Tsunami: The Survivors' Stories Panorama


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Tsunami: The Survivors' Stories

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

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world's ever seen. This was East Coast Japan just six months ago.

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TRANSLATION: There was such a terrible shaking, that even if you

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grabbed hold of something, things were being thrown onto the flor. --

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floor. TRANSLATION: When the earthquake

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happened, we all took cover under our desks. After the quake, they

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knew what would happen next, but no-one could have anticipated the

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scale of it. Tonight, we follow the tsunami

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which killed thousands and rocked the world's third largest economy.

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And we track down those swept away by the wave, who, miraculously,

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managed to survive. TRANSLATION: A mass of pitch

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Blackwater was writhing like a living thing.

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TRANSLATION: When it hit me, it felt like a huge gravitational pull.

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I couldn't breathe. I was Central Tokyo feels like it

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normally does. I've report -- reported from here before. Perhaps

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there are fewer lights this time, that's all. They're trying to

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conserve electricity. The quake was felt here, but its epicentre was

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200 miles away off the north-east coast of Japan. We spent three

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weeks travelling the disaster zone. 112,000 buildings destroyed, 20,000

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people dead and missing, all in a matter of minutes. This is the

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story of how Japan has coped with destruction and loss of life on a

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scale it hasn't endured since the Second World War. It begins here in

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Hakodate city, on an island in the far north of Japan. We met the crew

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of a coastguard ship, who were some of the first to see the tsunami

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coming. Six months ago, on the morning of March 11, they dropped

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anchor in a port on the East Coast TRANSLATION: There was a very loud

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rumbling from the ground and together with that there was a big,

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big extremely violent quake that shook this boat up and down and

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left and right. Seeing the size of the earthquake and the backwash, I

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was certain there would be a tsunami. But instead of abandoning

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ship, they set out from the port to meet the tsunami head on.

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TRANSLATION: I gave the order to get to as deep water as possible,

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to get off shore as fast as possible. On the radar appeared a

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thick white line, moving towards them. If they'd stayed in port, the

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boat would have been wrecked. This way, at least they had a chance.

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TRANSLATION: In front of the boat, at a height of 10 to 15 metres,

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there was a high wall, an overwhelming wall of water. We were

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heading for something just like the It passes safely beneath them, but

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the destruction is just about to There are several tsunamis,

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stretching 200 miles and travelling at speeds of up to 370mph. At

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thaeproch the north-east coast, they slow, but damager in height.

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The resort of Minami Sanriku lay in their path. It was a town of 18,000

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people, famed for its oyster fishing and ocean views.

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This was the satellite shot before the tsunami hit. This is how it was

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transformed, 95% of its buildings High on a hillside, where it was

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judged no tsunami could ever reach, is a pensioners' home. Among its

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deb ree, we found this video of some of the 68 residents who used

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to live here. Helping one of them is Kango Sasaki,

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one of the staff. His wife used to work here too, next door, in the

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day centre. After the quake, canningo went outside to inspect

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the -- kango went outside. From here I could see incredible disgust

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rising up from over there. The trees and houses were just being

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mown down. I was sure at the rate, it was going to reach us.

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He and his wife rush back in to begin the evacuation. But with 68

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immobile pensioners and just minutes to spare, where do you

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start? TRANSLATION: I came in here and

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stood shouting "evacuate", just yelling it out. I then took hold of

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the person, the gentleman in the wheelchair, right in front of me,

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and went straight outside, right the way through this park area with

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the wheelchair rattling away, heading for the high school at the

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top. I just kept going in a straight line. He doesn't look back.

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The tsunami has already consumed half the town, hundreds are dead

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and it's still advancing. TRANSLATION: I couldn't get any

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farther up than this. So I called a fellow member of staff over and we

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carried him up towards the higher ground at the high school. Right

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the way up there. You can see Kengo in the bottom

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left of screen, the wave surging behind him. He returns again to

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rescue more, before escaping himself up the hill.

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Others weren't so lucky. The man in black, raced down to rescue another

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wheelchair user, there's a sudden wheelchair user, there's a sudden

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surge of water and he's swept away. This is the place from where they

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took that video. The coastline is about half a mile in that direction.

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And the place was standing something like 50 feet above sea

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level, yet still, the tsunami came roaring up this hillside.

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Still down there, a group of women are running for their lives.

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One of them is Kuniko Suzuki. Just ahead of her is her daughter in law

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Mayumi. TRANSLATION: I wanted to run away

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with her. But mother-in-law's legs are bad. She told me, "You go on

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ahead." I couldn't leave her behind. But at the same time, she must have

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made her decision to push me and say, "Go quickly." I just thought

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"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." That's why I kept crying out "grandma,

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grandma." On the far right of the screen, you can see her mother-in-

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law, trying to outrun the tsunami, but she's soon swept away. We

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traced each person in the footage and it turned out that the mother-

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in-law had, incredibly, managed to survive.

