Documenting an earth-shattering event

Japan quake and tsunami yield tales of deep sorrow, great courage - but above all a will to rebuild

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 6:03pm

When a massive earthquake struck Japan on March 11, 2011, David McNeill and Lucy Birmingham experienced the terrifying sensation of the earth moving uncontrollably beneath their feet. As journalists, they spent much of the immediate aftermath of the nation's most devastating natural disaster in living memory working in the Tohoku region of northeast Japan, returning countless times since.

The resulting book, Strong in the Rain - which takes its title from a poem by Kenji Miyazawa - is a harrowing but compassionate record of some of the people they met on their journeys through communities and countryside once known for being hardy and picturesque.

The book is divided roughly into two narratives, which necessarily overlap. Time correspondent Birmingham has focused on the impact of the magnitude-9 quake and the tsunami that in some areas reached up to 40 metres high. McNeill, who wrote for The Independent and The Irish Times, spent many hours inside the exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and covers the crisis that unfolded after the disaster and the impact of the nuclear meltdown. Julian Ryall speaks to the co-authors.

What thoughts went through your minds when the earthquake struck?

McNeill: I was in Shinagawa Station with Nanako, my pregnant partner, and my first thought was that we were going to die if the roof collapsed. I recall cursing that the quake seemed to go on forever and worrying I'd probably have a heart attack before it ended. And then, as we walked through the station afterwards, I was thinking: "Christ, I'm going to have to cover this and it's not going to be easy. How can I leave my heavily pregnant partner without sparking a huge row?"

Birmingham: I was rewriting a script for the NHK English-language news programme when the building started weaving and groaning. It was terrifying. Everyone jumped under their desks. When the shaking subsided, my thoughts raced to my three children. I called their mobile phones, but no answer. Then I saw a group around a TV screen watching helicopter footage of what looked like a massive wave of black water sucking up everything in its path. I heard the word "tsunami" and then, "Looks like a disaster movie". No-one had ever seen anything like it before.

How traumatic were the following few weeks?

McNeill: I found having to stick my notebook into grieving people's faces very tough. I recall one crying woman saying she lost her parents, brother and family home, and didn't want to live. I had to find a way to dial down my emotions so I could put things on paper in the evenings. The demand for copy and radio interviews was exhausting. I wrote about 2,000 words a day for weeks, and did most of the interviews for the four main Irish radio channels. Between March 14 and 18, when nuclear disaster loomed, was the most traumatic of all. I shipped Nanako off to Osaka after arguing constantly about the radiation.

Birmingham: Those weeks were among the most traumatic in my life, and utterly exhausting. I was covering the disaster for both NHK and on a near 24/7 basis. I also assisted as a fixer for various media and was getting about three hours of fitful sleep a night, surviving on caffeine and anything I could scavenge from nearly empty convenience stores. At times the level of tragedy was so great and stories so horrific that I instinctively turned off my emotions to plough through it. But at one point I broke down and sobbed after listening to a group of junior high school students sing their hearts out with a song about bravery and holding on. Many had lost family and friends.

How difficult was it to write the book?

Birmingham: It became a kind of mission for me. I wanted to share the incredibly powerful and inspiring stories of the Tohoku people. I also wanted to encourage reflection and debate on the many questions and issues raised through their experiences.

Of all the people you spoke to, who touched you the most?

McNeill: It's hard to say. Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai of Minamisoma inspired me with his sense of duty and courage. A fisherman, Ichida-san, was remarkable too, because his story was so dramatic, but he hated talking about it. He said he would tell me once and that was it. There was a sense among many Tohoku people I met that telling their stories to journalists was grandstanding. They viewed their suffering as nothing special, compared to others. Nuclear plant worker Kai Watanabe amazed me with his dedication to his work. That sense of duty was very strong in all our interviewees.

Birmingham: David's right. The humility, self-sacrifice and sense of duty we encountered among the Tohoku people were truly inspiring. I also found inspiring foreigners living in the region who selflessly helped those who were suffering.

Were there any occasions when you felt it was all too much and you wanted to walk away?

Birmingham: I never felt I wanted to throw in the towel. The sheer anger I felt over the nuclear dangers was one of the things that kept me going. The lies and ineptitude of Tokyo Electric Power Co, the Fukushima plant operator, and the bickering bureaucrats continue to amaze. Another motivating factor was the fear of future massive quakes and tsunami worldwide. We need more effective prediction methodologies, education and preparedness.

McNeill: Trying to report the nuclear story was very hard. There is still no middle ground, so everything you write is attacked from all sides. Cite experts who say the crisis is under control and that few people will die, and you're shilling for the nuclear industry; say the opposite and you're sensationalising. The insidious uncertainties of radiation and its impact will drag on for years. Once in a while I'll throw my hands up in the air before calming down and going back to my laptop.

During your more recent trips to Tohoku, did you see encouraging signs or is the outlook still pretty bleak?

McNeill: The exclusion zone will be uninhabitable for years, perhaps decades, no matter what the government says. In the wider tsunami zone, the outlook is very unclear. On one hand, there is the obvious drive and energy of committed local people, like Mayor Sakurai, and you wouldn't like to underestimate the powerful influence of history and tradition among locals determined to rebuild. On the other, the attempt to rebuild coincides with a national demographic and fiscal crisis, as well as local depopulation and ageing. It will take enormous will to bring many of these communities back.

How do you expect the region will look when the survivors mark the 10th anniversary? Are you optimistic?

McNeill: Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect, to paraphrase Gramsci. I think the scars will still be there, but we were constantly struck by how soon people forget the lessons of the past. Perhaps that's the only way that they can overcome a horrific event like March 11.

Birmingham: I'm naturally optimistic and have hopes for the Tohoku region, but there are huge challenges to overcome, mainly at the government level. Successful change comes with innovative, ethical leadership. Can Japan rise to that challenge in the next 10 years? I hope so.

Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan's Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster by Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill (Palgrave Macmillan) was released last month in the US and comes out elsewhere on Friday