Video: In Japan, radiation level in sea water raises fears

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    >>> from japan , troubling news from the earthquake zone where workers are struggling to cool the damaged fukushima daiichi power plant . high radiation levels found in seawater near the plant two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami struck. nbc's lee cowan has our story.

    >> reporter: with so much talk of the spike in radiation levels, the other spike in the death toll is sometimes lost. but it continues unabated. it is fast approaching 11,000 with nearly 18,000 still missing. at the fukushima nuclear power plant the u.s. is shipping in hundreds of thousands of gallons of freshwater to help cool the reactors. a better alternative engineers say than injecting salt water . but all of it has to drain somewhere and the government now says it may have made its way back out to sea. radiation readings in water near shore have registered 1,000 times greater than normal. japanese officials though are quick to point out that it is still within safe limits. but were angered by news that the plant's owner tepco knew radioactive water was gathering in one of the reactors but didn't disclose it until after three workers were exposed. sending two to the hospital. tepco apologized. it is that kind of revelation though that prompted japan 's prime minister to warn that it is no time to be optimistic, not yet. a sobering assessment as millions struggled to get back to some semblance of normal. there is a phrase here in japan [ speak foreign language ] it means what can you do. we hear it time and time again, over and over again. despite the circumstances live goes on. and it is. there were weddings today. at a shrine under brilliant blue skies with barely a cloud. at least not the kind you can see. a steady stream of people came to pray, new parents brought children to be blessed, this couple, a boy. just 7 weeks owed. you have to act accordingly and stay calm this young father says. i am call am. my wife isn't. although many of life's happy rituals, college graduations have been canceled. these two students weren't going to be deterred. they donned their graduation kimonos, next to the shrine the customary collection of wooden plaques inscribed with wishes, pray for japan this one read, which to many on this brilliant day, were three words that said it all. lee cowan, nbc

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updated 3/27/2011 10:21:48 AM ET 2011-03-27T14:21:48

When he was younger, the carpenter picked a spot just off the Shikaori River and built his house. Toshio Onodera chiseled the joints for the wooden roof beams and cemented the tiles onto the front porch. He mounted ivory-colored siding on the outside walls.

His parents moved in with him, and so did his mother's mother. He is the oldest son, and that is what tradition dictates here. He lived in the house for nearly 30 years. Then suddenly, on March 11, it was no more — destroyed by the tsunami, a three-story wall of black water that followed the course of the river and all but obliterated his neighborhood.

Now he sleeps on the floor of a crowded junior high school gymnasium, next to his 83-year-old mother and alongside hundreds of neighbors, nearly all of them long past retirement. It's a community living beneath basketball hoops, adrift on a sea of acrylic blankets.

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At 57, Onodera is one of the gym's youngest residents. If he insists Kesennuma will emerge from the wreckage of the tsunami, he also knows it faces an immense demographic challenge.

"This is a town of old people," he says as he stands on the foundation of his house on a cold winter morning, the smashed remains of someone else's roof on the ground next to him. "Young people just don't want to live in Kesennuma anymore."

The beams he had chiseled were 75 feet (25 meters) away, tangled with wreckage from across the neighborhood. The air stank of mold and mud and fuel that had leaked from the nearby port. He pointed to the remnants of house after house where the residents are either dead or missing.

"No one will come back here," he predicts of his old neighborhood, saying he will stay in town but move further inland.

Japan is starting to confront years of post-tsunami reconstruction along its northeastern coast, grappling with an estimated 18,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands left homeless, entire villages destroyed and a nuclear crisis 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of here that could still turn catastrophic. For the towns and farming villages — places like Kesennuma that have been battered for decades by economic decline, an exodus of young people and a rapidly aging population — the challenge could prove impossible.

"The prospects for the future are pretty grim for these communities, because of the high percentage of aged people," says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus.

Elsewhere in Japan, people from this part of the country have long been known as "gaman zuyoi" — roughly, "tough people." The winters are brutally cold, especially along the coast. The soil is rocky and hard to farm. Famines were once commonplace. Such an environment bred resilience, tight-knit communities and a fierce attachment to traditional family life among the people who remained.

Now, thousands of those families have been shattered. Multigenerational homes have been destroyed. Traditional family support networks have been ripped apart.

"In places like this, old people are supposed to raise grandchildren and drink tea. And suddenly that's all gone," says Kingston. "Where are they going to get the mental and physical resources to come back?"

Japan's population is among the world's most rapidly aging. Birth rates are plunging as young Japanese wait to get married and have fewer children. Life spans are increasing.

The numbers are stark: people age 65 and older account for a record 23.2 percent of the population in 2011, compared to 12.9 percent in the United States in 2009.

