Back from the Brink - Minami-Soma: April 2011

11. April 2011

Back from the Brink

David McNeill

Like most Japanese men, Katsunobu Sakurai read apocalyptic comic book stories about the future when he was a boy. He never expected to live through one of those stories himself.

A common plot sees a modern city reduced overnight to a ghostly husk as fears of nuclear contamination empties it of people. Businesses shut and food, water and petrol run out. Old people left behind begin dying. The city mayor makes a desperate televised appeal for help. Such is real life in Sakurai's city of Minami-Soma.

Over 71,000 people lived here before March 11. Today there are fewer than 10,000. About 1,470 are dead or missing, the remainder are scattered throughout Japan in over 300 different locations, "as far as we can tell," adds Sakurai, who took over as mayor in January. Dangling from his neck are two radiation counters, a reminder that the nightmare that descended on his city last month has yet to end.

Mayor Sakurai briefly became one of the most famous faces of Japan's disaster when he posted an 11-minute video on YouTube pleading for help. The March 11 quake and tsunami had pulverised the city's coast, but it was its proximity to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant 25 km away that transformed the city's predicament into an existential crisis.

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