The earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis that struck Japan in March 2011 is known as the country’s own 9.11. It left 18,000 dead and hundreds of thousands suffering in flimsy and rotting temporary homes. It significantly reshaped the country’s politics, energy policy, civil society, media, corporate governance, and agriculture, and the consequences are still playing out.

In 2020 I wrote a longread for WIRED UK on how people in Fukushima are faring nine years on from the disaster. It’s currently out in print and will be online on June 23rd.

The triple disaster also magnified Japan’s labour shortages and worker abuses. Between 2012-2014, I was part of an investigative team at Reuters that followed the money trail to reveal that the yakuza were deeply enmeshed in the Fukushima clean-up, with some indebted labourers living in modern-day slavery conditions. One of the reports we published prompted the Japanese government to announce it would double “hazard pay” to workers.

Below are some of my articles about the aftermath of the tsunami and the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Nine years on, Fukushima’s mental health fallout lingers – WIRED UK

Insight: Japan’s nuclear clean-up: costly, complex and at risk of failing – Reuters

Tomioka train station in Fukushima after the tsunami.

“In many areas, radiation remains well above targeted levels because of bureaucratic delays and ineffective work on the ground. As a result, some experts fears the $15 billion allocated to the scheme so far will be largely squandered.

…In Tomioka, a coastal ghost town north of the Fukushima plant, ambient radiation remains at 10 times the government’s target. Wild boar wander the streets.”

For many Fukushima evacuees, the truth is they won’t be going home – Reuters

“But among the thousands of evacuees stuck in temporary housing more than two and a half years after the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, there is a shared understanding on one point – Japan’s government is unable to deliver on its ambitious initial goals for cleaning up the areas that had to be evacuated after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.”

Special Report: Help wanted in Fukushima: Low pay, high risks and gangsters – Reuters

“With wages flat and workers scarce, labor brokers have stepped into the gap, recruiting people whose lives have reached a dead end or who have trouble finding a job outside the disaster zone.

In extreme cases, brokers have been known to “buy” workers by paying off their debts. The workers are then forced to work until they pay off their new bosses for sharply reduced wages and under conditions that make it hard for them to speak out against abuses, labor activists and workers in Fukushima said.”

Fukushima farmer says government got it all wrong – Asahi Shimbun

“Ito is concerned that the government’s strategy for dealing with the radiation–wide-scale decontamination of the affected area—is illogical and a waste of money. After all, he argues, how can they clean the forests, the trees and the rivers?

‘Saying you can remove just five centimeters of topsoil and it will be fine is such an amateur thing to say. Take wild boars, for example. They dig into the dirt for worms—which are really contaminated, by the way—churning it all up. There’s no such thing as ‘the top five centimeters’ for pigs. That’s just an academic measurement for pencil-pushers in Nagatacho and Kasumigaseki,” he says, referring to Japan’s administrative center.’ “


This isn’t Japan

“Behind him, the dawn tide was still pooled around the hollowed out houses, a kilometre inland. A pig farm stench was seeping through our masks. Sewing kits, rice bowls and t-shirts still lay in the mud, where horse-flies buzzed in clusters. No, I thought; this isn’t Japan.”

Decontamination: Mission Impossible

“It’s mission impossible. You just clean your window. And then the wind blows down from the mountain, the rain comes, a lot of dust from the street comes and after one or two years you will have a similar level of contamination… decontaminating the whole area means to decontaminate all roads, all open fields, all housing areas, all forests, all mountains. You will see that it’s impossible,” he said.”

Fukushima, one year on

“In a country where 50 percent of people get cancer and a third die of it, the only reason people are disproportionately worried about the health consequences of radiation, rather than any other carcinogens, is because it is a public, industrial accident. If you die of lung cancer from too many Lucky Strikes, or diabetes from too many of those goddamn Krispy Kremes, then it’s fine; we had our fun, and we paid our price. But if you die of cancer because of corporate malfeasance and no fault of your own, it’s a tragedy.”

Minami-Soma photo essay

“Having suffered tsunami damage, the town also lost electricity and running water. Crippled trainlines and a chronic lack of petrol left  it almost completely cut off, with dwindling supplies of food, water and other daily necessities. To top it all off, Minami Soma was right in the middle of the 20-30km zone around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and residents were urged by the government to stay indoors.”

The Unperturbed vs. The Doubters

“After beef with levels of radioactive cesium above the government’s safe limit was sold across the nation, radioactive particles thought to have reached Hokkaido, most of it floating somewhere in the Pacific, 45% of children in Fukushima with cesium in their thyroid glands, a rice crop recently found to exceed safety standards… they find it obscene that someone can dismiss their fears, or even figures, as “rumours”.”

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