It was Japan’s worst nightmare: an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown. Henry Tricks tells the tale of a single survivor

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013

Before the disaster, there was always something reassuring about life by the sea in Ukedo, on the Fukushima coastline. Farther up Japan’s north-eastern shores, the rias, or inlets, would often become deathtraps when tsunamis barrelled up the narrow coves, crashing over isolated villages before the residents had time to flee. But in Ukedo, which lies on a smooth grey beach, ruffled in the early morning only by gulls’ feet and crabs’ claws, the Pacific Ocean was typically gentler. In summer, surfers would lie idly for hours out at sea waiting for a wave big enough to ride. If ever the waves did rise, giant concrete sea walls stood between them and the village like grim-faced centurions.

For generations, villagers came together twice a year to celebrate the bounty of the ocean. At New Year, dozens of fishing boats, festooned with flags, would join a parade out to sea, their horns blaring. In the lead was the vessel that had caught the most fish the year before. Two months later, when the sea was cold and rough and the fishermen needed an excuse to stay on shore drinking, the main matsuri, or Shinto festival, was held. It honoured the sea and the paddy fields of Ukedo, which together provided the two staple ingredients of every Japanese table: fish and rice. Children would dress up in gaudy costumes, with red and yellow flowers on their hats, speckled robes and red clogs, dancing to songs that celebrated life by the sea. Young fishermen would strip down to a pair of tight white shorts, and, fired up with slugs of the village’s sake, they would hurl themselves into the icy water, carrying heavy wooden shrines that sloshed about on the waves. The name of the festival spoke to the success of their entreaties to the Shinto spirits of the sea. It was called the Amba Matsuri, or Festival of the Safe Wave.

Morihisa Kanouya, then 71, had long reaped the benefits of the safety of those waves. A second-generation fisherman, he was often among the first five in the New Year’s parade because of the size of his catches. His working life was as regular as the movement of the tides. He would rise at 2am, six days a week, at his home close to the sea. Hisako, his cheery wife, would get up with him, handing him a small bento box that she had prepared before going to bed, with a snack that he would eat in the chilly darkness out at sea. He would set out with only his eldest son for company. In a few hours they would haul in anything from 50-200kg of fish, including flounder, octopus, sea bream and squid. By 7am, they would be back home in time for Hisako’s breakfast. Then from 9am, Kanouya-san (as everyone knows him) would unload his catch at the wholesale market, from where it would be trucked to Tsukiji, one of the world’s biggest fish markets, in Tokyo. By the early afternoon, he would have scrubbed his nets, and a bit later he would be tucking into his first glass of sake. A strapping, broad-chested man, he can still put away a few litres a day, he reckons. But by 8pm, he was usually home and in bed.

His income had long been as steady as his hours. Off Japan’s north-eastern coast, the collision of the warm Kuroshio current with the cold Oyashio current coming down from the Arctic Ocean produces some of the world’s richest fishing. It is not for nothing that many fishermen view the sea as a liquid bank, providing a recurring flow of cash year in, year out. For the fishermen of Ukedo, there was a bonus. Since 1971, when Japan’s biggest utility, Tokyo Electric (Tepco), had opened its first nuclear-power plant on the Fukushima coastline a few miles south of their village, they had been offered generous financial support for agreeing to give up their fishing rights, so that Tepco could pour the warm overflow from its nuclear cooling systems into the ocean. Ukedo’s fishermen took the lion’s share of the first big subsidy. Every time Tepco built a new reactor in the vicinity—there were six in total—the fishermen received a generous top-up. It had enabled Kanouya-san and his colleagues to buy new engines and upgrade their trawlers, making them more reliable and extending their reach out to sea. Fishing became far more lucrative than farming, and even when Japan’s economy stalled in the 1990s, Ukedo continued to prosper. For years Kanouya-san was one of its top seadogs, as head of the local fishing co-operative.

