Six months on from one of the world's most devastating tsunamis, Panorama's Paul Kenyon returns to Japan to hear remarkable tales of survival amid the epic destruction.
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Remarkable pictures of one of the most destructive earthquakes the
world's ever seen. This was East Coast Japan just six months ago.
TRANSLATION: There was such a terrible shaking, that even if you
grabbed hold of something, things were being thrown onto the flor. --
floor. TRANSLATION: When the earthquake
happened, we all took cover under our desks. After the quake, they
knew what would happen next, but no-one could have anticipated the
scale of it. Tonight, we follow the tsunami
which killed thousands and rocked the world's third largest economy.
And we track down those swept away by the wave, who, miraculously,
managed to survive. TRANSLATION: A mass of pitch
Blackwater was writhing like a living thing.
TRANSLATION: When it hit me, it felt like a huge gravitational pull.
I couldn't breathe. I was Central Tokyo feels like it
normally does. I've report -- reported from here before. Perhaps
there are fewer lights this time, that's all. They're trying to
conserve electricity. The quake was felt here, but its epicentre was
200 miles away off the north-east coast of Japan. We spent three
weeks travelling the disaster zone. 112,000 buildings destroyed, 20,000
people dead and missing, all in a matter of minutes. This is the
story of how Japan has coped with destruction and loss of life on a
scale it hasn't endured since the Second World War. It begins here in
Hakodate city, on an island in the far north of Japan. We met the crew
of a coastguard ship, who were some of the first to see the tsunami
coming. Six months ago, on the morning of March 11, they dropped
anchor in a port on the East Coast TRANSLATION: There was a very loud
rumbling from the ground and together with that there was a big,
big extremely violent quake that shook this boat up and down and
left and right. Seeing the size of the earthquake and the backwash, I
was certain there would be a tsunami. But instead of abandoning
ship, they set out from the port to meet the tsunami head on.
TRANSLATION: I gave the order to get to as deep water as possible,
to get off shore as fast as possible. On the radar appeared a
thick white line, moving towards them. If they'd stayed in port, the
boat would have been wrecked. This way, at least they had a chance.
TRANSLATION: In front of the boat, at a height of 10 to 15 metres,
there was a high wall, an overwhelming wall of water. We were
heading for something just like the It passes safely beneath them, but
the destruction is just about to There are several tsunamis,
stretching 200 miles and travelling at speeds of up to 370mph. At
thaeproch the north-east coast, they slow, but damager in height.
The resort of Minami Sanriku lay in their path. It was a town of 18,000
people, famed for its oyster fishing and ocean views.
This was the satellite shot before the tsunami hit. This is how it was
transformed, 95% of its buildings High on a hillside, where it was
judged no tsunami could ever reach, is a pensioners' home. Among its
deb ree, we found this video of some of the 68 residents who used
to live here. Helping one of them is Kango Sasaki,
one of the staff. His wife used to work here too, next door, in the
day centre. After the quake, canningo went outside to inspect
the -- kango went outside. From here I could see incredible disgust
rising up from over there. The trees and houses were just being
mown down. I was sure at the rate, it was going to reach us.
He and his wife rush back in to begin the evacuation. But with 68
immobile pensioners and just minutes to spare, where do you
start? TRANSLATION: I came in here and
stood shouting "evacuate", just yelling it out. I then took hold of
the person, the gentleman in the wheelchair, right in front of me,
and went straight outside, right the way through this park area with
the wheelchair rattling away, heading for the high school at the
top. I just kept going in a straight line. He doesn't look back.
The tsunami has already consumed half the town, hundreds are dead
and it's still advancing. TRANSLATION: I couldn't get any
farther up than this. So I called a fellow member of staff over and we
carried him up towards the higher ground at the high school. Right
the way up there. You can see Kengo in the bottom
left of screen, the wave surging behind him. He returns again to
rescue more, before escaping himself up the hill.
Others weren't so lucky. The man in black, raced down to rescue another
wheelchair user, there's a sudden wheelchair user, there's a sudden
surge of water and he's swept away. This is the place from where they
took that video. The coastline is about half a mile in that direction.
And the place was standing something like 50 feet above sea
level, yet still, the tsunami came roaring up this hillside.
Still down there, a group of women are running for their lives.
One of them is Kuniko Suzuki. Just ahead of her is her daughter in law
Mayumi. TRANSLATION: I wanted to run away
with her. But mother-in-law's legs are bad. She told me, "You go on
ahead." I couldn't leave her behind. But at the same time, she must have
made her decision to push me and say, "Go quickly." I just thought
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." That's why I kept crying out "grandma,
grandma." On the far right of the screen, you can see her mother-in-
law, trying to outrun the tsunami, but she's soon swept away. We
traced each person in the footage and it turned out that the mother-
in-law had, incredibly, managed to survive.
