Sunday, June 19, 2011

Toxic truth about Japan's 'miracle': Post-tsunami harmony is a myth and the reality is startlingly different - 18th June 2011

No change: The wrecked port of Onagawa looks as bad today as it did in the days after the tsunami and earthquake.

It is an inimitable picture of Japanese order and contentment. Passengers throng Sendai Airport. In the fields and market gardens close by, farmers are tending their crops. In the c
ity, the bullet trains are spitting out businessmen.

It is almost impossible to imagine the colossal earthquake that unleashed first a tsunami and then a nuclear nightmare just 100 days ago.


The north-eastern seaboard was devastated. Some 28,000 people are dead or missing. Sixteen towns, 95,000 buildings and 23 railway stations have been destroyed. The town of Minamisanriku has simply v
anished.

No wonder the recovery, so meticulously documented in the media, has been described as a modern miracle. Today, the ships that balanced on tower blocks have gone. The debris has vanished from whole villages and towns.

It is further proof, we are reminded, that Japan is a society of immeasurable strength. And for this it can thank 'wa', or harmony. This is a collective feeling close to a sense of perfection. It ensures everyone knows their place and acts accordingly. Or so the Japanese like to tell themselves – and the outside world.

Yet post-tsunami Japan is far from harmonious. The bullet trains may be running, but in the fishing villages and tiny ports that litter the jagged coastline north of Sendai, thousands are surviving on aid handouts. The emergency cash promised by the government is yet to arrive.

Take Minamisanriku, the town whose devastating fate was pictured on the front page of The Mail on Sunday. There has been no miracle here. Today, it remains a nightmare of twisted metal and fragments of First World comfort. The raging 98ft wave caused annihilation. Harmony has long disappeared from Ishinomaki, too. The port town, 30 miles from Sendai, took the full force of the tsunami. It is a ghost town shrouded in the stench of rotting fish.

There is no doubt that 'wa' helped Japan to deal with its monumental problems; but it also means that victims suffer in silence. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, orderly queues snaked for miles for food, water and fuel. There was no looting and raping, which often accompanies natural disasters elsewhere.

Now, though, victims break down when I meet them. Mother-of-two Mrs Hiroake has lived with her family on two mats in an evacuation shelter in Ishinomaki since the tsunami hit.

'We are living in a limbo with no privacy,' she says. 'Our lives stopped. People here are suffering mentally.'

The 254 billion yen (£1.94 billion) raised by the Japanese Red Cross for tsunami victims (including £10.5 million donated from Britain) is taking an astonishingly long time to reach the people who need it most. Just 37 billion yen has been distributed so far.

Pensions and welfare payments, too, have dried up. Mr Konno, a diabetic, can't understand why his monthly benefits of 15,000 yen (£114) stopped the moment he moved to a shelter.

Another victim, a 78-year-old widow, Mrs Utako Saito, sleeps in a tent she has pitched in her wrecked wooden cottage. She has not received her pension for three months.

With unemployment running at 90 per cent, the needy are starting to revolt. One third of families are refusing to move to temporary housing, opting to remain in shelters to hang on to their precious food benefits. Sixty per cent of the 28,000 temporary homes remain unoccupied. A staggering 90,000 people remain in shelters. Read More