My reflections from Fukushima, Japan
It was with a slight sense trepidation that last week I participated in an Australian delegation to Fukushima as well as other areas of Japan impacted by the triple disasters of March 11 last year. To have the opportunity to visit, literally on the eve of the first year anniversary of the disaster, made my visit all the more poignant.
It would come as no surprise that the first thing that strikes you on visiting the impacted areas is just the sheer extent and scale of the destruction. It is simply beyond comprehension and very hard to adequately describe or even capture in photos.
Last Wednesday we made a visit to Minamisanriku which, prior to the disasters, was a thriving fishing and resort town with a population of about 20,000. There is almost nothing left. As you walk through what was previously the centre of the town you can still see the remnants of building footprints almost as far as you can see in every direction with just a scattering of standing shells remaining. One of the main buildings still left standing is the local hospital which has the feel of something out of a war scene – heavily impacted by the onslaught with an eery sense of the violence that took place there. If you walk a little closer you get a few hints as to what actually took place, for example, the 20 foot fishing vessel perched precariously atop the rear annex awning (see photo attached). Speaking to the locals, the stories of personal tragedy are just horrific. We visited the site of a makeshift alter at what was the city’s official disaster management centre – the building was meant to be tsunami proof but was completely destroyed despite being a couple of kilometers from the shore. All bar two of the people stationed at the centre were killed including a young women of 25 who was manning the tsunami warning system – she had been married the week before.
As we moved from town to town making our way down the cost we began to get a sense of the less obvious impacts of these disasters. Last Thursday we visited the coastal port city of Iwaki in the Fukushima prefecture. We arrived by bus at what was previously a bustling fish market and were met with throbbing cheers by the more than 50 workers stationed at the market fully laden with every fish and seafood product imaginable – we were there for 40 minutes and didn’t see a single customer. Despite being well south of the Nuclear plant site the fishing industry, which was previously the staple of many towns up and down the coast – has been almost entirely destroyed by the ongoing anxiety associated with the nuclear fall out. We also visited the three level shopping complex next door – again literally not a single customer in sight. Same story with the aqua-marine park only recently constructed – once a beacon of the city’s growing economic confidence and now completely abandoned. While the economic impact Iwaki has and continues to suffer is enormous, because the city was not as directly impacted by the disasters as some other coastal towns, there is virtually no charity funding, compensation or other economic support.
Despite all of the physical, social and economic carnage, my overwhelming takeaway from the trip was optimistic and hopeful. One of the really positive side effects of the disasters has been an enormous strengthening of their sense of community and an associated resurgence in community self reliance. The scale of the disasters is simply beyond the capacity of any government to fully respond to. It is a great reminder of the limitation of the power of government. As a consequence, communities have galvanised – bound by the shared emotional and economic impact as well as a fierce determination to rebuild. Most locals you speak to take great pride in the community’s response (fair to say in stark contrast to their assessment of the government response, most particularly at the national level). It was quite inspiring to witness it first hand.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Japan and to Fukushima and its neighbouring prefecture of Miyagi in particular. We were extremely warmly received – they are overwhelmingly appreciative of anyone willing to visit and make even a small contribution to their local economies. It was also a strikingly beautiful place – particularly the coastal areas we visited.
My delegation also spent several days discussing wide ranging issues with senior government and business leaders but I’ll say some more about this in a separate blog.
Matthew Groom MP
11 March 2012
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