Archives for : March2011

Inside the Dead Zone

Former nuclear power plant worker Yuji Watanabe, 59, looks at a cow dying of thirst in a field in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on 30 March, 2011.  Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Former nuclear power plant worker Yuji Watanabe, 59, looks at a cow dying of thirst in a field in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on 30 March, 2011. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

An assignment for the Times took me to the exclusion area. Started in Minami-Soma, visiting a doctor who  has stayed behind in the exclusion zone to look after the estimated 10,000 people who have chosen to stay behind, against the advice of the government. Some of the local people we talked to expressed anger at the lack of transparency by nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) and the government for leaving them behind. One man, who had returned to his clothing store to receive a delivery of elementary school uniforms that will most likely never be used, said he would like to throttle the Tepco president.

Staff and members of Japan's Self Defense Forces administer radiation checks at  a health center in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on 30 March, 2011.  Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Staff and Self Defense Forces members administer radiation checks. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Another woman we got talking to was clearly distressed at the thought that this community that she has never left will likely become a ghost town. Later that same lady took us deep into the exclusion zone to introduce us to a resident — a former worker at the nuclear plant it transpired — and then on to see the dozens of cattle and soon that had been left to fend for themselves. We saw several dead cows and another one dying from dehydration. Several stray dogs roamed the deserted streets. Later we returned to Minami-Soma and undertook a radiation check, which we passed with flying colors. Richard Lloyd Parry writes about the experience in today’s Times here (pay site).

Dave McNeil also made a visit, getting about as close to the nuclear power plant as you can without jumping out of a helicopter. Story in the Irish Times here

More of the photos that I took on this trip to the “death zone” can be found at my Photoshelter archive here

Fukushima 50

A member of the so-called Fukushima 50 is given a radiation check prior to boarding the Kaiwomaru in the dock at Onahama Port, Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture on  23 March 20011.   Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

A member of the so-called Fukushima 50 is given a radiation check prior to boarding the Kaiwo Maru at a dock in Fukushima Prefecture on 23 March 20011. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Met members of the so-called Fukushima 50, the men charged with trying to prevent further complications at the TEPCO nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture. They were all checked for radiation, work clothes and a few other belongings in tightly fastened plastic bags. Some of them looked absolutely exhausted.

A member of the so-called Fukushima 50 boards the Kaiwomaru at a dock in Fukushima Prefecture on  23 March 20011.   Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

A member of the so-called Fukushima 50 boards the Kaiwomaru at a dock in Fukushima Prefecture on 23 March 20011. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

The ones who were willing to talk said it was pretty scary inside the plants where they worked, but were totally focused on completing their “mission.” Many had been in touch with family members, who, they admitted, were concerned about their safety. “I can’t wait to see them,” said one of the crew.

A few of them described the duties with which they were charged, such as laying cables. The ones I met are  currently staying on a 4-mast sailing boat, a training vessel that was bound for Honolulu before being requisitioned by the government on the day of the quake. Staff aboard the ship said the tone onboard was  low-key and occasionally somber. “They are very quiet” said the vessels chief commanding officer, adding that all those onboard had turned down offers of beer. However, while some declined to talk or be photographed others offered a smile and a v-sign as they boarded the boat. Some photos of the men who are valiantly battling at the nuclear power plant can be found here

“I’ll search until I find her”

Toshiaki Watanabe and his son Kenichi search through the rubble for his wife and Mother in Yoriiso Village on the Oshika Peninsula, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan on 19 March, 2011.  Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Toshiaki Watanabe and his son Kenichi search through the rubble for his wife and Mother in Yoriiso Village on the Oshika Peninsula, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan on 19 March, 2011. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

After a couple of days recuperating back in Tokyo, drove back up to Sendai yesterday and spent today going around the

A man looks out to see after spending the day looking for members of his family mega-tsunami that hit Yoriiso Village on the Oshika Peninsula, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan on 19 March, 2011.  Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Oshika Peninsula. This has long been one of my favorite parts of Japan — I first came up here about 15 years ago to do a story about depopulation and will never forget an incredible journey to Kinkazan, an island that lies just off the southern tip of the peninsula a couple of years later. It all bares little resemblance now, of course, with entire villages having being swept away by the tsunamis that raged through these parts on March 11. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency this whole peninsula shifted a massive 5.3 meters to the southeast after the quake and tsunamis and sunk about 1.2 meters. Local residents that I met said that the water levels were still high, and that many of the smaller villages would likely never by habitable again.

