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, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

You May Like

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact 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.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs