Here is an excellent review of events and impacts flowing from the massive Japanese earthquake and tsunami, written by Evan Osnos in the current issue of the New Yorker. Worth a full read.
A row of six aging nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had lost their cooling systems, as well as their “backup backup” protections, in the words of one nuclear expert. The prospect of radiation introduced a threat all its own, as invisible as the tsunami was vivid, and throbbing with history. Initially, the Japanese government downplayed the possibility that the ailing plants could leak any significant radiation, but survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the revered generation known as hibakusha—stepped forward to plead for “more sense of crisis.’’ Prime Minister Naoto Kan declared the crisis the worst since the end of the Second World War, and Emperor Akihito delivered his first televised address, an event so unusual that it was compared to the radio broadcast given by his father, Hirohito, announcing the country’s surrender, on August 15, 1945. Hirohito had called upon his people to “endure the unendurable, bear the unbearable.” On Wednesday morning, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, carried a story on symptoms of radiation sickness (“damage to lymph tissue, the intestinal tract, and bone marrow, among other organs”) and an article headlined “FAQS ON RADIOACTIVITY EXPOSURE, SAFETY,” which included advice on what to do in the event that you were separated from a shelter by an area contaminated with radiation (“Wear a hat and cover your nose and mouth with a wet towel or a mask”). Tokyo is a hundred and forty miles from the damaged plants. By nightfall, Britain, France, Italy, and Australia had urged their citizens who weren’t required to stay in the capital to get out.
The carnage seemed likely to be greater than any loss of Japanese life since the atom bombs. The economic loss was estimated to amount to three per cent of a full year’s production by the world’s third-largest economy. And yet to be in Japan in the days after the wave, to watch a nation realize the devastation of that instant, was to glimpse a people torn between the instinct for calm and the cry of alarm. For all the tragedies––immediate and myriad on the day of the quake—and the looming sense of nuclear dread that persisted, it was remarkable to observe firsthand, and through the Japanese media, the almost complete sense of national coöperation and purpose: little observable looting or undue panic, and almost no acts of political exploitation. The one distinct exception came on Monday, when the extravagantly nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, said that the quake was an event of tembatsu––divine punishment. But Ishihara had said many foolish things in the past, and no one was surprised. (He apologized the next day.)