Photographers' Blog

Robot Paro comforts the elderly in Fukushima

By Kim Kyung-hoon

When I covered Fukushima’s nuclear crisis in March, the first radiation evacuees who I encountered were elderly people who had fled a nursing home which was located near the tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant which was leaking nuclear radiation.

On that night, most of the elderly who could not move well due to old age spent a cold night on a temporary shelter’s hard floor.

Their scraggly bodies, the nasty smell from those who were not able to relieve themselves, and faraway looks of the those who had dementia have been impressed onto my memory, one scene out of many from this tragedy which I will never forget.

In Japan, the most rapidly aging country in the world, the elderly have been more vulnerable to the disaster than any others. According to statistics provided by the Japanese government, over half of the 27,500 dead or missing tsunami victims have been identified as older than 60. In addition, a recent survey conducted by a local newspaper showed an increased death rate among the elderly who had been evacuated from nursing homes near the tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant in Fukushima. The paper reported that caretakers and experts said many of the elderly residents’ deaths resulted from a decline in strength caused by the move far from their nursing homes and it was likely that they could not cope with the change of living environment.

Among all this news, when I heard about a therapeutic robot named “Paro” who had been provided to some nursing homes to give psychological support for the elderly in Fukushima, I thought this could give hope and joy to many people involved with the tragedy.

Beefing up radiation checks

Since covering the Fukushima nuclear crisis in March, I have photographed various radiation scenes in the months that followed.

Starting with shocking scenes of people who were actually contaminated with radiation being cleansed and scenes of people being isolated into a building.

I covered many people who had possibly been exposed after their evacuation from areas near the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Imagining what it would be like to be in their shoes it was difficult to ask for permission but surprisingly, almost all the people allowed me to take pictures as a Geiger counter ticked beside them.

A daughter’s last goodbye

Six-year-old Wakana Kumagai began to run from the car when she arrived at a temporary mass grave site in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi prefecture.

She had come to meet her father.

On that day Wakana attended an entrance ceremony for her elementary school. Afterward she went with her mother and older brother to the grave site. She showed off her dress and bright red school satchel as she described the entrance ceremony to her father. But her father, Kazuyuki, slept in the soil.

He was only 31 when he died.

On March 11, Wakana’s mother Yoshiko received a phone call from husband, Kazuyuki, just after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. “A tsunami is coming. Take the children and go to the elementary school (shelter). I will go later too” he told her. Yoshiko picked up her two children in the car and, as they made their way toward the elementary school, the car was swallowed up by the first wave of the tsunami. Miraculously the car doors didn’t open with the force of the tsunami and the three family members arrived at Omagari elementary school. The school was a makeshift shelter for those who had survived in the town that was now covered with seawater. The family awaited the arrival of Kazuyuki.

Cherry blossoms spring smiles in devastation

Cherry blossoms in full bloom are seen at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ofunato, Iwate prefecture, April 18, 2011.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Even this year, cherry blossom season bloomed in Japan.

The lives of us Japanese have changed completely in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the constant fear of radiation following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. So much so that we forgot the coming of spring.

Cherry blossoms on a tree damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ofunato are seen next to fish near a damaged fish-processing plant in Ofunato, Iwate prefecture, April 18, 2011. The fish was likely washed up from the nearby plant.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai

I returned to cover the stricken area again at the beginning of April. The huge piles of debris that were visible immediately after the quake and tsunami were slowly being managed. Roads had appeared again and gradually I saw that there was a town.

Cherry blossoms in full bloom are seen at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, April 19, 2011. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

The town which appeared was still a world of monotone. But light pink flowers, that elicit a feeling of excitement within all Japanese, appeared in the black and white world.

Two faces of the same drama

A year ago, I was part of the Reuters team that covered Haiti’s massive earthquake, which claimed some 250,000 lives, and left a million people living in makeshift camps. This year, I was part of the team that covered another natural disaster– the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s northern coast and brought on a nuclear crisis.

The two events were very different. They occurred on opposite sides of the globe, in completely different countries, in different cultural contexts. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with a turbulent political history. On the other hand, Japan is one of the richest and most modern countries in the world– the third largest economy and, actually, one of the first to send help to Haiti.

But in covering these two catastrophes, I was struck by a few similarities.

Walking through the rubble of Kessenuma, in Japan, looking for a way to convey the scale of the destruction, I found myself almost in a situation like one year ago in Haiti.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures April 3, 2011

In case anyone is in any doubt about the volatile situation many of our staff and stringers work under in Afghanistan I want to recount what happened on Saturday. Ahmad Nadeem was covering a demonstration that was sparked by the actions of extremist Christian preacher Terry Jones, who, according to his website, supervised the burning of the Koran in front of about 50 people at a church in Florida. The mood at the demonstration changed very quickly as the crowd sought a focus for their anger. Ahmad, our stringer in Kandahar was targeted. He was beaten with sticks, his gear smashed and his hand broken. Then an armed man instructed the mob to kill him. Ahmad fled for his life escaping into a nearby house where he successfully hid from the mob. Earlier in the day a suicide attack also hit a NATO military base in the capital Kabul, the day after protesters overran a U.N. mission in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and killed seven foreign staff in the deadliest attack on the U.N. in Afghanistan.