The demographic challenge that has created, affecting everything from pension plans to national politics, is magnified intensely along the tsunami-savaged northeastern coast.

As Japan rapidly became a modern economic power after World War II, life around here lost its appeal. Generations of parents watched as their children fled small-town life, abandoning farms and fishing boats to find office jobs in big cities.

Then, as Japan's overall economy began sagging in the 1990s, townspeople watched again as fish processing factories — long a regional manufacturing mainstay — started laying off workers or closing. More young people left.

The result is places like Kesennuma, a town of about 73,000 with a small port and down-at-the heels hot-spring resorts. Officials say about 30 percent of the population is older than 65.

"The younger generation sees no future in places like this," says Shinichiro Yoshida, 36, a manager for one of the city's nursing homes. Yoshida, an earnest man in glasses and a white face mask, has been working to exhaustion since the tsunami tore through the nursing complex, killing 45 of the 136 residents.

After getting survivors to the gymnasium-shelter, he has been struggling to find places where they can stay for the coming months. "We're taking them all over the area — anywhere we can find for them with electricity and with water, and where we can get transportation to move them there," he says.

Despite what happened to them, he says they haven't discussed the tsunami. In many ways that's not surprising. Japanese ideals of stoicism and reserve are magnified among the country's elderly, and even more among the gaman zuyoi. Publicly reflecting on pain just isn't done, and Yoshida says the nursing-home residents have made that clear.

"They don't talk about it," he says, "and we don't ask about it."

Story: Radiation in seawater may be spreading in Japan

Yoshida says most of his peers left Kesennuma years ago for Sendai, the closest large city, or Tokyo. Now it will be even harder for his hometown to hold onto its young people, as the destruction drives away even more businesses.

The carpenter's mother doesn't even want to think about that.

Tamiko Onodera spent her life in Kesennuma. She worked in a fish processing factory, and her husband was a construction worker until he died a few years ago. They earned enough to buy a couple of plots of land in the town.

Now, a tiny space has become her world — the two straw mattresses where she and her son sleep, the four folding chairs set up at one end, stacked with a few handfuls of donated goods. She sits among these items and says she is terrified of even going back to the destroyed home.

She and her son left the house immediately after the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake that caused the tsunami. They drove away with the wave's strange, hissing roar just a few hundred yards (meters) behind them.

"I don't want to move," she says, her tiny eyes almost hidden amid a face filled with wrinkles. "This has always been where I lived. ... But I haven't decided anything. I don't know if we'll rebuild."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Map: Japan earthquake

  1. Above: Map Japan earthquake
  2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
  3. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
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    Timeline Crisis in Japan

Explainer: The 10 deadliest earthquakes in recorded history

  • A look at the worst earthquakes in recorded history, in loss of human life. (The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsumani that affected eastern Japan is not included because the fatalities caused, about 15,000, are fewer than those resulting from the temblors listed below.) Sources: United States Geological Survey, Encyclopedia Britannica

  • 1: Shensi, China, Jan. 23, 1556

    Magnitude about 8, about 830,000 deaths.

    This earthquake occurred in the Shaanxi province (formerly Shensi), China, about 50 miles east-northeast of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi. More than 830,000 people are estimated to have been killed. Damage extended as far away as about 270 miles northeast of the epicenter, with reports as far as Liuyang in Hunan, more than 500 miles away. Geological effects reported with this earthquake included ground fissures, uplift, subsidence, liquefaction and landslides. Most towns in the damage area reported city walls collapsed, most to all houses collapsed and many of the towns reported ground fissures with water gushing out.

  • 2: Tangshan, China, July 27, 1976

    Chinese Earthquake
    Keystone  /  Getty Images
    1976: Workers start rebuilding work following earthquake damage in the Chinese city of Tangshan, 100 miles east of Pekin, with a wrecked train carriage behind them. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
    Magnitude 7.5. Official casualty figure is 255,000 deaths. Estimated death toll as high as 655,000.

    Damage extended as far as Beijing. This is probably the greatest death toll from an earthquake in the last four centuries, and the second greatest in recorded history.

  • 3: Aleppo, Syria, Aug. 9, 1138

    Magnitude not known, about 230,000 deaths.

    Contemporary accounts said the walls of Syria’s second-largest city crumbled and rocks cascaded into the streets. Aleppo’s citadel collapsed, killing hundreds of residents. Although Aleppo was the largest community affected by the earthquake, it likely did not suffer the worst of the damage. European Crusaders had constructed a citadel at nearby Harim, which was leveled by the quake. A Muslim fort at Al-Atarib was destroyed as well, and several smaller towns and manned forts were reduced to rubble. The quake was said to have been felt as far away as Damascus, about 220 miles to the south. The Aleppo earthquake was the first of several occurring between 1138 and 1139 that devastated areas in northern Syria and western Turkey.

  • 4: Sumatra, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2004

    Aerial images show the extent of the devastation in Meulaboh
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images
    MEULABOH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 29: In this handout photo taken from a print via the Indonesian Air Force, the scene of devastation in Meulaboh, the town closest to the Sunday's earthquake epicentre, is pictured from the air on December 29, 2004, Meulaboh, Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. The western coastal town in Aceh Province, only 60 kilometres north-east of the epicentre, has been the hardest hit by sunday's underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Officials expected to find at least 10,000 killed which would amount to a quarter of Meulaboh's population. Three-quarters of Sumatra's western coast was destroyed and some towns were totally wiped out after the tsunamis that followed the earthquake. (Photo by Indonesian Air Force via Getty Images)

    Magnitude 9.1, 227,898 deaths.

    This was the third largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and the largest since the 1964 Prince William Sound, Alaska temblor. In total, 227,898 people were killed or were missing and presumed dead and about 1.7 million people were displaced by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 14 countries in South Asia and East Africa. (In January 2005, the death toll was 286,000. In April 2005, Indonesia reduced its estimate for the number missing by over 50,000.)

  • 5: Haiti, Jan 12, 2010

    Haitians walk through collapsed building
    Jean-philippe Ksiazek  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Haitians walk through collapsed buildings near the iron market in Port-au-Prince on January 31, 2010. Quake-hit Haiti will need at least a decade of painstaking reconstruction, aid chiefs and donor nations warned, as homeless, scarred survivors struggled today to rebuild their lives. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK (Photo credit should read JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

    Magnitude 7.0. According to official estimates, 222,570 people killed.

    According to official estimates, 300,000 were also injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,294 houses destroyed and 188,383 damaged in the Port-au-Prince area and in much of southern Haiti. This includes at least 4 people killed by a local tsunami in the Petit Paradis area near Leogane. Tsunami waves were also reported at Jacmel, Les Cayes, Petit Goave, Leogane, Luly and Anse a Galets.

  • 6: Damghan, Iran, Dec. 22, 856

    Magnitude not known, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake struck a 200-mile stretch of northeast Iran, with the epicenter directly below the city of Demghan, which was at that point the capital city. Most of the city was destroyed as well as the neighboring areas. Approximately 200,000 people were killed.

  • 7: Haiyuan, Ningxia , China, Dec. 16, 1920

    7.8 magnitude, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake brought total destruction to the Lijunbu-Haiyuan-Ganyanchi area. Over 73,000 people were killed in Haiyuan County. A landslide buried the village of Sujiahe in Xiji County. More than 30,000 people were killed in Guyuan County. Nearly all the houses collapsed in the cities of Longde and Huining. About 125 miles of surface faulting was seen from Lijunbu through Ganyanchi to Jingtai. There were large numbers of landslides and ground cracks throughout the epicentral area. Some rivers were dammed, others changed course.

  • 8: Ardabil, Iran, March. 23, 893

    Magnitude not known, about 150,000 deaths

    The memories of the massive Damghan earthquake (see above) had barely faded when only 37 years later, Iran was again hit by a huge earthquake. This time it cost 150,000 lives and destroyed the largest city in the northwestern section of the country. The area was again hit by a fatal earthquake in 1997.

  • 9: Kanto, Japan, Sept. 1, 1923

    Kanto Damage
    Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images
    1923: High-angle view of earthquake and fire damage on Hongokucho Street and the Kanda District, taken from the Yamaguchi Bank building after the Kanto earthquake, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
    7.9 magnitude, 142,800 deaths.

    This earthquake brought extreme destruction in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, both from the temblor and subsequent firestorms, which burned about 381,000 of the more than 694,000 houses that were partially or completely destroyed. Although often known as the Great Tokyo Earthquake (or the Great Tokyo Fire), the damage was most severe in Yokohama. Nearly 6 feet of permanent uplift was observed on the north shore of Sagami Bay and horizontal displacements of as much as 15 feet were measured on the Boso Peninsula.

  • 10: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Oct. 5, 1948

    7.3 magnitude, 110,000 deaths.

    This quake brought extreme damage in Ashgabat (Ashkhabad) and nearby villages, where almost all the brick buildings collapsed, concrete structures were heavily damaged and freight trains were derailed. Damage and casualties also occurred in the Darreh Gaz area in neighboring Iran. Surface rupture was observed both northwest and southeast of Ashgabat. Many sources list the casualty total at 10,000, but a news release from the newly independent government on Dec. 9, 1988, advised that the correct death toll was 110,000. (Turkmenistan had been part of the Soviet Union, which tended to downplay the death tolls from man-made and natural disasters.)

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