Tragedy of slow reaction
By Mark Willacy Macmillan, 338pp, $32.95
IN 1946, American journalist John Hersey published a classic piece of reportage on the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. His prize-winning book Hiroshima captured details of the extraordinary horror that descended on that city’s civilians and, perhaps most vitally and poignantly, told the stories of those who lived it. It’s the sort of book that prompts readers to stop and stare for moments, taking in the awful scenes and piercing emotions of that time. Mark Willacy’s exemplary work covering the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan for the ABC as its North Asia correspondent won him his second Walkley. His Fukushima manages to equal Hersey’s admirable effort.
When a force 9.0 earthquake rumbled into life about 70km off the east coast of Japan and 30km beneath the surface just before 3pm on March 11, 2011, it was the biggest in Japan’s natural-disaster-dotted history and the fifth biggest earthquake in recorded history. The tidal wave it tilted landwards pushed 10 billion tonnes of seawater at a speed of 800km/h towards Japan’s cluttered coastline. Hundreds of thousands of people stood in the way of this wall of water. So did the mute cooling towers and deadly contents of the Fukushima nuclear reactor. This was never going to end well.
With more than 15,000 confirmed dead, more than 2000 still missing and a damage bill of about $US345 billion and rising (making this the most financially costly natural disaster ever), the worst fears were confirmed.
But the human error, ignorance, selfishness and maladministration emerging from the deadly equation of tsunami and nuclear reactor made it worse. Like a trench-coated gumshoe, Willacy kicks through the rubble, turns over the bodies and pursues those who lived to tell their tales, and finds plenty of evidence with which to pinion various bureaucrats, politicians and experts. If the earthquake and tsunami were disasters waiting to happen — given Japan’s geography — then the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown was a disaster that happened because of waiting. And the repercussions from that will ripple through Japan’s future way beyond 3/11’s aftershocks.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company — TEPCO — was established in the early 1950s as one of 10 companies set up to overturn Japan’s wartime economic model. However, Japan’s unique industrial policy ensured companies like TEPCO were deeply embedded in the patronage and graft that has accompanied the nation’s spectacular rise and fall in the decades since. This would all rather come to a head as TEPCO’s Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant began to melt its way into the ground and send clouds of radioactive dust wafting over the surrounding populace.
For Willacy, TEPCO is the chief villain. He unearths evidence that the company failed to act on its own warning systems, denied government officials access to data and updates, layered veils of misinformation and falsehoods over the Fukushima plant, withheld information and lied on its way to writing a new chapter in corporate infamy in an already bulging tome.
It’s telling that in a country where ordinary people would rather suck air through their teeth and shake their head than accuse any authority figure of wrongdoing, Willacy elicits pointed barbs of criticisms and anger towards TEPCO from the top to the bottom of Japanese society. One TEPCO employee spits, ‘‘ TEPCO is to be blamed.’’
Such words are tantamount to treason in Japan. But more and more people are willing to say them. That same TEPCO employee adds, ‘‘ But also the government. Then again, it was us who elected them. So I suppose we are also responsible.’’
That seems a harsh judgment, especially as Willacy weaves in stories of those caught in the triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. Crushing tales of victims trapped in cars, bobbing down the tsunami’s mega-tide, never to be seen again; of schoolchildren trapped on lower ground due to their teachers’ dithering; of families vanished; of small cities disappeared; of regions made unlivable and of a generation ripped apart are expertly contextualised and act as a perfect human foil for the high-end politics and PR spin Willacy highlights in the executive suites and halls of power.
And there are heroes. They include the TEPCO employees who risked their lives to try to save the plant and, thereby, the people around it; those who tried to warn of the dangers both before and during the disaster; and the journalists who attempted to point out the deficiencies in Japan’s nuclear ‘‘ deal with the devil’’. Most of them were tragically ignored.
While individuals count, in this case it seems clear it was a systemic failure across the board. Incestuous relationships between big business, government, bureaucrats, the media and academia in Japan have created a sick, dysfunctional offspring. Fukushima is essentially a medical test on the faltering body politic of Japan, and the diagnosis delivered by Willacy seems fatal.
The movie character Godzilla was created in Japan in the mid-1950s as a kind of fictional embodiment of the nuclear destruction that had rained down on that country only a few years before. The clunky dinosaur creature wreaked havoc as it stumbled among the rickety studio sets meant to depict Tokyo, just as Little Boy and Fat Man did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its many fans clearly saw in it a focal point for the power inherent in the nuclear age and Godzilla remains popular in Japan and elsewhere. Clearly, the world is still trying to decide upon the pros and cons of nuclear power and Godzilla, a fearful mistake of natural and human making, is one way of reflecting that.
It’s a struggle, perhaps, that the people of Japan have been forced to get used to.
Willacy, perhaps more so than Hersey before him, paints a picture of a tragedy against the backdrop of its source, layering the many small disasters within. It’s possible to conclude that while the subservience and sycophancy built into Japanese society may be problematic — and Fukushima offers pages of proof — then their close allies of sacrifice, compassion and mutuality are surely Japan’s future. In such a world, Fukushima and what it stands for would be relegated to being the expletive it sounds like: a definition of folly. Mark Willacy’s book should help make it so.
Survivors of the disaster pray before a makeshift memorial