TRANSLATION: I tried to run after them, but my legs were shaky, and I
lost my shoes. Then I felt my feet off the ground and my body float on
the waves. I could see a roof of a house coming towards me. I was
swept away by the waves and ended up on the roof. The roof slips
beneath her, raising her out of the water and floating her to safety.
TRANSLATION: As I've lived a long time, I must have done something
good in my life. I'd like to think so. After saving several pensioners,
Mr Sasaki begins searching for his own wife.
TRANSLATION: I didn't know where she was. I'd searched for her in
the rubble, but she must have been forced back to where she worked by
the tsunami. She was found trapped between the machines at the bath
house where she worked. When they found her, I went to where our
eldest, a 12-year-old son, had been evacuated. I told him how his
that she'd died while trying to get people out. With my daughter,
though, I have to say, I couldn't residents were left dead. 19
survived, but even now, six months on, one is still missing. The town
of Minami Sanriku, once a bustling port, had been transformed into
this. It's a wasteland. This was the emergency centre which
broadcast warnings across town that a snaum y was on its way. --
tsunami was on its way. All that's left of the building now is its
iron shell, but the woman's ghostly voice is still remembered by the
hundreds she helped save. The woman behind the microphone continued
immoring the local population to evacuate their homing, as the sea
water surged through the ground floor and began to climb through
the other floors. She would have known, of course, that her chance
of survival was diminishing all the time. This was an act of self-
sacrifice. Her name was Miki Endo. She was 24
years old and recently married. Miki Endo has become a symbol of
the Japanese spirit in all of this, putting her community before
herself. Her colleagues, who survived, had to shin up the aerial
on the roof of the four storey building. They were still clinging
on as the wave receded. In the town's hospital, only the fifth
storey remained above water, but there just wasn't enough time for
patients on the lower floors to clam boar up there. Out of 107 of
them, 71 died. (climor) -- (clamour) Even those who managed to
get to a vehicle, there were no guarantees. The roads out of low-
lying areas were jammed. The choice, abandon your car or
hope it would float you to safe. Many of these drivers did the
latter, and drowned. But elsewhere, there were remark yapbl stories of
survival. -- remarkable stories of survival.
We headed north towards the tsunami's furthest reaches, through
areas still uninhabitable, where thousands have been moved to
evacuation centres, waiting for their towns to be rebuilt.
We were searching for a particular look like any of those people on
the ground are running fast enough to escape, so we have come to the
place where it was filmed to see if there were any survivors. Mrs Akiko
Iwasaki, a local hotelier, was one of those in the video. TRANSLATION:
First, I went up the mountain and got everyone to evacuate. Then she
went back down to warn the others. Mrs Iwasaki took me to the place
where the video was shot. You can see her running with a bag. I was
wearing these baggy work trousers and wellington boots, and I was
carrying bags. I ran as fast as I could. She doesn't know how close
the water is until the last moment. You can see the wave pick up the
bus on the left and spin it towards her. A bus had come up beside me.
The bus was there, the wave was there. I was sure we would make it
as I stepped up. But she didn't. Mrs Iwasaki was dragged under.
She's in the water, somewhere beneath the bus. I could see a
faint light from above. So I swung towards it and reached out my hands
and grabbed on, thinking it was a piece of debris. I bumped into the
tyre of that bus. Then I frantically climbed up to the roof.
Then I grabbed on to a bamboo over here on the mountain. "I want to
live. I want to live. I want to live". The water reached the third
floor of the hotel, but she and everyone else in the footage
survived. I think I was protected there was something else to contend
with, an invisible legacy from the nuclear power station on the coast
of Fukushima. Its sea wall was designed to withstand a tsunami up
to five and a half metres. This was twice the height. The flooding
short-circuited cooling pumps. The reactors began dangerously
overheating. We managed to track down one of the nuclear workers on
site at the time. TRANSLATION: Before the disaster happened, I
thought nuclear power was 100% safe. It was precisely what people call
the "safety myth". 25 hours after the quake, pressure in reactor
number 1 built up. Then it exploded. It was the biggest nuclear accident
since Chernobyl, in a country reliant on nuclear power.
TRANSLATION: When the number 1 reactor exploded, I was in the
middle of evacuating from my home to the evacuation centre specified
by the town authorities. I was in the car. As the roads were chock-a-
block, I was in a traffic jam. Cars were hardly moving. He didn't know
it, but radiation was already leaking from the plant, and those
stuck in traffic had no protection. TRANSLATION: I am prepared for the
fact that we probably suffered some external and internal radiation
exposure. Ken Togawa and his family now live in a sports centre with
other nuclear evacuees. He has had medical tests, which show he has
been exposed to high doses of radiation. But it's children who
are more vulnerable. His youngest wears a radiation monitor at all
times. He is still unsure how much exposure they have already suffered.
