While the diplomatic staff at the embassy stayed at their posts to liaise with their Australian counterparts, I returned home and spent the remainder of the evening both watching footage from the BBC and CNN of the unfolding disaster, and Skyping and emailing friends in Japan to see how they were and whether they were all safe. It was while I was watching such footage that the events at the Fukushima nuclear power plant began to spiral out of control, and that with every passing hour the fear that the entire facility could suffer a catastrophic meltdown grew in all of its terrible anticipation. During that time I compiled as much information as I could on what was happening in Japan and how the world was reacting to it. This was a process that I kept up for the next three days, glued to my computer monitor and the television screen in front of me, hoping against hope that Fukushima would not fall victim to a horrific fate.
As time passed and the scope of the disaster became more apparent, I resolved to do what I could for Japan in its hour of need, signing onto the Red Cross to make an initial donation in the hundreds of dollars and fixed donations every month thereafter. I felt a sense of pride in my nation, Australia, as it offered the unconditional use of its disaster response team and dispatched transport aircraft of the RAAF to assist in the transport of people and supplies to and from the disaster affected regions. Given the degree of closeness that Japan and Australia had forged over the past twenty to thirty years, here was the physical evidence of that friendship. Not only this, for despite Australia having experienced a summer punctuated with natural disasters of its own, namely flooding in the southern Queensland and northern New South Wales border area and northern Victoria, Australians were still moved to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to the relief effort underway in Japan.
While this was occurring, the threat posed by Fukushima to the safety of all residents in the Tōhoku and the Kantō regions escalated with the explosion of the second reactor, an event that had Tepco (Tōden) contemplate the evacuation of the facility and all of its personnel until this was halted by a directive from the prime minister’s office. Even at this distance, there was a real belief that the government of Japan had lost control of the Dai-ichi power plant and that the full extent of radiation leaking from the plant was not being accurately or honestly conveyed. As news bulletins carried pictures of the second reactor explosion and of masses of people seeking to leave Japan via Narita airport (which led to the creation of the pejorative term ‘Fly-jin’ to describe foreigners fleeing the country), world governments continued to press the Japanese government for detailed updates on events both at Fukushima and further north, with European governments in particular issuing warnings to their citizens to remain well outside the perimeters set by the Japanese government and to evacuate Japan at the first available opportunity. To its credit, the Australian government did not follow this route, instead advising its citizens to avoid any unnecessary travel to the Tōhoku region but to remain in contact with the embassy in Tokyo and monitor news updates.
Not a few weeks after the disaster, Australia took a more active approach in displaying its solidarity with Japan through the visit of then PM Julia Gillard to the town of Minami Sanriku in Miyagi prefecture. This was heralded as the first official visit to the disaster area by a foreign head of state (French President Nicholas Sarkozy had diverted his schedule at the time to be the first to visit Tokyo and speak with then PM Kan Naoto, although this was not officially sanctioned). While Gillard had been the subject of much criticism in Australia for the manner of her coming to power, her visit was an edifying moment. It showed a regional leader prepared to risk her personal safety in order to assure the people of Japan that they were not alone and that Australia stood by them. For all the faults that Gillard had, one could say that this was a prime example of statesmanship, and one for which she should receive ample recognition.
In August of 2011 I journeyed to Japan myself, undertaking a two week visit of the country that would take me from Kyushu all the way up to Hokkaido. While I was in Japan I paid a number of visits to bookstores across the country, and found the volume of material voicing criticism of the government response to the disaster in March to be quite surprising. The most common theme running through each magazine article and book describing the events of 3.11 was the complete disregard shown by Tōden for the people of eastern Japan, how Tōden had prevaricated and obfuscated its response to the disaster, how it had ignored recommendations to increase the wave walls at Fukushima Dai-ichi or install back-up infrastructure separated from the coastline (which led to criticism of the Ministry of Infrastructure for not enforcing stricter regulations regarding the operation of nuclear facilities). There was real anger in those materials, at how government and industry had conspired at the expense of safety, how profit seeking had overridden any concern about building nuclear power plants in a country so prone to earthquakes and other natural disasters, and how Tōden seemed answerable to no-one, not even the government.
With the passing of the years, the Tōhoku region has slowly followed along the path of progress, although that path has often been hampered by funding concerns and a lack of urgency from government agencies responsible for recovery. It is true that large parts of the coastline of the Tōhoku region remain uninhabited and may never again be so, not while the threat of another such event looms large in the memories of its residents. 3.11 was an event of such trauma and on such a scale that communities up and down the Pacific side of the Japanese coast have built countless monuments both to the victims and warnings to future generations, reminding them that the horrors of 3.11 could again be repeated without continued vigilance, and that the ghosts of those taken might remain unmourned amid the empty ruins along the shore.