Down on the waterfront at Yoriiso, a small fishing and marine product processing community, I came across a man and his son who were scouring the debris and skeletal processing buildings for relatives still missing. Toshiaki Watanabe told me they had been down there every day with other friends and relatives to search for his son Kenichi’s mother and grandmother — his wife and mother.

A photo of a kimono-clad woman floats next to a tire in the bay at Imeshi village on the Oshika Peninsula, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan on 19 March, 2011.  Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

So far they had come across four bodies, but they were not the ones of their loved ones. Though obviously grief stricken, Toshiaki seemed relatively calm, even chatty, but his son was obviously in some distress. He had been in Fukushima at the time, where he worked at a nuclear facility in Soma, while his father had been in Aomori, some way north. It seems that after the quake the Mother and grandmother had gone down to the water front to help other relatives. Then the tsunami struck. “We’ll search until I find her,” he said. It suddenly struck me that, along the length of the area struck by the tsunami — which must have actually hit more than 1,000 km of coastline, in various degrees of severity — there must be thousands of similar searches taking place: beach combers combing not just for mementos and trinkets of a past life, but for diamonds of their hearts.

A photo gallery of pictures taken across the devastated region can be found here. Comments warmly welcomed.

Making contact

A sign indicating the end of a tsunami  inundation area lies among the debris after the mega-tsunami in Minami-Sanriku. Robert Gilhooly photo

A sign indicating the end of a tsunami inundation area lies among the debris left behind by the mega-tsunami in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. Robert Gilhooly photo

I have just managed to get through to an old friend in Koriyama (Paul Vonnahme for those of you who might know him) in Fukushima Pref. Have tried numerous times over passed 5  days, but never managed to get through. He and his family are fine, which is a relief. But here’s the strange thing. Where he lives is about 60-70 km from the nuclear plant in Iwaki, but he tells me that the local authorities are about to re-open schools, that the water is back on and he just took a hot shower! This despite the fact that the ground in the area still feels like its “floating on water” and he lives within the U.S. exclusion zone. He says they have been feeling about 3 fairly significant quakes per hour but that the ground is constantly moving.

Another friend contacted me this morning to tell me that a report in the US Senate states that Japan doesn’t know what it’s doing with regards to the nuclear plant. Meanwhile, the exclusion zone has been widened to 50 km. I just heard on the news a Japanese lady who lives 51 km outside the zone has decided to up and leave, heading further north. There are many reports of tens of thousands of people in Fukushima doing the same and that hotels and other facilities in northern prefectures of Akita and Aomori are preparing to receive them.

I have managed to put up some more photos at this site.

Japan Quake: what to believe?

a yacht that was driven into a building by the force of the tsunami that followed the March 11 magnitude 9 quake in Ishinomaki

Devastation in Ishinomaki following the mega tsunami on March 11

Members of Japan's Self Defense Forces lift onto a guerny the corpse of a man killed during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki.  Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Members of Japan's Self Defense Forces lift onto a guerny the corpse of a man killed during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Day 4. Today moved on to Ishinomaki, about a 2-hr drive from Sendai. The situation is pretty dire there. First thing I saw was several people liberating a supermarket, one man walking off with a wheelchair full of mud-caked goods, an elderly man — the owner of the wheelchair perhaps? — treading gingerly behind. A government official interviewed later admitted that rumours of looting were rife. Later, I saw a woman in her 40s picking up a long-discarded onigiri rice ball, while her husband pulled a crate full of bits and pieces he or they had taken from a nearby store. One man at a shelter said people were being rationed to a quarter of a roll of bread per breakfast. That same shelter, a 4-story elementary school, was home to 35 young children.

That man also said he was completely in the dark about what was going on with the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. I told him that I knew how he felt, though the difference between the two of us was simple: he had access to little information while I had too much. And much of it seemed incongruous.

