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GREAT EAST JAPAN EARTHQUAKE. In this combination photo, a ship washed away by the tsunami sits in a destroyed residential neighborhood in Kesennuma, northeastern Japan, on March 28, 2011 (top), the same ship sits on the same spot on Thursday, February 23, 2012 (center), and the ship, that was dismantled in 2013, is no longer there on Sunday, March 6, 2016 (bottom). Five years after the disaster, construction work is clearly underway but far from done. Rebuilt roads stretch to the horizon between still largely vacant expanses. It is a massive undertaking to raise the ground level of entire neighborhoods, to better protect them from inundation, before rebuilding from scratch. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder and Eugene Hoshiko)

2011 TRIPLE DISASTER. In this combination photo, Japanese residents of Kesennuma, northeastern Japan, pass through a road that was cleared by bulldozer through the ruins of the city on March 17, 2011, six days after the tsunami (top), people cross the same street on Thursday, February 23, 2012 (center), and a worker, left, stands at a construction site on Monday, March 7, 2016 (bottom). Five years after the disaster, construction work is clearly underway but far from done. Rebuilt roads stretch to the horizon between still largely vacant expanses. It is a massive undertaking to raise the ground level of entire neighborhoods, to better protect them from inundation, before rebuilding from scratch. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder and Eugene Hoshiko)

Tsunami scars linger a decade later in Japan

By Foster Klug

The Associated Press

March 7, 2021

TOKYO (AP) ó The images still hold the power to shock.

Dazed survivors walk beneath huge sea tankers deposited amid an expanse of rubble and twisted iron that was once a busy downtown, the ships toppled onto their sides like childrenís toys. Grieving survivors pick through the flattened debris where their homes used to be. Deserted farms stand in the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear plant, where a catastrophic meltdown still reverberates.

Arresting images were captured by The Associated Press in 2011 after a massive wall of water levelled part of Japanís northeastern coast, washing away cars, homes, office buildings, and thousands of people.

Ten years later, AP journalists have returned to document the communities that were ripped apart by whatís simply referred to as the Great East Japan Earthquake. The urge to rebuild in a land that has been wracked by millennia of disaster ó volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, earthquakes, war, and famine ó is powerful, and there are areas where thereís little or no trace of the devastation of 2011.

But this triple disaster in the Tohoku region of Japan ó earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown ó has been unlike any Japan has faced before, and the challenges of returning to what was normal a decade ago have been immense. Half a million were forced from their homes; tens of thousands have not returned, emptying towns that were already struggling to keep their young people from leaving for Tokyo and the other megacities. Radiation fears linger. Government incompetence, petty squabbling, and bureaucratic wrangling have delayed building efforts.

Despite the setbacks and uneven progress, the Tohoku of 2021 is a testament to a collective force of will ó national, local, and personal. Look closely, though, and youíll see that even the most breathtaking transformations carry the residue of what happened in 2011, the scars of that deep wound to the regionís psyche.

The AP images, then and now, raise a fundamental question: How do you mark change after great trauma?

In one way, itís the simplest thing in the world to describe. The removal of tons of rubble here, the absence of toppled tankers there. The repaved roads where there had been cracked and buckled piles of asphalt before. The gleaming new buildings that now rise above what had been cleared dirt patches.

But the starkness of the physical change also carries the idea of something thatís much less clear cut, something about the people who live in these places. Their resilience, their stoicism, their grief and anger, and stubborn refusal to bow to forces outside their control, whether natural or bureaucratic.

All of that, and more, is present in these powerful scenes of before and after, then and now.

The pictures tell the story ó of great change and the people who made it happen.

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