Dangerous levels of radiation are still widespread around the
Fukushima plant. The Government has evacuated all towns and villages in
a 20 kilometre radius. They are still too dangerous to return to,
six months on. The Togawas lived in Namie, well within the exclusion
zone. But today, he and his wife are going back in, just for a
couple of hours. It is all they are allowed. It's an operation being
overseen by the Japanese military, scientists and the Red Cross.
Dozens of other evacuees have also signed up, despite the risks. Under
heavy escort, they are bussed through the roadblocks and into the
exclusion zone. Mr Togawa is filming the journey for us. There
is an eerie emptiness. Deserted fields are overgrown and poisoned.
The levels of radiation here are still dangerously high, six months
after the leak. TRANSLATION: When fleeing, we came
just with the clothes on our backs, and we didn't have any of the
things we need. I wanted to go and fetch these things, and that is why
I returned, despite the risk, for the sake of the children. This was
their home. Windows and doors are left open. There is no one here to
loot. Mrs Togawa can be heard calling for the missing cat. It
never comes. Inside, the house is just as they left it after the
earthquake. It may be the last time they come here. These towns could
remain abandoned for generations. All of that has helped turn
Japanese public opinion against nuclear power. Of the country's 54
reactors, 43 are currently out of operation. But nowhere has touched
the Japanese nation as deeply as the story of a group of
schoolchildren. A mile away from the sea, along the Kitakami River,
is the town of Okawa, with its long iron bridge. There was a junior
school here, right at the heart of the community. This was last year's
sports day. The pupils, aged between six and 12, are lined up
and ready to compete. This was Okawa before 11th March. You can
see the school in the foreground. This was the scene when the wave
receded. The school clocks are frozen at the time the wave hit. We
traced a 12-year-old survivor. He agreed to tell us about what
happened on the day he lost so many friends.
TRANSLATION: When the earthquake happened, first we all took cover
under our desks. As the shaking gradually got stronger, everyone
said things like "wow, it's big. You OK?", looking very worried.
When the shaking stopped, the teacher straightaway said "we will
go to the gymnasium, so follow me outside", so we all put on our
helmets and went out. Tetsuya's mum rushed to the school to pick up her
children and drive them to higher ground. When she arrived at the
school, it seemed that she actually wanted to flee with me to higher
ground, but as all the parents and guardians were lining up, she said
"wait a minute, I need to fetch something from home", so I just
handed over my bags to her and stayed there. They lived just down
the road. His mother hoped to be back in a matter of minutes.
Immediately after the quake, the children were brought outside here
and made to sit down in lines, and then some teachers said "it's not
safe enough, we need to evacuate right up the hillside", and others
said "this is high enough, we don't need to go anywhere else". That
debate went on for about 40 minutes. Unknown to them, the tsunami was
close. It didn't need the river to carry it. It was travelling across
land. Another parent wanted to pick up her daughter, but was trapped at
home. It was only later that she learnt what happened to the
children between the quake and tsunami. TRANSLATION: During the
entire 40 minutes that followed the earthquake, the children were just
sitting there, crying in the playground. After 40 minutes, some
of the teachers finally decided to move the children to slightly
higher ground, over there by the bridge. But the decision was too
late. As the children walked towards the bridge, the tsunami
came straight at them. When it hit me, it felt like a huge
gravitational pull, like someone with great strength pushing. I
couldn't breathe. I was struggling for breath. Tetsuya was thrown
against this hillside, buried up to his waist in mud and trapped
beneath a broken branch. When I called for help, somebody shouted
"where are you, Tetsuya?", so I said "in the mountain". Then they
dug for me and then somehow, with my own strength, I squirmed upwards
and was saved. Tetsuya's little sister, Mina, was drowned. His
mother, who had rushed home, never made it back to school. Her body
was found three weeks later. Out of 108 pupils at the school, 74 lost
their lives. Naomi's 12-year-old daughter was one of them. Koharu
had been due to graduate the following week. After five months
of searching, her body still had not been found. I realised that if
the authorities stopped searching, we would have to do it ourselves,
because there was no way we could give up until our children were
found. I just wanted to find her with my own hands, to do whatever I
could. I heard that if I could get a heavy equipment licence, they
might lend us another machine to daughter, but also to do something
to help find the other five children and a teacher who were
still missing, so that is why I got my licence. It was in August that
Koharu's body was finally found, not by Naomi's digger, but on a
beach seven miles from the school. A week later, Japan held its annual
ceremony for the dead, the Obon Festival. This year, a nation was
united in grief. Naomi, with the rest of her family, launched a
lantern for the spirit of her daughter, Koharu. Another 5000
Six months on from one of the world's most devastating tsunamis, Panorama returns to Japan to hear remarkable tales of survival amid the epic destruction.
Piecing together new footage of the wave, reporter Paul Kenyon tells the dramatic stories of those who managed to escape when so many did not.
The film also follows those returning briefly to homes abandoned within the radioactive no-go area around the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and asks what the future holds for the thousands affected.