A woman looks through a list of the names of people who have been delivered to a makeshift morgue in Ishinomaki. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

A woman looks through a list of the names of people who have been delivered to a makeshift morgue in Ishinomaki. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

I mean, just when the Japan government says that a reactor “has been stabilized”, the next thing I hear reported is that the situation is more grave than first feared. Meanwhile friends and family overseas have extended open invitations to their homes, based, in one case, on assessments of reports gleaned from various media sources overseas. Friends in Italy say they read an article in a British journal damning the Japanese  government’s lack of transparency. Then, I receive an email from a Kiwi friend regarding a telephone briefing from Sir John Beddington, the UK’s Chief Scientific adviser:

“Unequivocally, Tokyo will not be affected by the radiation fallout…” says Sir John.”The danger area is limited to within the 30 kilometer evacuation zone.”

Shortly after I read this, I hear that the BBC, the Guardian and CNN have ordered their reporters, snappers and other staff not just out of the quake-affected area, but out of Japan completely. When I bump into Janis Vougioukas from the German magazine Stern I find a normally calm man reduced to a trembling mess. “This doesn’t feel good” he says, before taking himself and his crew back to Tokyo.

According to a scientist friend of Independent correspondent David McNeil Japanese people in Tokyo who can read the foreign media are packing their bags and heading for the hills. I have no idea what to make of all of this so decide to carry on with work, for the time being at least.

The end of the day provides two experiences causing vastly differing emotional reactions. The first: we find a body among the shattered remnants of a coastal community. Then, drained and in desperate need of  food and sleep, we are accosted by a charming middle-aged woman in blue surgical gown. Nasa-san is the wife of a local gynecologist, and she leads through the most incredible site of devastation imaginable to reveal her husband’s relatively undamaged surgery. “Here, at 14.46 on March 11, just as the quake hit,” she say, “a baby boy was born.” What’s more, both survived the quake and subsequent tsunami.

Conflicted and confused I drive through sleety rain that turns into driving snow, toward Tokyo to be with my wife and 11-month-old daughter.

Japan Quake II

Photo shows shattered homes and other debris that was swept inland by the 10-meter high tsunami that followed the March 11 magnitude 9 quake in Minami Sanriku Town, Miyagi Prefecture

Photo shows shattered homes and other debris that was swept inland by the 10-meter high tsunami that followed the March 11 magnitude 9 quake in Minami Sanriku Town, Miyagi Prefecture. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Today visited a coastal town in Miyagi Prefecture called Minami Sanriku that was flattened by the tsunami that followed Friday(s mag 9 quake. It was a totally horrific sight. Some 10,000 people of the 17,000 who live in the town are dead or missing, according to an official there. Met survivors who were taking refuge in a shelter on higher ground who said the  wave was 10 meters high. More images here

Japan earthquake and nuclear plant explosion

A woman weeps as she listens to the latest news on a transistor radio about the nuclear power plant explosion in Iwaki City

A woman weeps as she listens to the latest news on a transistor radio about the nuclear power plant explosion in Iwaki City

Left home this morning very early heading for Sendai, the city most affected by yesterday’s M8.8 quake. The going was slow — it took the best part of 4 hours just to get out of Tokyo. Then bluffed way onto the expressway, though officially closed. On the way I managed to get hold of a long-time Japanese friend in Fukushima and just as I called, Yosh told me there had just been an explosion at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Despite his objections, Sendai was ditched in favor of how near we could get to the plant. The roads were badly damaged and the area almost deserted but eventually made it to Iwaki, about  30 km from the plant. I came to Iwaki many times when I lived in Aizu — it wasn’t so far from where I lived — and never remember seeing it so desolate as this. Eventually found a refuge shelter filled with about 300 distraught refugees. Many had been taken there from communities close to the plant. The government had decided to evacuate anyone living within a 20 km radius of the explosion. Eventually found refuge in another ad hoc shelter, from where I am now sending this blog. The area may be deserted, and homes wrecked by yesterday’s tsunami, but we can still get online … More photos here

Disputed Islands: Dokdo/Takeshima

Takeshima/Doko: Islands disputed by Japan and South Korea

Takeshima/Doko: Islands disputed by Japan and Korea. ©Robert Gilhooly Photo

The link to the article published in the Japan Times no longer works and it seems the paper has taken the story offline, probably bowing to pressure from the Korean government no doubt. So I have pasted the story about Dokdoas it appeared in the Japan Times below.

Link here to recently published story about disputed islands in the East Sea, I mean, the Sea of Japan. Brilliant trip to one of the world’s most isolated islands with a current occupancy of 2 people. You can see more photos from this trip here

 

By Rob Gilhooly

Seong-do Kim is trying to look relaxed, but failing. Straight backed, arms pulled tight to his sides, he chatters away in a dialect that earlier even the Korean translator had struggled to comprehend.

