16 Mar 2011

Five days in Japan: loss and the invisible threat

There is a strange abandon in a reporter confronted with unimaginable human loss and unbelievable invisible threat. The latter is overwhelmed by the former. Anywhere else, to be told there is a real danger of an event that could subject you to harmful radiation would be alarming enough to provoke flight as far from that threat as possible.

But here in Japan the threat recedes into the laundry list of inconveniences (the search for petrol, food and water) that are lost in the face of mangled homes, the scent of death, and the evidence of very great and immediate suffering.

The journey from an 8.9 rated earthquake centred in the sea off north east Japan, through the triggering of a vast tidal wave, to the predictable failure of a man made object that depends on nuclear fission for its business is linear and understandable.

What the brain cannot comprehend is the scale. The thousands upon thousands of lives and loves that ended in one vast shudder at 2.46 pm on 11 March 2011. I have traversed a piece of Japan the size of Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall put together and hugely more populated. The fat strip of suburban and agriculturally settled coastland has been washed clean of both habitation and habitants. In the wake of the lives lived there, there is matchwood, old curtains, mattresses, shattered lavatory bowls, cooking utensils, and car upon car upon car.

Read more in the Channel 4 News Japan special report

The car in a tsunami is a cake tin, a sealed box in which the occupant is bounced at sixty miles per hour on the crest of a ten foot wave, until the bashing and bouncing extinguishes all life within.

The earthquake, felt from Tokyo to the top tip of Japan lasted perhaps twenty, thirty seconds that probably felt like a lifetime. I have felt the aftershocks – rocked from side to side on the seventh floor of a hotel – and wondered, is this it?

But the radiation cloud. The unseen nuclear threat – I can see so much, that I have no brain space left to imagine what I cannot see.  And you imagine what is happening to the 50 men and women still inside the Fukushima power station battling to keep the coolant flowing to prevent total meltdown.

Five days in Japan. Five days that have crashed an economy. Five days that have etched epitaphs on tombstones that will never host the victims they record; epitaphs that will include as victims, Japan’s generating capacity and possibly the very future of nuclear power generation itself. Five days in Japan that define the Japanese identity – resilient, lacking self pity, restrained with its grief, uncomplaining. Five days that define Japanese efficiency, manpower, skill, team work.

By the time I leave tomorrow, I shall have been here all but a week. Despite the tears and the questions “why?” – it has been one of the greatest privileges of my reporting life to be allowed to observe and report what has happened here and transmit it thousands of miles for home consumption.

To those who (mainly) ring to complain “why bother?”…I would say, because we are one connected human race and the more we understand and learn from each others’ strengths and weakness, the better chance we have of pulling together, so to improve the lot of all humanity on our vulnerable and fragile planet.

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