March 11, 2011, is a day the world will never forget. Five years after the Great East Japan Earthquake hit the Tohoku region that day, experts came together for a conference organized by Sasakawa USA and the U.S.-Japan Council to reflect on the triple disaster and discuss lessons learned.
On March 8, the two organizations co-hosted The United States and Japan: Reassessing 3-11, a full-day discussion on the disaster and the joint response to it. The conference included panel discussions with American and Japanese experts and officials — most of whom were directly involved in the response to 3-11 — with an emphasis on presenting analysis of the actual events on 3-11 and Operation Tomodachi. Panel topics included recollections of the disaster by those present, a look at the initial response, details on the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, and lessons learned on disaster prevention and response.
The earthquake triggered a massive tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people and contributed to the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. But it could have been much worse, recalled the Honorable Goshi Hosono, who was named Minister for the Restoration from and Prevention of Nuclear Accidents after the tragedy and delivered keynote remarks at the conference.
As the frightening situation at Fukushima Daiichi unfolded, Mr. Hosono worked with a small team of experts to identify and, more importantly, prevent a worst-case scenario from taking place. One of those team members was Dr. Charles Casto, a former Deputy Regional Minister at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
One possible scenario could have resulted in nuclear contamination within a 250-kilometer area surrounding Fukushima — significant enough to require evacuation of parts of Tokyo, Casto recalled. While that scenario did not come to pass, Casto described seeing a litany of misinformation on the crisis as the world came to grips with the seriousness of the situation.
“We didn’t have a lot of help from some of the social media, particularly some of the activists in the U.S. who were pumping out videos that were almost completely false,” he recalled at the event.
Communication in general was one area that many panelists said challenged a unified recovery effort.
Seeing the worldwide demand for reliable information on the crisis in the face of public fear and panic, Hosono recalled one of the first challenges he faced was sharing expert information with journalists who were reporting on the situation. The first press conference he held on the Fukushima crisis, he said, stretched for five hours as reporters sought any and all information he could provide on what was happening.
The Honorable John Roos, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan at the time of the disaster, took to YouTube, Twitter and other social media avenues to disseminate as much accurate information to the community as possible. A featured speaker at the conference, Roos described weighing his top responsibility of protecting the American population in Japan while also fulfilling the humanitarian needs that were so great at the time.
As the nuclear crisis mounted, so did pressure on Roos to declare an evacuation. Some other countries already had made the difficult decision to evacuate their own citizens from Japan.
“In the end, I am so glad that we all stayed to be there with our Japanese friends… There’s no place I would have rather have been during that period of time.”
“It really came down to a group of us in Tokyo and a group of many, many experts,” he explained, noting daily meetings in which he consulted with nuclear experts while weighing the options. “In the end, I am so glad that we all stayed to be there with our Japanese friends… There’s no place I would have rather have been during that period of time.”
Panelists at the event also recalled struggling with the difficult decision of whether to stay and help — potentially putting their own lives in danger in the process — or to return to safety.
Both Yukari Sekiguchi, who was a newscaster at Fukushima Television at the time, and Sayaka Gammon, a 23-year-old who was serving in the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program at the time, decided to stay and help in the immediate aftermath. Gammon recalled an “overwhelming feeling of guilt” as she faced that decision. Several of her fellow JETs felt obligated to return to their home countries when their family members, desperate to keep them safe, bought them plane tickets home. But the support of family members also helped some with their decision to stay. Sekiguchi said she is thankful to her family’s support when she decided to remain in Fukushima to report on the situation.
LtGen. Burt Field, Commander of U.S. Forces Japan at the time of the disaster, was one of many at the conference who commented on the massive scale of relief and recovery operations.
“All the coastline of [Northeastern] Japan was hit by this tsunami in some form or another,” he said. “We had cities, prefectures, and the national government of Japan trying to figure out how to respond,” not to mention military forces, the private sector, and everyone else who dedicated their time to helping however they could.
“There were heroic efforts all over Japan, and I think that’s something I will always take with me,” he said.
“There were heroic efforts all over Japan, and I think that’s something I will always take with me.”
“No government on our planet is ready for the worst disaster in history” if it were to happen today, he said. “Nobody’s prepared for this.”
LtCol. Karl Rohr, former Operations Officer for U.S. Forces Japan in Sendai, explained how American forces partnered with their allies for Operation Tomodachi.
That partnership was successful, he said, because of the way it was approached. Instead of trying to take control and manage the situation themselves, American forces instead deferred to their host country for direction.
“When we got that across, that’s when we started getting things done,” he said. “…They had 99 percent of things covered. All we had to do is fill the gap. It was a great team effort to get through that event.”
Dr. Kamal Ramani, a Tokushukai Disaster Medical Team Physician after the earthquake, looked back on the effort that doctors undertook assisting patients who had lost their prescriptions when the team only had enough supplies to prescribe a few days’ worth of medications at a time. Most of all, he said, the disaster took a tremendous toll on the mental health of many residents.
“We have not forgotten about you, we are here to help,” he said. “Today, tomorrow, always.”
Amya Miller, special advisor to the particularly hard-hit City of Rikuzentakata, said the support of both individuals and organizations through events such as the conference are deeply appreciated. (Read a letter she read from Rikuzentakata mayor Futoshi Toba here)
“It matters that this event is being held. This turns into proof that there is relevancy. Their lives matter to you… just because you do not meet them does not mean that they do not appreciate (you).”
“It matters that this event is being held,” she said. “This turns into proof that there is relevancy. Their lives matter to you. This self-relevancy turns into self-worth, and this self-worth turns into the ability to go one more week, one more month, one more quarter, six months, a year… just because you do not meet them does not mean that they do not appreciate (you).”
Stories of heroism could be found all throughout the devastation, even at the site of the nuclear meltdown. Casto looked back on the nuclear power plant operators who risked their lives to prevent a larger-scale disaster from occurring.
He recalled working with operators who, not knowing whether they would survive, had written letters saying goodbye to their families. One man, Casto said, knew his wedding ring had been contaminated. But he continued to wear it with the comfort that, should he die, it would allow his family to identify him.
“They were put in a bad position,” Casto said, “and I believe that they did the best they could, given their position.”
Admiral Dennis Blair, Sasakawa USA’s Chairman and CEO, said the conference served as a way to bring together those who had shared the experience of assisting in relief efforts and draw conclusions on lessons learned through that work. Learning from the tragedy, he noted, is also one way to pay tribute to the thousands of people who lost their lives in the disaster and remember the thousands more who remain displaced from their homes.
Below is a video archive of the conference, separated by panel into a playlist.
Photos by Joy Asico