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In Tokyo and Japan’s Northeast, Victims Cope With Compound Crises

March 15, 2011 at 6:54 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: We continue our focus on Japan now with reports from three independent television news correspondents on the ground.

Sarah Smith is in Tokyo.

SARAH SMITH: Face masks are always a common sight on the streets of Tokyo, keeping out allergies and infections. And now, radiation levels that are many times higher than normal.

This dramatic explosion yesterday scared away most of the people who live nearby. Over 200 kilometers away in Tokyo, believe it or not, this is an abnormally quiet day downtown. People do know that the wind from Fukushima has been blowing their way. They don’t know if they should believe government assurances that they’re still quite safe.

Do you believe what the government’s telling you when they say that you’re safe as long as you’re 30 kilometers away from the power plant?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, it’s very uncertain, because this is the first time in the experience in Japan. And basically nobody knows, you know, the truth of what’s happening and what’s the affect.

SARAH SMITH: This eternal flame burns here to make sure no one forgets the nuclear bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 65 years ago.

Anywhere in the world, people would naturally be frightened by the idea of radioactive contamination in the air. Here in Japan, that fear is all the more vivid. This memorial remembers a different kind of nuclear catastrophe.

Nagimachi Shuichi says he has been warning of a new catastrophe at the Fukushima plant for years, but the government just ignored him.

NAGIMACHI SHUICHI: We’ve always been fed a myth that a severe accident couldn’t actually happen here. Well, that myth has now been completely shattered. This will be a big change for Japan.

SARAH SMITH: Empty supermarket shelves are always a sign of panic. The strong aftershocks shocking the city tonight have people worried.

The airports are busy, flights full, as people try to get as far away as they can.

No one in Tokyo is really sure where they’re safe or how much they might be at risk.

GWEN IFILL: Jon Snow reports from the rescue operations center in Mizusawa.

JON SNOW: Forty miles from the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, 25 miles from the tsunami wasteland on Japan’s northeast coast, we’re on the open road. And how very open it is — no panic, no flight of urban Japanese haunted by the hydrogen footprint.

We could have chosen any town to stop in. We chose Mizusawa, like most other towns, a town with no petrol. There was no sign of the 117,000 people who live here, until we reached the town hall. Suddenly, this was action — people and officials gathered in rows hatching plans to combat the worst of the consequences of the tsunami. The odd person running in for orders. As with any other crisis, it’s the photocopier that’s inevitably proving unmanageable.

The governor carries on regardless, marking an account of what has to be done. But though I quizzed the fire chief about the lingering fallout now 80 miles from the town, radiation was a low, low priority.

So we make our way to the evacuation center, populated by older victims retrieved from their wrecked homes nearer the sea. Many were children at the time of Hiroshima’s fallout. But now…

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN (through translator): I’ve just had surgery on my knees, and I can’t move my leg. I can’t climb stairs as easily as other people can.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN (through translator): The television says it isn’t safe to eat the vegetables. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m 74 and I remember the Second World War. We had nothing to eat then.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN (through translator): It’s scary. I’ve got heart disease, too.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN (through translator): I am frightened. We can’t do anything. I feel powerless. I don’t know what is going to happen to us. I feel so worried.

JON SNOW: For the governor and people of Mizusawa, however close it feels to us, the fallout from Fukushima feels a very long way behind the harsh reality of the tsunami to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Angus Walker.

He’s in the fishing town of Minami Sanriku.

ANGUS WALKER: Kogi Sato, his wife and 3-year-old daughter are returning to their house for the first time since the tsunami. But there’s no home to go to. They’ve lost everything, including half their family. Koji Sato’s mother and grandmother are still missing.

The Sato family had lived in this close-knit fishing community for decades. Four generations used to live under the same roof, a family tree shattered and splintered by the force of the sea.

Then suddenly, Mika Satos spots her next door neighbors. Incredibly, they managed to escape, as well. More than 10,000 didn’t.

Koji Sato finds photos of other neighbors, but no one knows where they are.

But the family is living with dreadful guilt.

Did Koji Sato lead his mother and grandmother to their deaths?

When the earthquake struck, he rushed them to a house which had survived a previous tsunami. Now back for the first time, the building is gone and so are they.

They’ve disappeared.

Hikari had been at nursery. Her mother is a teacher. Both had been far enough away. Their new home is a school on the hill. The Sato family and everything they own now fit on one blanket on the floor. And they’re not alone.

GWEN IFILL: That was Angus Walker of ITN in Minami Sanriku, Japan.