Route 45 - Japan's Earthquake & Tsunami Anniversary

Photographs and Text by Alvaro Ybarra Zavala

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The sea has been a life-giving force for the north-eastern Tohoku coast of Japan, but on March 11, 2011 the sea took life away. The earthquake that struck that day was the most powerful ever known to have hit Japan, with a magnitude 9 on the Richter scale. It triggered a tsunami with waves of up to 21m in height, which swept along 600km of coastline, leaving 20,000 people dead or missing, destroying 800,000 homes, and causing three reactors to go into meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

A year after the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, the destruction and legacy of these giant waves, and the nuclear radiation, are still having a major daily impact on Japanese society, which is struggling to return to normality.

Life here is dictated by the need to recover from the heavy toll of these events, from Osawa to Iwaki. In each town along the way, there is a spirit of national pride, and a strong desire to overcome the tragedy. However, this desire is constantly confronted by the stark reality.

In areas affected by the nuclear accident, the future is uncertain. Doubts about the truth of the current situation keep raising many questions and concerns. Yoshitomo Yoshida is a former sailor who runs the Ikoi café in Minamisoma, 20km from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and on the boundary of the exclusion zone. Every morning, he measures radioactivity with a pocket Geiger counter that is connected to his iPhone, given to him by his nephew. On the phone, the screen displays a reading of 0.06 microsieverts per hour, a level much lower than a dental X-ray. But, a short distance away, volunteers from an NGO called Heart Care Rescue, directed by ex-surfer and Buddhist monk Bansho Miura, record a reading of 11.43 microsieverts per hour next to a college that is due to reopen imminently.

The legal limit of permitted radiation exposure, which is 1000 microsieverts per year, could therefore be reached in just four days in an area of such high exposure. Any exposure in the region of 100,000 microsieverts per year can significantly increase the risk of cancer risk, but so there are also many risks from exposure to minor but continuous doses over a long period of time. This situation has led to the vast majority of young families emigrating in search of new places to rebuild their lives, away from the risk of radiation.

Heading northwards, following Route 45 along the coast, entire villages constructed of wooden houses were literally deleted from the map by the violence of the sea. Its brutal and unstoppable force also dragged boats weighing up to 330tons, such as the Kyotoku Maru 18, two miles inland from the coast in Kesennuma, and placed cars on roofs of three-storey buildings.

Today, cleared of debris, places such as Otsuchi, which was once bustling with life, are desolate moorlands dotted with a handful of cement buildings in ruins, which held despite the onslaught of waves. In Rikuzentakata, there is a deathly silence, broken only by the mechanical sounds of machines… excavators that dig up the ground, piling twisted iron, slashed tires and broken wooden planks, filling the silence left by the lost souls of the place. "My husband Yoshikazu died when he went to the nursery to try to save our three grandchildren: Yue, Yuhi and Kazuki. We still haven’t found the body of Yuhi, who was five years old and wanted to be a pianist."

Those that survived the monstrous waves are struggling to rebuild their lives. The fisheries sector, shipyards and local businesses are gradually recovering their activities, while victims of the disaster are still living in displaced persons camps consisting of prefabricated homes donated by the government.

This feature was shot in February 2012.

Full edit of 69 images available on request.