News / Asia

Stoicism Amid Disaster: Japanese Region Quietly Grinds to a Halt

Evacuees gather in a gym in Koriyama, Japan
Evacuees gather in a gym in Koriyama, Japan

The Tohoku region of Japan is grinding to a halt. It is the area hardest hit by last Friday's magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the devastating tsunami that tremor generated, which, in turn, crippled a nuclear power that is now spewing radiation.

With transportation routes destroyed or disrupted, the precious reserves of supplies that survived the natural disaster are quickly disappearing. Even when the roads are patched, truck drivers may be fearful of venturing too close to the crippled nuclear power plant.

I'm based this week in what is supposed to be a safe distance away from the leaking reactors and steaming fuel rods, but radiation levels in Fukushima prefecture's two biggest cities were significantly above normal on Wednesday.

I have been here since Saturday, the day after the quake. Each passing day there are fewer and fewer restaurants and stores open. Those that still have their doors open have fewer items for sale.



Some eateries offer specials - such as the fermented bean curd curry I had for lunch Tuesday or the Yen 1,500 "Disaster Sushi Set" that has been my dinner twice this week. I admit I've chased the fish with a few cups of yet abundant sake (traditional rice wine) after particularly stressful reporting days.

Some meals this week have been merely onigiri, rice rolled into a ball and wrapped in seaweed. A couple of those at midday, washed down with a typical Japanese "energy drink" (a dose of vitamins in a healthy liquid jolt of caffeine and nicotine), have sustained me until late in the evening.

Most hotels are not fully functioning - some might have electricity but, for example, no running water.

Here at the Route Inn, there is minor quake damage to the pavement. In the lobby is a certificate attesting to the building's high earthquake building standards.

The vending machines in the hotel and elsewhere in Koriyama will likely be totally bare by Friday. (And I'll be without my liquid energy boosts). We have not had any cleaning service for a couple of days. A skeleton staff remains. They spend much time answering phone calls and telling the walk-ins, including the newly homeless, evacuees and journalists, that there are no more rooms at the inn. In reality, the hotel seems practically empty. Every day, myself and another American reporter are asked when we intend to leave. They seem eager to shut down the place, but reluctant to kick us out.

Without a hotel we would be totally reliant on the kindness of strangers to take us in or we might have to seek refuge in already over-crowded refugee centers, which we have visited to interview the displaced.

With no gasoline available and after the mass exodus of evacuees from the 20-kilometer safety zone around the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant, there are fewer vehicles on the roads each day. It is still possible to get a taxi. They are fueled by liquid propane gas and drivers assure us that reserves in the storage tanks, at least in Koriyama, remain adequate.

In Sendai, a three-hour drive to the north, vegetable prices have doubled after the tsunami destroyed a chunk of the Miyagi prefecture's capital. That said, there does not seem to be the pervasive price gouging one would expect after such a calamity.

Merchants may have traditionally ranked near the bottom of Japan's social hierarchy (below the samurai and farmers) but in most of the country trying to make a little extra money in times of adversity is just considered, well, unseemly and un-Japanese.

The traditional Japanese stoicism is on full display. There's a touch of bitterness in a few voices and some subtle signs of frustration but no show of open anger.

Everyone seems to take in stride the dwindling supplies of good and services. Maybe this part of Japan will soon see what followed in the dark days immediately after Japan's defeat in World War II: a thriving black market in scarce and rationed goods.

A few people are even willing to voice the darkest fear - what the scientists and government officials still contend is impossible: a meltdown at Fukushima-1 with one or more reactors going critical, spewing dangerous levels of radiation across Tohoku.

Sipping his sake and eating his "Disaster Sushi Set," a local construction planning company president reminds me and my colleague that modern Japanese descend from samurai warriors and kamikaze pilots who were willing, without complaint, to meet their fate. The bearded, smiling Takeshi Munakata says he believes in Japan and Japanese technology to pull the nation through the triple tragedy but if "I die, OK. No problem."

We sip our sake, preparing for the day ahead.

- VOA Correspondent Steve Herman covers Northeast Asia and is based in Seoul. He spent a total of 18 years in Japan.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

You May Like

Hong Kong Democracy Calls Spread to Macau

Macau and Hong Kong are China’s two 'special administrative regions' which gives them a measure of autonomy More

After Nearly 2 Years, Pistorius Remains Elusive

Reporter Anita Powell reflects on her experience covering the Olympic athlete's murder trial More

Kenyan Coastal Town Struggles With Deadly June Attacks

Three months after al-Shabab militants allegedly attacked their town, some Mpeketoni residents are still bitter, question who was really behind the assaults More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Obama to Ramp Up Anti-Ebola Efforts in Africai
X
Luis Ramirez
September 15, 2014 11:01 PM
President Barack Obama on Tuesday will unveil his plan to ramp up efforts against the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa. VOA White House Correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Obama to Ramp Up Anti-Ebola Efforts in Africa

President Barack Obama on Tuesday will unveil his plan to ramp up efforts against the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa. VOA White House Correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid