Two years after disaster, Fukushima residents thriving, healing

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

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.”

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Bodhisattva 03/24/13 - 07:44 am
So life there is great,

So life there is great, unless you were irradiated, or don't count the environmental disaster. Tepco plans to dump 11 tons of tritium contaminated water into the Pacific. No problem, they plan on diluting it before they dump it. I'd go easy on eating the fish. Corporations in Japan are known for their honesty and forthrightness when dealing with any kind of problem. Trust them at your peril.

Lillymunster 03/24/13 - 12:33 pm
So wrong!

The radiation levels in Koriyama are as high as some of the evacuation zone areas used after Chernobyl. Also not one person has received actual compensation from TEPCO to settle their losses. Many may never be able to go home esp. those towns closest to the plant. Life is far from "normal" for many.

nallen11 03/24/13 - 01:10 pm
Not true !

The tsunami was not the whole reason for the meltdowns. The earthquake damaged critical infrastructure, shook debris into the spent fuel pools and shook the reactors causing terrible damage. And the evacuation areas still, two years later, are not safe for human existence. This kind of feel good article does your readers a disservice.

dahreese 03/24/13 - 09:14 pm
One more time while we wonder

One more time while we wonder who's listening;

"This kind of feel good article does your readers a disservice."

Ryan M.
Ryan M. 03/25/13 - 03:09 am
@Bodhisattva I didn't mean

@Bodhisattva I didn't mean to imply life is great for everyone. I'm not in the containment zone and didn't have to evacuate my home. There are many who did and their lives are still in limbo.

@Lillymunster You are right about one thing, most of your post is so wrong. The radiation levels are as high as Chernobyl? I am really curious to know where you got that bit of information. I have tested the areas outside myself and they are consistent with what the other public monitoring sensors say. Regarding the TEPCO money, I have received some compensation myself. If you mean no one has received money to completely compensate them for their losses, then yes that is true. If you mean no one has received any compensation from TEPCO at all, then that is absolutely false. I have received around $1,200 myself and I am a single male over 18 so I get the lowest amount possible.

@nallen11 True, the tsunami was not the sole cause of the disaster, but it is widely believed it could have been prevented or would have been much smaller if the power had remained on.

@dahreese I'm sorry if you thought this was a feel good article. For those of us actually here in Fukushima, we are tired of hearing the world talk about how the entirety of Fukushima is a barren radioactive wasteland. It is not. The containment zone does have high radiation levels and people will probably not being able to return to it for 30 years and possibly much longer. The fish and ocean around the plant are radioactive and will be for a while. TEPCO is and has polluted the area and possibly the world.

But Fukushima is a prefecture and the prefecture and people are surviving. There was a disaster here, but referring to the whole thing as a disaster is false. I was trying to show the world the people here are trying to survive this and move on and get back to normal. I didn't mean to sugarcoat it or make it sound like a paradise.

If you'd like to see for yourself I suggest you come visit or do tsunami clean up or volunteering, but I doubt anyone has the courage to actually do that. That might make you feel good, and we can't have that.

Lillymunster 03/25/13 - 01:53 pm
Ryan is mistaken

Here are facts about Koriyama:
Greenpeace found readings in the 2 uSv/h range in Koriyama
MEXT The Japan govt agency doing radiation monitoring finds some areas below the Chernobyl evacuation limit but many including areas near nursery schools are above it.
(that page can be translated to English via google translate )
The lower bracket where evacuation was required after Chernobyl was .5uSv/h (that is HALF, point five, not 5)
This is another document where citizens found areas well over that Chernobyl level near schools in Koriyama

A reference for the Chernobyl zones

I was very clear on the TEPCO compensation. No one has received a settlement yet. All those temporary payments so people can deal with day to day expenses have to be paid back to TEPCO upon any actual final settlement, if or when people actually get one. Maybe life is great for you being young and single. Now imagine having kids, paying a mortgage on a house you can't return to and dealing with TEPCO's games. There are many people complaining of just that.

Radiation is an interesting thing. Since you can't see it, feel it or smell it, it can be very easy to pretend it isn't there or that it isn't a problem. Two years out I am sure many things of daily life for most people are getting back to normal. While that is good and also expected, that completely ignores those who are still stuck in limbo or are worried because their kids live in an area as high as Chernoby's evacuation zone. Pretending this doesn't also exist does those left to deal with it a great disservice.

Lillymunster 03/25/13 - 01:56 pm

I have to ask why someone who lives in Koriyama, doesn't have kids and didn't have to evacuate is getting any compensation from TEPCO?

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