My memory of March 11, 2011 is slowly fading. What I remember is this: It was midafternoon, we were nearing the end of the school day when I heard cracking sounds. Then, the rumbling crescendo of the earth. The violent rattling of doors and lockers in the hallway. My hands gripping the legs of a chair.
In northeastern Japan, the 9.1-magnitude earthquake — one of the most powerful ever recorded — triggered a tsunami that, together, claimed the lives of over 15,000 people. Within days, a triple nuclear meltdown was reported at the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, where the 15-meter tsunami had disabled the cooling system of three nuclear reactors, setting off a chain of hydrogen explosions. The government ordered more than 160,000 residents in the plant’s vicinity to evacuate, exacerbating the already dire situation of survivors: millions were left without water and electricity, sleeping on the floors of school gymnasiums and inside cars in near-freezing temperatures.
At the time, I was living in Tokyo, some 350 kilometers south of the epicenter of the earthquake. As a teenager, I witnessed the city I grew up in, a place I had always known to be “too big to fail,” fail: trains stopped, airports closed, roads clogged, networks crashed. We woke up to aftershocks in the middle of the night, spent our days watching aerial footage of white smoke rising from the nuclear reactors. If there was any fear, it was muted by the surreality of what was happening on the screen.
Six years later, the disaster is becoming less and less real for those of us who have the luxury of forgetting. The historic anti-nuclear protests that once saw hundreds of thousands of people gather in front of the Prime Minister’s residence every week have subsided as the collective focus shifts from the disaster in our backyard to the new, external threat of North Korea’s nuclear missile program. The nuclear fallout rarely enters our thoughts, much less our conversations, and if it does, it is in measured tones as to not disrupt our return to normalcy.
At this year’s memorial ceremony marking the sixth anniversary of the earthquake, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made no direct mention of the nuclear accident in Fukushima. It was a marked omission compared to his previous speeches; instead, he described the recovery efforts as having entered a “new stage.” “In the past, our nation has suffered countless disasters, but overcame them each time,” Abe said in his address. “We will continue to move forward.” But one need only look at the headlines to find a nation in denial. Six years on, clean-up efforts have continued to flounder: in February 2017, radiation levels inside one of the containment vessels at the Daiichi nuclear power plant reached its highest since the disaster. The situation has become so desperate that in July, the chairman of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced plans to dump contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. The more we pay attention, the more concrete the contours of our false reality become.