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TRANSLATION: I tried to run after them, but my legs were shaky, and I

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lost my shoes. Then I felt my feet off the ground and my body float on

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the waves. I could see a roof of a house coming towards me. I was

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swept away by the waves and ended up on the roof. The roof slips

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beneath her, raising her out of the water and floating her to safety.

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TRANSLATION: As I've lived a long time, I must have done something

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good in my life. I'd like to think so. After saving several pensioners,

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Mr Sasaki begins searching for his own wife.

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TRANSLATION: I didn't know where she was. I'd searched for her in

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the rubble, but she must have been forced back to where she worked by

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the tsunami. She was found trapped between the machines at the bath

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house where she worked. When they found her, I went to where our

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eldest, a 12-year-old son, had been evacuated. I told him how his

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that she'd died while trying to get people out. With my daughter,

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though, I have to say, I couldn't residents were left dead. 19

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survived, but even now, six months on, one is still missing. The town

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of Minami Sanriku, once a bustling port, had been transformed into

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this. It's a wasteland. This was the emergency centre which

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broadcast warnings across town that a snaum y was on its way. --

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tsunami was on its way. All that's left of the building now is its

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iron shell, but the woman's ghostly voice is still remembered by the

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hundreds she helped save. The woman behind the microphone continued

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immoring the local population to evacuate their homing, as the sea

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water surged through the ground floor and began to climb through

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the other floors. She would have known, of course, that her chance

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of survival was diminishing all the time. This was an act of self-

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sacrifice. Her name was Miki Endo. She was 24

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years old and recently married. Miki Endo has become a symbol of

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the Japanese spirit in all of this, putting her community before

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herself. Her colleagues, who survived, had to shin up the aerial

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on the roof of the four storey building. They were still clinging

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on as the wave receded. In the town's hospital, only the fifth

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storey remained above water, but there just wasn't enough time for

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patients on the lower floors to clam boar up there. Out of 107 of

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them, 71 died. (climor) -- (clamour) Even those who managed to

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get to a vehicle, there were no guarantees. The roads out of low-

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lying areas were jammed. The choice, abandon your car or

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hope it would float you to safe. Many of these drivers did the

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latter, and drowned. But elsewhere, there were remark yapbl stories of

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survival. -- remarkable stories of survival.

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We headed north towards the tsunami's furthest reaches, through

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areas still uninhabitable, where thousands have been moved to

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evacuation centres, waiting for their towns to be rebuilt.

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We were searching for a particular look like any of those people on

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the ground are running fast enough to escape, so we have come to the

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place where it was filmed to see if there were any survivors. Mrs Akiko

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Iwasaki, a local hotelier, was one of those in the video. TRANSLATION:

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First, I went up the mountain and got everyone to evacuate. Then she

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went back down to warn the others. Mrs Iwasaki took me to the place

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where the video was shot. You can see her running with a bag. I was

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wearing these baggy work trousers and wellington boots, and I was

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carrying bags. I ran as fast as I could. She doesn't know how close

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the water is until the last moment. You can see the wave pick up the

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bus on the left and spin it towards her. A bus had come up beside me.

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The bus was there, the wave was there. I was sure we would make it

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as I stepped up. But she didn't. Mrs Iwasaki was dragged under.

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She's in the water, somewhere beneath the bus. I could see a

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faint light from above. So I swung towards it and reached out my hands

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and grabbed on, thinking it was a piece of debris. I bumped into the

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tyre of that bus. Then I frantically climbed up to the roof.

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Then I grabbed on to a bamboo over here on the mountain. "I want to

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live. I want to live. I want to live". The water reached the third

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floor of the hotel, but she and everyone else in the footage

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survived. I think I was protected there was something else to contend

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with, an invisible legacy from the nuclear power station on the coast

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of Fukushima. Its sea wall was designed to withstand a tsunami up

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to five and a half metres. This was twice the height. The flooding

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short-circuited cooling pumps. The reactors began dangerously

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overheating. We managed to track down one of the nuclear workers on

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site at the time. TRANSLATION: Before the disaster happened, I

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thought nuclear power was 100% safe. It was precisely what people call

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the "safety myth". 25 hours after the quake, pressure in reactor

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number 1 built up. Then it exploded. It was the biggest nuclear accident

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since Chernobyl, in a country reliant on nuclear power.

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TRANSLATION: When the number 1 reactor exploded, I was in the

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middle of evacuating from my home to the evacuation centre specified

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by the town authorities. I was in the car. As the roads were chock-a-

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block, I was in a traffic jam. Cars were hardly moving. He didn't know

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it, but radiation was already leaking from the plant, and those

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stuck in traffic had no protection. TRANSLATION: I am prepared for the

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fact that we probably suffered some external and internal radiation

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exposure. Ken Togawa and his family now live in a sports centre with

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other nuclear evacuees. He has had medical tests, which show he has

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been exposed to high doses of radiation. But it's children who

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are more vulnerable. His youngest wears a radiation monitor at all

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times. He is still unsure how much exposure they have already suffered.

