Photographers' Blog

The samurai and survivors of Fukushima

Fukushima, Japan

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.

GALLERY: BROKEN LIVES OF FUKUSHIMA

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.

The quiet of a nuclear beach

Iwaki, Japan

By Issei Kato

“I have to arrive at the beach before it starts raining.” This is what I was thinking as I drove up to the Fukushima coast, less than 35 km (21 miles) from the crippled nuclear plant. Because the weather forecast said it was going to rain in the region, I had packed a waterproof kit for my camera and beach gear so I could be ready to photograph the beach.

Iwaki city, located just 40 km (24 miles) south of the plant, had declared nearby Yotsukura beach open to the public this summer, the first time since a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear crisis at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. But, during the period between July 15 and August 18, when the beach was open to the public, the operator of the plant admitted that contaminated water was leaking out to the ocean. Government officials said 300 tonnes of radioactive water was probably flowing out to the sea every day.

Most of Japan’s beaches are controlled by the local government, which holds official opening ceremonies during the summer months and assigns lifeguards to patrol the beach. Residents and visitors can go to the beach during the off-season too, but it is usually less crowded. I went to the beach just after the open season had ended, thinking there would still be about 100 residents enjoying the sun, even though it was weekday, because the summer holiday season had still not ended.

Seaside nuclear power

Omaezaki, Japan

By Toru Hanai

Chubu Electric Power Co.’s Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station in Japan is located at water level next to a beach. It is also widely reported to be one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear plants as it sits close to a major fault line – not unlike the one that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

I had an offer of an exclusive tour of Chubu Nuclear Power Station where an 18-meter (60 ft) high and 1.6 km (1 mile) long tsunami defense wall has been built at a cost of $1.3 billion.

Being located beachside I immediately thought of basing the main photo for this trip on this famous “ukiyoe” print by the artist Hokusai:

Destination Fukushima: Two years on

Fukushima, Japan

By Issei Kato

“Let’s put our hearts together and keep going, Fukushima!” reads a large banner that hangs across a large steel structure that stands next to the No. 4 reactor building at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The plant was overwhelmed by a massive tsunami and earthquake two years ago, triggering hydrogen explosions and a nuclear meltdown.

I was at the Fukushima site for the second time on Wednesday, ahead of the two year anniversary of the March 11 tsunami and earthquake, as a pool photographer, taking pictures of the crippled plant on behalf of foreign media based in Japan. This time, I was struck by how many more workers were on-site and the large number of tanks filled with contaminated water scattered around the area.

Revisiting the ghosts of Aceh

By Beawiharta

I remember well the 2004 tsunami in Aceh. I stayed for more than six weeks in Banda Aceh and then flew back to Jakarta to recover. In Jakarta, I cried everywhere when nobody was around me; at the office, at home, on the street, I was always crying. The situation was embarrassing, but I couldn’t stop the tears. They were automatic.

My brain couldn’t run from the images that I took of the tsunami aftermath. The counselor told me that I must go back to Aceh to take different pictures; positive pictures. Like people building their houses or shop stalls, children going back to school or singing songs happily.

Last week, I flew back to Aceh to cover the 8.6 magnitude earthquake. When I heard confirmation that there was no resulting tsunami, I was happy because I would not be taking pictures of sadness again here, in Aceh.

Empty spaces

By Carlos Barria

A year ago I went to Japan to cover the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the country’s northern coast.

At the time I was shocked by the scale of the destruction and felt I needed to show the magnitude of the disaster. I tried to fill my pictures with as many elements as possible. I even took a series of panoramic-format photographs, for a wider view.

My pictures at the time showed spaces filled with pieces of houses, twisted cars and people’s belongings– the debris of daily life.

The place that adults fear

By Toru Hanai

March 11 is here again in Japan.

A year after the tsunami devastated Higashi Matsushima city in Miyagi, seven-year-old Wakana Kumagai visited the grave of her father Kazuyuki with her mother Yoshiko, brother Koki, and her grandparents.

I first met Wakana last April, just weeks after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and huge tsunami devastated Japan’s northeast Pacific coast. The school year begins in April here in Japan, and Wakana was carrying her new, shiny red school backpack as she visited her father at a temporary graveyard that housed those who died from the tsunami. She gracefully bowed to her dad, showing off her new bag and her dress she wore for the first grader’s ceremony as if she were at a ball, and told him that she just attended her school for the first time. Her graceful bow struck my heart.

The next time I saw Wakana was on September 11, half a year after the disaster. Seeing her pray at the spot where her father’s car was found, Wakana looked like she had grown up a little bit. I heard that she was writing letters to her father, saying “Daddy, I want to see you but there’s nothing I can do about it, right?”, then placing them in an urn containing her fathers’ ashes, which was still at their house because there were not enough spots for graves. Her message for her father sank into my mind.

Clinging to life in a tsunami zone

By Toru Hanai

Choufuku Ishisone of Miyako, Iwate prefecture, owns a convenience store.

On March 11, 2011, Ishisone was driving to see his store after checking on his house following the earthquake and saw a black tsunami wave roar over a seawall. He made a U-turn, but the tsunami struck him from multiple directions, sending his car afloat. The engine stopped. He jumped out of the car in a hurry but lost his footing in the tsunami and was swallowed up in the thick, black water.

He managed to avoid cars, ships and other debris carried by the tsunami but the water level continued to rise steadily. Grabbing onto a power line pole as he was swept past, he scrambled up so desperately that he was about five meters high before he knew it.

“I want to be saved! That one feeling kept me climbing,” he said. “Then I thought I had to get off the pole somehow, but the water didn’t go down, which was very irritating.”

One year from that day

By Toru Hanai

It will soon be one year from that day – March 11, 2011.

Greetings among friends who meet after a long absence begins with, “Where and what were you doing on March 11?”

On March 11, 2011, I was photographing Prime Minister Naoto Kan during a committee session at the Parliament building in Tokyo.

At 2:46 p.m. the world started to shake really slowly.

I felt fear as the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck, not only because of the intensity of the shaking but also the duration of it.

Healing power of photography

By Yuriko Nakao

The 3.11 Portrait Project brings smiles to the victims of the triple-whammy disaster through the power of the photograph

After the magnitude 9.0 earthquake rocked Japan in March 11 last year, as a photographer for a newswire service, I had many chances to document reality, which was often depressing and shocking. However, at times, I would feel rewarded when my work brought positive results by inviting support and compassion from around the world to those who were suffering. However, still, the support was often not directed specifically to the person pictured in my shots, which often made me feel helpless.

Japanese photographer Nobuyuki Kobayashi, 42, had experienced a similar feeling. His main field of photography was mostly to shoot commercial photos but past assignments included regions in conflict, and disasters such as the earthquake which hit off the coast of Sumatra, the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the attacks on 9/11. As what many Japanese photographers did after Japan experienced the worst catastrophe since World War Two, Kobayashi went up north to take photographs after his friend in Iwate prefecture asked him to. He shot pictures of the disaster and rubble in northeastern Japan, but came to question whether that was the role he should play.