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Before the deluge

Setting the scene

The scene in the photo above is deceptively calm. A glass-smooth sea in a picturesque little inlet; beneath the surface of the pristine waters a trove of nori seaweed in cultivation.  This is how the coast of Miyagi Prefecture near Sendai looked in September 2006.  The photo was taken while I was on a bicycle trip that began in Sendai and ended 12 days later in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture.

I arrived in Sendai on the Shinkansen around noon of a sultry, late summer day, and immediately packed up the bike and headed eastward on the highway to find the storied Matsushima Islands.  Located just off the coast and a little north of Sendai, this site is one of the top three scenic places in Japan.

It was an easy ride across a virtually flat terrain; even taking it slow with an overloaded bike, I arrived within a couple of hours. Though heavily commercialized with souvenir shops, numerous large and small boats plying the waters, and obnoxious megaphone-armed barkers out drumming up trade, it was still easy to see why the place has been the subject of so much awe, so many poems and songs.  In a gently curving bay, numerous tiny islets rise vertically from the water.  All are cloaked with lush undergrowth and crowned with weather-sculpted pines. Nestled in a dense grove atop one islet is Godaido, an ancient temple hall, with the quintessentially Japanese red bridge on its approach. Perhaps no one has summed up the sense of inarticulate admiration for the place better than Japan’s premier haikuist,  Matsuo Bash0:

Matsushima ah!
A-ah, Matsushima, ah!
Matsushima, ah!

Matsushima Islands

Matsushima Islands 2006

Oku Matsushima 2006

Oku Matsushima 2006

In 2006, a place of beauty still, despite its faintly carnival atmosphere.  Of course, the threat of earthquakes and tsunami is always there: in 2005, the area had been rocked by a magnitude 7.2, and would be again in 2008 by a 6.9.  Each time a tsunami warning was issued but none materialized.  There had not been a catastrophic tsunami for decades, and in the meantime Japan had embarked on an aggressive program of seawall construction along its eastern coast.  Lulled by a false sense of security, communities that had once stood on higher elevations and further from the sea, crept back to hug the shore.

And then there was the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, the prefecture just south of Miyagi.  Construction on the plant began in the 60‘s and it went into operation in 1971, amid a cacophony of assurances by TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) to local residents of its absolute safety. Yet, despite this region’s long history of 8+ magnitude earthquakes and catastrophic tsunami–a history readily available to even a casual researcher–this power plant’s safety mechanisms were built assuming a maximum 7+ magnitude quake and approximately 8 meter waves. As if those assumptions were not serious enough breaches of the public trust, the plant had a troubled history: there had been scandals and “incidents”;  and TEPCO, aided by the blind eye turned to it by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was notorious for its culture of secrecy and obfuscation in its dealings with regulatory agencies and the public.  By 2006, however, this was an aging plant, near its 40th anniversary, and there was a plan afoot to gradually decommission its six reactors. The decommissionings were already partially underway when the day of March 11, 2011 dawned.

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