A Month After the Earthquake, the Crisis Continues and the Questions Mount

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Athit Perawongmetha / Getty Images

A Buddhist monk chants for unidentified victims of Japan's earthquake and tsunami during a mass funeral on April 8, 2011, in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture

Katsumi Yamauchi's strawberries didn't look radioactive. Nor did his tomatoes, or the waxy-skinned turnips nearby, or any of the other fresh fruit and vegetables that customers perused on a busy sidewalk in central Tokyo last week. But this was the first shred of business Yamauchi, a farmer from Ibaraki prefecture just south of Fukushima, had seen in weeks, since people started worrying that produce grown anywhere near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant was irradiated. "Because of the rumors, we can't sell anything," said Yamauchi. "I'm happy people are buying this stuff." Since April 1, Tokyoites have been flocking to this impromptu farmers' market set up to help quake-affected vendors like Yamauchi. "I'm buying vegetables here to support the farmers," says Mina Sudo, her 2- and 4-year-old boys in tow. "I'm not sure if all produce is completely safe right now. But I trust the government."

One month ago, that was hardly a radical thing to say in Japan. But one month ago, Japan was a different place. On March 11, millions of people's lives were thrown into a tailspin after the largest earthquake in Japan's recorded history struck off the northeast coast, triggering a tsunami that swallowed swaths of the rugged shoreline and set off a nuclear crisis that is still unfolding. Each day in the past four weeks has brought more grim news; on Monday another massive 7.1 aftershock struck the northeast, prompting a tsunami alert and workers to evacuate their posts at Fukushima yet again. The official tally of those who have died is nearly 13,000. Each day, thousands of Japanese and American troops set out to look for the 15,000 people who are still formally categorized as missing. As their search, and time, wears on, questions mount: Why have officials waited so long to finalize the death toll? Why did Prime Minister Naoto Kan wait over three weeks to visit the disaster zone? And what's next?

Answers to those questions will be slow to come. Across the northeast, some 160,000 people are still sleeping, eating and waiting in makeshift evacuation centers. A week ago, at a school turned shelter in Rikuzentakata, a town of 23,000 that was among the worst damaged by the tsunami, 57-year-old Shoko Ito wiped off a photo album she had salvaged from the wreckage of her home. She pointed to a picture of her husband, who was killed in the tsunami. "I have no idea where I'm going to live," she said. Last week, the town held a lottery for 36 temporary houses erected in the yard of a junior high school — there were 1,160 applicants. Kan has tried to assure people that, with time, towns like this can and will rebuild. He's casting the effort as an opportunity, promising that homes will be built on higher ground and pledging that the redesign will emphasize green technology. "We will reconstruct with the dream of building a great Tohoku region and a great Japan," he told reporters on April 1.

For nuclear evacuees, the very idea of rebuilding looks increasingly out of reach. As images are emerging from the deserted zone, where forgotten corpses rest in situ and dogs roam the empty streets, many evacuees are beginning to wonder when and if they'll be able to return. On Monday, officials said residents of towns outside the original 12-mile (20 km) exclusion zone might also have to evacuate. "It's possible that people might be able to go home in three to six months," says Dr. Akashi Makoto, the executive director of Japan's National Institute of Radiological Sciences. But that's if the workers can get the plant's electricity working again soon. And then there's the issue of decontamination: in order for people to return, radioactive soil would need to be removed, and produce and water imported for years to come. "It's a big problem," Makoto says.

That does not bode well for the farmers or fishermen in the northeast who, like Yamauchi at the farmers' market, have come under huge strain. Along the coast, rice crops were wiped out by the waves, and the infrastructure of key fishing ports like Mizuma and Kesennuma has been devastated. Even the fishermen who did not lose their boats say it will be months before they are able to start selling fish again. In Fukushima, soil around the power plant, including outside the recommended evacuation zone, has been found to have doses of radiation hundreds of times higher than normal. On Friday, the government announced that farmers would be prohibited from planting in soil given the current levels of cesium, the longest-lasting radioactive material leaking from Fukushima. (A study released last week found that cesium 137 levels in a village outside the 19-mile (30 km) recommended evacuation zone were between 590,000 and 2.19 million becquerels per cu m; after Chernobyl, residents living in areas that measured above 555,000 were forced to relocate.)

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