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Dangerous levels of radiation are still widespread around the

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Fukushima plant. The Government has evacuated all towns and villages in

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a 20 kilometre radius. They are still too dangerous to return to,

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six months on. The Togawas lived in Namie, well within the exclusion

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zone. But today, he and his wife are going back in, just for a

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couple of hours. It is all they are allowed. It's an operation being

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overseen by the Japanese military, scientists and the Red Cross.

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Dozens of other evacuees have also signed up, despite the risks. Under

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heavy escort, they are bussed through the roadblocks and into the

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exclusion zone. Mr Togawa is filming the journey for us. There

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is an eerie emptiness. Deserted fields are overgrown and poisoned.

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The levels of radiation here are still dangerously high, six months

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after the leak. TRANSLATION: When fleeing, we came

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just with the clothes on our backs, and we didn't have any of the

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things we need. I wanted to go and fetch these things, and that is why

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I returned, despite the risk, for the sake of the children. This was

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their home. Windows and doors are left open. There is no one here to

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loot. Mrs Togawa can be heard calling for the missing cat. It

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never comes. Inside, the house is just as they left it after the

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earthquake. It may be the last time they come here. These towns could

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remain abandoned for generations. All of that has helped turn

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Japanese public opinion against nuclear power. Of the country's 54

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reactors, 43 are currently out of operation. But nowhere has touched

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the Japanese nation as deeply as the story of a group of

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schoolchildren. A mile away from the sea, along the Kitakami River,

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is the town of Okawa, with its long iron bridge. There was a junior

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school here, right at the heart of the community. This was last year's

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sports day. The pupils, aged between six and 12, are lined up

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and ready to compete. This was Okawa before 11th March. You can

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see the school in the foreground. This was the scene when the wave

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receded. The school clocks are frozen at the time the wave hit. We

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traced a 12-year-old survivor. He agreed to tell us about what

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happened on the day he lost so many friends.

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TRANSLATION: When the earthquake happened, first we all took cover

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under our desks. As the shaking gradually got stronger, everyone

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said things like "wow, it's big. You OK?", looking very worried.

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When the shaking stopped, the teacher straightaway said "we will

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go to the gymnasium, so follow me outside", so we all put on our

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helmets and went out. Tetsuya's mum rushed to the school to pick up her

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children and drive them to higher ground. When she arrived at the

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school, it seemed that she actually wanted to flee with me to higher

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ground, but as all the parents and guardians were lining up, she said

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"wait a minute, I need to fetch something from home", so I just

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handed over my bags to her and stayed there. They lived just down

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the road. His mother hoped to be back in a matter of minutes.

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Immediately after the quake, the children were brought outside here

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and made to sit down in lines, and then some teachers said "it's not

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safe enough, we need to evacuate right up the hillside", and others

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said "this is high enough, we don't need to go anywhere else". That

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debate went on for about 40 minutes. Unknown to them, the tsunami was

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close. It didn't need the river to carry it. It was travelling across

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land. Another parent wanted to pick up her daughter, but was trapped at

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home. It was only later that she learnt what happened to the

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children between the quake and tsunami. TRANSLATION: During the

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entire 40 minutes that followed the earthquake, the children were just

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sitting there, crying in the playground. After 40 minutes, some

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of the teachers finally decided to move the children to slightly

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higher ground, over there by the bridge. But the decision was too

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late. As the children walked towards the bridge, the tsunami

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came straight at them. When it hit me, it felt like a huge

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gravitational pull, like someone with great strength pushing. I

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couldn't breathe. I was struggling for breath. Tetsuya was thrown

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against this hillside, buried up to his waist in mud and trapped

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beneath a broken branch. When I called for help, somebody shouted

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"where are you, Tetsuya?", so I said "in the mountain". Then they

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dug for me and then somehow, with my own strength, I squirmed upwards

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and was saved. Tetsuya's little sister, Mina, was drowned. His

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mother, who had rushed home, never made it back to school. Her body

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was found three weeks later. Out of 108 pupils at the school, 74 lost

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their lives. Naomi's 12-year-old daughter was one of them. Koharu

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had been due to graduate the following week. After five months

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of searching, her body still had not been found. I realised that if

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the authorities stopped searching, we would have to do it ourselves,

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because there was no way we could give up until our children were

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found. I just wanted to find her with my own hands, to do whatever I

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could. I heard that if I could get a heavy equipment licence, they

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might lend us another machine to daughter, but also to do something

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to help find the other five children and a teacher who were

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still missing, so that is why I got my licence. It was in August that

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Koharu's body was finally found, not by Naomi's digger, but on a

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beach seven miles from the school. A week later, Japan held its annual

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ceremony for the dead, the Obon Festival. This year, a nation was

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united in grief. Naomi, with the rest of her family, launched a

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lantern for the spirit of her daughter, Koharu. Another 5000

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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.