information concerning radiation levels and some believe their government is not telling them the whole story.

While many foreigners are already beginning to leave the country, but for many Japanese stranded in the devastated regions in the north-east of the country there is nowhere to run. Authorities have told people to stay indoors for those living up to 30 km from the plant, but even those well outside the exclusion zone are making the decision to leave.

In Tokyo radiation levels have risen to more than 20 times above normal on occasion. It has cause concern amongst many residents who have virtually stripped stores of food and supplies. Petrol stations are running short on fuel and there have been blackouts across the city as the country struggles to provide enough power.


Many countries have advised their nationals to leave the country including Britain who have already laid on special buses to transport people out of the Sendai region. The British government is also chartering planes to fly from Tokyo to Hong Kong to help Britons who want to leave Japan.

The Foreign Office said there would be no charge for Britons "directly affected" by the tsunami, but a charge of £600 would otherwise apply. A statement said, "We continue to advise against all non essential travel to Tokyo and north eastern Japan. British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area." [BBC]

For those in nearby countries there is no such advice. However, expats in Beijing have been told to continue to monitor the situation closely. "We are receiving a number of enquiries about the nuclear incident in Japan and radiation levels in China.  We are following developments closely and continually assessing our advice to British nationals," the FCO said in a statement.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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