By Damir Sagolj
Shortly after the mandatory evacuation was announced on television, Fumio Okubo put on his best clothes and his daughter-in-law served up his favorite dinner. By morning, the 102-year-old was dead. He had hanged himself before dawn.
A rope knitted from plastic bags is certainly not a tanto knife. Nor was his death a dramatic one, with the public in attendance and blood all around but what an old farmer did that morning recalls the act of a samurai in ancient times – to die with honor. Okubo, who was born and lived his entire life between Iitate’s rice fields and cedar trees, wanted to die in his beautiful village, here and nowhere else.
For most people on Japan’s eastern coast – at least for those survivors who lost nobody and nothing – the true horror of the powerful earthquake and tsunami it triggered was over quickly. But for many unfortunate souls in otherwise prosperous Fukushima prefecture, March 11, 2011 was just the start of what for me is one of the most heart-rending stories I have ever covered outside the misery of the developing world.
The unimaginable happened. A nuclear power plant, the pride of Fukushima, was overwhelmed by the monster wave, setting off a series of disasters that never stopped. The result is equally disastrous: two and a half years later, Fukushima looks worse than ever. Once the government realized the initial scale of destruction and the threat of radiation, over 300,000 people were evacuated. Towns and villages were abandoned and lives broken. People were in shock. Only a few, Fumio Okubo among them, knew this was not something that would be over in a week or so.
Evacuees found shelter in schools and sport halls turned into collective centers across the prefecture, sometimes in places with radiation levels higher that their original home towns. In the early post-tsunami chaos, such mistakes were made. Iitate, officially one of the most beautiful villages in Japan, was originally designated as a shelter for people from areas near the tsunami-crippled plant. Then it was realized that the radioactive cloud traveled north-west, and that Iitate was more contaminated than many places closer to the plant.