AFGHANISTAN-VIOLENCE/KABUL

Bullet holds are seen on the windshield of a car used by insurgents after an attack at Camp Phoenix in Kabul April 2, 2011. Insurgents clad in burkhas attacked a coalition base in Kabul with guns and rocket-propelled grenades on Saturday, but were killed either when they detonated their explosives or by Afghan or coalition fire outside the entrance, NATO and police said.    REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

AFGHANISTAN/

Afghans chant anti-American slogans during a demonstration to condemn the burning of a copy of the Muslim holy book by a U.S. pastor, in Mazar-i- Sharif April 1, 2011. Afghan insurgents used mass protests against Koran burning as cover to launch an attack on the United Nations building in northern Mazar-i-Sharif city, in which at least seven foreigners were killed, the governor of Northern Balkh province said. The United Nations death toll in an attack on the U.N. compound in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif could be as high as 20, U.N. officials told Reuters on Friday. REUTERS/Stringer

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures, March 27, 2011

Japan continues to dominate the file from Asia with new photograhers rotating in to cover the twists and turns of this complex and tragic  story.  In a country were the nation rarely buries its dead, the site of mass graves is quite a shocking scene to behold. Holes the length of football pitches are dug in the ground with mechanical digggers and divided into individual plots by the military and are then filled with the coffins of the victims of the tsunami. Family members come to weep and pray over the graves. Some are namless and marked only with DNA details, others bear the names of the victims. There is not enough power or fuel to cremate the thousands of bodies that are being recovered from the disaster zone. 

JAPAN-QUAKE/

Members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force carry a coffin of a victim of the earthquake and tsunami to be buried at a temporary mass grave site in Higashi-Matsushima, in Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan March 24, 2011. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

People who have either been made homeless by the tsunami or have fled the 30km exclusion zone around the stricken nuclear plant live out their lives in evacuation centres, not sure what the future will hold. There is a backdrop of growing concern over the radiation that is continuing to leak out into the atmosphere from the nuclear plants in Fukushima.  Thousands of people are still unaccounted for, international help has arrived to help with the massive task of clearing up, industry is still crippled and the weather is poor.  Next week, a school will reopen at a temporary site, 80% of the classes are either dead or missing. It is under these conditions our team of photographers continue to work. Again I wil let the pictures speak for themslves.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A week in Pictures March 20, 2011

Japan - after four days of editing pictures from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan I took an hour break to buy some food and get some money in a small shopping centre near the office. As I walked through the busy street, the thought that stuck me was that everything around me is so temporary. The people along the coast of the Miyagi Prefecture were probably going about their daily business, just like I was, when the wall of water swept through their towns wiping their very existence off the face of the earth. Reports of a nuclear cloud heading towards Tokyo where 13 million people live, added to my sense of fear. In my mind,  the world had changed forever. I cannot begin to imagine what the people in Miyagi, the rescue workers and the photographers taking the picture are feeling. From our team of photographers covering the story, I have chosen three pictures from each photographer, not an easy task when there are so many great images. Respect to all the teams covering the story and my condolences to the people of Japan. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

JAPAN-QUAKE/

A survivor pushes his bicycle through remains of devastated town of Otsuchi March 14, 2011. In the town of Otsuchi in Iwate prefecture, 12,000 out of a population of 15,000 have disappeared following Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

JAPAN-QUAKE/

A vehicle is half submerged at a crossroad after an earthquake and tsunami in Sendai, northeastern Japan March 12, 2011. Japan confronted devastation along its northeastern coast on Saturday, with fires raging and parts of some cities under water after a massive earthquake and tsunami that likely killed at least 1,000 people. Japan scaled back its tsunami warning for much of the country on Saturday, nearly 24 hours after a massive earthquake struck and set off a succession of tsunami, NHK television said. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

Chile’s tsunami: a victim and his ghost

“I made the wrong decision,” was the first thing Emilio Gutierrez told me the first time we met. That was the day I took a photograph of him carrying his dog, just two days after the tsunami. I didn’t get to know him well enough then to even learn his name.

A combination photo shows Emilio Gutierrez, who lost his father and son during a tsunami brought by the February 2010 earthquake, (top) carrying his son's dog after rescuing it from the ruins of his home in Constitucion, March 10, 2010, and (bottom) holding his 2-month-old baby, Emilia, at his home in Putu town, near Constitucion February 25, 2011. Gutierrez continues to search for 4-year-old Jose who disappeared in a huge wave spawned by the tsunami last year. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Minutes after the earthquake in his hometown of Constitucion on February 27, 2010, Emilio made the decision to escape the looming waves with his family by boat upriver, away from the river’s mouth. In the dark of night and the panic of the moment his father and son, Emilito Jose, were the first to climb into the boat. But before the rest of the family could follow them the mooring ropes snapped and they were dragged away by the current.

Emilio trusted his father’s experience and was sure that they would be fine. Together with his mother and wife, Sofia, he climbed into their other boat and headed upriver. “The noise was like helicopters hovering above us.” That was the noise of the advancing first wave as it destroyed everything in its path.

Always on alert among 17,000 islands

A google map shows Indonesia.  REUTERS/Google

Monday, October 25, 2010.

As I sat in Jakarta’s traffic for five hours, trying to rescue my daughter stranded at her school after the worst floods in Indonesia’s capital for years, I thought about how serious a volcanic eruption at Mount Merapi in Java could become. It was coming at a bad time – Jakarta-based staff photographer Beawiharta was also stuck in the jam trying to get to the airport to shoot it. Then I got a call from regional pictures editor Paul Barker. He told me there had been a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia. Wow!!!

I read on a local disaster monitoring agency via my Blackberry that it was a quake on the Mentawai islands, off the western coast of Sumatra. Being a photojournalist and editor for a news agency, I have to act fast. I contacted a stringer who lives in Padang, West Sumatra, the nearest town to the epicenter, and residents in the Mentawai region.

I had to put all my attention on the quake. It struck at around 9:15pm and I tried to get more details until 3 am. I tried calling the local police numbers, hospitals or locals who live there. But none of them picked up the phone. I had a strong feeling that something was seriously wrong in Mentawai. It was very unusual that not a single telephone land line or mobile phone could be reached. I decided to go to bed. It was 4 in the morning and I knew that I had to wake up at 6am.

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