But in 2011 he had finally decided it was time for a change. He resolved to hang up his white fisherman’s boots, leave his job at the co-operative, and take Hisako on a trip—around Japan, and even the world, if possible. The news delighted her, he recalls. So when, on the afternoon of March 11th, he felt the biggest earthquake to jolt Japan in at least 1,000 years, he rushed home, only to find her laughing with friends. They had been having tea together when the quake struck. Now she was giggling and gossiping nervously with them, using a broom to sweep up the bits of crockery that had fallen to the floor. She was oblivious to the risk of a tsunami. He wasn’t. Some 17 of his fellow fishermen had done the most sensible thing under the circumstances: they had jumped into their trawlers and headed out to sea, knowing they could ride over the swelling tide before it would crash onto the coastline. But Kanouya-san’s first concern was his wife.

There was no more time to waste. He ordered her into his car and they set off inland. The quake had struck at 2.46pm on an overcast day with a hint of sleet in the air. As he drove out of the village, he could see through the fading light that the narrow road passing through the rice paddies was already jammed with cars. In typical, law-abiding fashion, when each one reached the main intersection, they paused before crossing. Even though the tsunami was bearing down on them, and bulletins urging flight were streaming across their car radios, they remained in line. Some leaned on their horns, all must have been checking their rear-view mirrors, keeping an eye on the sea behind them. But no one accelerated down the right hand side of the road, although no traffic was coming the other way.

Kanouya-san skirted the traffic and headed instead to a small hill, about 2.5km inland. It looked safe enough. Surrounded by a thicket of bamboo, it rose above the flat marshland that surrounds Ukedo. It was secure enough to have been designated, the year before, as an evacuation spot for the children of Ukedo elementary school. But when he got there, he saw a terrible sight behind him. "It was like a black wall, five to six metres high, and the white spray above it mixed with the sky, so you couldn’t tell where the sea ended and the sky began."

As the tsunami punched through the sea wall, just over an hour after the earthquake had struck, he started to run up the hill holding his wife’s hand. But the water rushed towards them so fast, he realised that they would not be able to climb high enough. He wrapped himself around a tree and held her in his arms. When the icy wave reached them, it tugged at him, snapping his knee and then, to his horror, tearing Hisako from his grip. "When the water receded," he says, "I was alone." His knee was broken. "I crawled farther up the hill, calling Hisako’s name countless times. But all I heard back was silence. I have never experienced such silence in my whole life. There was no answer from her, just silence. It was like sound had disappeared from the world."

As the sleet started to fall, he was overcome by shivering. He huddled on the ground, stuffing damp leaves inside his shirt in an effort to keep warm. Rescued a few hours later by a local man, he was driven to the nearest town, where he was wrapped in a woman’s jersey to keep him warm overnight. The next day, though desperate to search for his wife, he was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment to his knee. Hours later, a hydrogen explosion shook the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. The tsunami had knocked out its electricity supply, cutting off the cooling system, and setting in motion a series of three nuclear meltdowns. The explosion terrified local people and prompted the government to order mass evacuations within 20km of the plant. Kanouya-san’s hospital was just outside that area. Nevertheless, most doctors and nurses fled, all but abandoning Kanouya-san. For days, he shared a few rice balls with a handful of other remaining patients, all the time praying that his wife had survived.

She hadn’t. Though he cannot prove this, he believes she did not die in the tsunami, but could not make it to safety. "Perhaps, the same as me, she couldn’t move because her bones were broken. Or she was sickened from having drunk the filthy tsunami water. Or she was freezing cold."

Whether or not that is true, no search parties went out the morning after the tsunami as they did farther up the coast; the rescue workers were also forced to evacuate. While her husband fretted, Hisako’s body lay abandoned for more than a month in a rice field near the banks of the Ukedo river, exposed to the elements and to crows, insects and rats. When she was finally found, on April 17th, her corpse was unrecognisable. Like many others from Ukedo, it was quickly burnt and could only be identified by DNA testing.

As Kanouya-san puts it, summing up the disaster: "The day started in heaven. It ended in hell."

Top April 2013: Morihisa Kanouya returns to his village of Ukedo to see the devastation left by the catastrophe of March 2011. He now lives two hours away

Above right Morihisa Kanouya outside the prefab in Fukushima City that is his temporary home