One thing that’s clear is Kim has toothache: Our common language – that globally prized fall-back called ballpark signing – involves a finger pointing into open mouth followed by a scrunched up face, the deep lines in this 70-year-old man’s weather-beaten features providing all the auxiliary punctuation required.

Another message he successfully conveys consists of that same grimace prefaced by a forefinger pointing seaward and a hand over his heart. “I miss home,” this presumably means.

“I feel so comfortable there,” he says later through the translator. When he does make rare trips to the mainland, to see his three children or, as is the case this time, to visit a dentist, he feels uneasy among the crowds. “I can’t wait to go back.”

Home for Kim is on one of a group of tiny islands that are invisible from where we stand some 215 km away on a trench-riddled beach on South Korea’s east coast. Barely larger than Tokyo’s Hibiya Park, those islands are, however, a politically charged symbol for South Koreans and Japanese alike, triggering confrontations, demonstrations, diplomatic spats and mutterings of international tribunals.

Kim and his wife Shin-yeol have lived there for 40 years, the only permanent residents on what they and all South Koreans call Dokdo, two craggy, treeless islands and 33 surrounding rocks and reefs that Japanese know as Takeshima and anyone not wishing to earn the wrath of either refers to as the Liancourt Rocks.

Only one of those names could be heard aboard the ferry from Pohang port on the southeast coast of the Korean peninsula during a five-hour trip that is currently one of only two boats serving the islands.

As we approached the Liancourts, a cloud of seagulls hovering hopefully above the ROK flag that fluttered fanatically at the aft, 240 Koreans spilled onto the decks armed with cameras and mobile phones, the backdrop to their viewfinders two fortress-like rocks rising abruptly out of the ocean as they have done for the best part of 3 million years.

There’s not a Japanese visitor in sight. Local authorities report that around 500,000 people have visited the islands since the ferry services started in 2005, but Japanese nationals account for less than 5 percent of that total.

“Actually, I wish more Japanese would come,” said Hee-sung Pak, a Seoul-based IT engineer. “I want them to see how Korean Dokdo really is, that it is ours so let’s not fight about it.”

The boat trip involves a refuel stopover at Ulluengdo, a bigger, more hospitable island about 90 km west of the Liancourts. Killing time around the colorful dockside fish market, I notice an elderly man in baseball cap, baggy jeans and a white T-shirt on which is printed in English and Japanese “Dokdo is Korean Territory.”

“I give these to any Japanese visitors that come this way,” says Sung kyu-lim, who runs a souvenir shop on the island. “I don’t want to agitate, just educate. You can see Dokdo from here when the weather is clear. It’s our back yard.”

Located virtually equidistant from the mainlands of each country, exactly whose back yard the  islands belong to has served as a sticking point in relations between the northeast Asian neighbors for over 60 years.

Researchers and scholars invariably turn to maps and historical tomes to back up their territorial claims, although counter claims and historical ambiguity invariably cloud the issue further.

Take, for instance, the Paldochongdo (Map of Korea) penned in 1531, which indicates the Liancourts as ROK territory. Yet, according to the map they lie due west of  Ulleungdo and as a single island of roughly equal size, when in fact they are located 90 km to the east and, even collectively, are significantly smaller.

Then there’s the Dainihon Zenzu (Complete Map of Japan) produced in 1877 by Japan’s Military Affairs Bureau, which makes no mention of the Liancourts, or the official Shimane Prefectural map dated 1929 that also omits the islands, even though Japan officially incorporated them into Shimane in 1905.

“Even officially published documents didn’t include the islands, which is proof Japan didn’t regard them as belonging to them whatsoever,” says Shin Yeon-sung, secretary general of the Northeast Asian History Foundation, a research center in Seoul partly funded by the ROK government.

A Japan foreign ministry communique on the issue, titled “10 Issues of Takeshima,” doesn’t mention the two maps, but attempts to counter ROK’s assertion that Japan made no claims to the islands prior to 1905, when Japan incorporated them on the still contested grounds that they had been terra nullius under international law.

Records show, it states, that Japan “established sovereignty over the islands in the mid-17th century at the very latest” and Japanese fishing vessels made Shogunate-sanctioned visits to the islands before and after 1653, the year Japan declared its “sakoku” policy barring foreign entry and Japanese departure from the country.

