Japan earthquake continues to shake up Vancouverites

Kozue Matsumoto photo by Jenny Uechi

When Kozue Matsumoto went back to her home in quake-ravaged Matsuyama, Miyagi prefecture in January, she was shocked by the chill inside her parents' house. Even sitting a half-metre from the heater, her breath came out in white puffs. Her fingers became painfully cold after just a few minutes of typing on her computer.

"The quake had shifted the alignment of the walls and floors, leaving gaps everywhere for the wind to whip through," Matsumoto said.

"At night, you had to sleep with the duvet pulled over your head -- there was no way you could leave your face exposed at night, or you would freeze.”

Winters in her hometown were always harsh, but the earthquake had made the season even more difficult to endure for its inhabitants.

Matsumoto, a local musician, had actively organized aid for Japanese earthquake victims in 2011, but this was first time she had set foot in Japan since the disaster.

“The last few years, I'd become so accustomed to the milder winters here in Vancouver...It just struck me, how different things were over there."

Still feeling the earthquake's effects  

For many, the great earthquake of March 11 has become a thing of the past. Newspapers around the world show triumphant images of Japan's post-quake recovery through before-and-after photographs of quake-hit areas. 

“For the big cities, everything is now 'back to normal',” Matsumoto reflected.

“But for smaller villages like mine the disaster never really ended. Every single day, my town's website has some new update related to the earthquake. Rubble is still piled up everywhere. People are still feeling the quake's effects every day.”

For many in Vancouver, as well, the Japanese earthquake and its aftermath is not just a distant problem thousands of miles away-- it's a personal concern, often involving family members.

Kiyoshi Ikenaga, founder of the Canadian College of Shiatsu Therapy, has a sister who lives in Kooriyama, Fukushima prefecture. Sitting outside his facility in Yaletown, he explained his own harrowing near-miss experience with the quake.

“My wife and eight-year-old son were actually scheduled to fly out to Japan on March 11,” he recalled.

“But it became clear that evening that something was very wrong. The flight was canceled."

Ikenaga found out later from his parents that his sister and family had survived the quake, but had to cancel his own plans to go to Japan in April because of the warnings issued by the Canadian government. 

Terry Greenberg, a former Canadian diplomat to Japan, was living in the northern city of Sendai (Miyagi prefecture) until mid-February, and returned to Vancouver last month. As a long-time Japan resident, Greenberg remembers the devastation of the earthquake on his community. 

“On the surface, life in Sendai returned to normal,” he said. “But there is an undercurrent of anxiety, initially about the radiation coming from Fukushima, but also about the economic future of the region.”

 “It has a depressing feeling, because less than a year ago the same area was packed with one and two-storey houses. Now, there is nothing except a few fishing boats sitting in the middle of the fields where the tsunami dropped them.

They are probably too big and too damaged to move back to the sea.”


Radiation: the 10,000 mile diet and the lack of food options

After the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant began, one of the most immediate concerns was radiation contamination in the food and water. Even here in Vancouver, people were concerned.  

 

"Customers would pick up a food product and ask me, 'Is this from Japan?'" said a Japanese food store representative who asked not to be named. 

 

"When I said yes, they immediately placed it back on the shelf and went looking for food from China instead. It made me a bit sad."

 

There was good reason to be wary: on several occasions, Japanese authorities asserted the safety of products such as rice and vegetables that were later found to be contaminated.

 

“We were very concerned about food and water in Sendai," Greenberg said. The government insisted it was safe but we, like most people in Sendai, did not believe them.”

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