My friend Ryan McDonald might be one of the most conspicuous people in Japan.
In a country where the average height is supposedly 5-foot-7, he stands a shade above 6-foot-2. And he’s gaijin – the Japanese term for being non-Japanese. He never, ever gets lost in a crowd.
In 2002 Ryan left his job printing phone books for BellSouth to become an assistant English teacher in Japan – and that’s when his life really got interesting.
This month marks the second anniversary of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster – or specifically, the anniversary of the earthquake that caused the tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster. It was the most powerful quake known to hit Japan, and it triggered the largest nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
And Ryan was right in the middle of all of it.
“I had a meeting with the board of education at 3 p.m. and was planning to leave at 2:50,” he recalled about the day of the quake. “I felt a small earthquake and actually updated Facebook with ‘Wow, that was a shaker.’ Then the bigger one hit and didn’t stop for about a minute. I decided to start filming with my iPod to show some friends what a larger quake was like. Then it got bigger and I kept filming. I went outside and started to get a little scared. Every few seconds it would increase in intensity until it sounded like a freight train running at full speed.”
YOU MIGHT HAVE even seen Ryan on CNN and other international TV news. His candid video of the earthquake was one of the first videos to go viral worldwide. Reporters from around the world interviewed him probably about 20 times.
Ryan reminded me of the disaster a couple months ago, when he mailed me several calendars he helped produce showcasing beautiful photos of Fukushima. He and the others who helped with the calendar simply want to remind the world that the part of Japan hit hardest by that triple disaster is thriving on a path to recovery.
Ryan told me his life is “almost 100 percent normal.” He teaches at elementary schools in the city of Koriyama, which is a bit bigger than Pittsburgh. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization reported extremely low radiation levels, though other agencies say the full health impact might not be seen for years.
“The new normal is that every day and almost everywhere we are exposed to displays showing how much radiation is detected. At school there are daily readings which are posted on the board. These are always well below anything to worry about, and I rarely think about the danger of radiation,” he said. “Only occasionally do I think about how bizarre it is for the vice principal to check attendance of the staff, write the schedule on the board, unlock the classrooms, turn on the computers and then take daily radiation readings.”
FOR PEOPLE WHO lived in what is now the radiation containment zone, life still is in limbo. Abandoning nearly all their possessions in a swift 2011 evacuation, it could be 10 to 30 years before residents will be allowed to return to their homes.
There’s also a trend known as “atomic divorce,” Ryan told me, which he described as family meltdowns after the nuclear meltdowns.
“I’ve seen some instances of this personally and heard about it from other people,” he said. “In one case a couple with children separated because she wanted to take the kids far away from the area, but he had a job where he had worked for 20 years. They couldn’t reach an agreement so she left with the kids and he stayed and they later divorced. There are so many stories like this with every possible variation.”
Ryan wrote a great guest column for The Augusta Chronicle two years ago just days after the disaster, marveling at how calm and orderly the Japanese were in the aftermath. If such a tragedy
happened in America, you’d expect to see looting or at least flaring tempers from displaced residents. Not in Japan. Thousands of people waited patiently in very long lines for rationed food, water and fuel – even politely letting some people
cut ahead in line because they were in more dire need.
The Japanese almost instinctively knew what needed to be done, Ryan said. Disaster shelters and emergency supplies appeared almost immediately.
But just as quickly – which put Ryan ill at ease – was the swiftness with which the Japanese were “willing to act like it never happened.
“I felt like we went back to school sooner than we should have and it just seemed like we only temporarily lost our footing on a treadmill. I couldn’t tell at the time if this was a good thing or not,” he said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen with the reactor or with all the aftershocks, but in the end maybe it was best to get back to normal as soon as possible.”
The damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant still is having issues. Just a week ago, it experienced a power outage that officials attributed to a switchboard short-circuit triggered by a rat. Decommissioning all the reactors is expected to take decades.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government still is very pro-nuclear and stresses – rightly, I think – that nuclear power still is overwhelmingly safe.
If it wasn’t for the tsunami, Ryan said, the Japanese public might never have known about those particular reactors’ safety problems: “It was a once-in-a-thousand-years disaster, and most likely none of (Japan’s) other reactors will ever go through the same thing. Had the designers of the Fukushima reactors put the backup generators higher than three stories, there wouldn’t even be an issue.”
The generators he referred to were the emergency units that powered the pumps that kept the reactors’ coolant water constantly circulating. When the tsunami stopped those generators, the reactors melted down.
In addition to the calendar he helped create, Ryan has gone on tsunami debris cleanup trips, and he created a website to show how truly beautiful Fukushima Prefecture is – you can visit the site at www.thisisfukushima.org.
What do Fukushima
residents want the rest of the world to know about their lives after the 2011 tragedy?
“There is not a ‘Fukushima disaster,’ but there was a disaster in Fukushima,” Ryan said. “The containment zone is only a small part of the prefecture and the rest is thriving and beautiful. There is beautiful nature, majestic views and wonderful outdoor festivals.
“The people here are surviving and living while healing.”