South Korea counters that historical documents place the islands as part of the Silla Dynasty in AD511, and, that notwithstanding, were among the colonized territories that according to the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which Japan signed in 1951, were supposed to be repatriated after World War II.

In fact they were, albeit temporarily. The earliest drafts of the treaty confirmed Korea’s sovereignty of the isles, but by the 6th  draft they were Japan’s until being returned to Korea again in the 7th.  Later drafts omitted mention of the Liancourt Rocks altogether, thereby sowing the seeds of discord between the northeast Asian neighbors.

Despite subsequent U.S. memos indicating the islands should be considered Japanese territory, Seoul took control of them in 1954, and has stationed security personel there since, a fait accompli that Japan has challenged and countered with overtures of peaceful resolution through the international courts in The Hague.

South Korea, however, has refused to comply, simply because, as Seoul National University professor Min Gyo Koo explains, as far as the ROK government is concerned, there is no legal issue to resolve.

“The official view is South Korea cannot negotiate because it has no territorial dispute with Japan, which is exactly how Japan treats China with regards to the Senkaku Islands dispute,” says Koo, a specialist in northeast Asia disputes and regionalism “South Koreans and other nations that experienced colonialism for decades, even centuries are still obsessed with national sovereignty. We still have this sense of victimization.”

According to Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Hidenobu Sobashima, Japan’s position “remains unchanged” with regards to what is referred to in the ministry’s official statement as South Korea’s “illegal occupation of Takeshima” and its claim that the islands are “an inherent territory of Japan in light of historical facts and based on international law.”

This apparent Catch 22 situation makes any bilateral solution unlikely, says Koo, meaning a minilateral framework, such as the Six Party Talks, is required “to collectively but incrementally deal” with disputes in the region.

“Otherwise, we must hope there are no diplomatic spats between the two countries in the next 10 years. Maybe then we can talk about the next step,” he adds.

It seems a small asking price, yet tempers have tended to flare more regularly. In 2005, Shimane Prefecture ignored foreign ministry recommendations and declared Feb. 22 “Takeshima Day,” causing demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul during which two Korean nationals sliced off their fingers in protest.

Six years on and Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Shu Watanabe last month vowed to attend next week’s celebrations in Shimane, a move that some believe will trigger the kind of diplomatic spat that followed Japan’s inclusion of the islands in an educational publication in 2008.

Yet, it is Korea that has been more effective in raising positive awareness of the issue, instigating a plethora of pro-Dokdo, anti-Takeshima websites and infiltrating public conscience through “Dokdo is Korean Territory” posters, drinks and video games, says Masao Shimojo of Takushoku University, whose published works include “Is Takeshima Japan’s or Korea’s?”

“In Japan, unlike Korea, territorial issues are local government concerns, not national ones and there is no unified voice communicating the ROK’s erroneous historical arguments,” says Shimojo, adding that Takeshima Day was inaugurated partly because Shimane felt the national government was not doing enough to raise awareness of the issue here.

“Korea has been skillful in lobbying support, both domestically and internationally, but self-seeking politicians in Japan whose only concern is winning the next election are largely responsible for Koreans spouting off  ‘Takeshima is Korean territory’ slogans. I doubt they know the historical facts either.”

This keener awareness of the issue among Koreans is a key reason why Japan should abandon its territorial claims, says Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.

“The only scenario for a peaceful solution is for Japan to renounce all claims. To do so would improve bilateral relations historically. Not doing so would simply prove Japan is deaf to its colonial legacy. Korea is never going to budge on this issue. It means too much to them.”

Back aboard the ferry to the islands, this sentiment is plain to see. As the captain announces the news everyone dreaded, that the waters are too choppy to risk going ashore, groans of disappointment are tempered by another announcement that we will do a circle of the islands. Visible just 60 meters away on the east island, Dongdo, is the concrete wharf, a lighthouse, manned by ROK maritime officials, and helicopter pad while clinging to the coastal extreme of the west island, Seodo, is he home of Mr. and Mrs Kim, the islands’ only residents.

Or so I thought. According to passenger Pak more than 2,000 Koreans have moved their permanent addresses here through the National Dokdo Permanent Registration Movement and as of last April all day trippers are eligible for honorary citizenship. “We like our Dokdo,” he says with a smile. “And we plan to keep it.”

 

 

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