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Exclusive: One Man’s Harrowing Story of Surviving the Japan Tsunami

KORIYAMA, Fukushima—During my months of reporting and interviewing survivors about the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, one particular person stood out.

Ryo Kanouya, 26, can no longer live in his hometown village of Namie in Fukushima Prefecture because of its proximity to the Dai Ichi Nuclear Power Plant. Kanouya, who now lives in the neighboring Ibaraki Prefecture, agreed to share with me his harrowing near-death experience from that March day five years ago. The following account has been edited for length and clarity.

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Ryo Kanoya, 26, is one of thousands of nuclear refugees displaced due to the radioactive fallout from the failed reactors of Dai Ichi Nuclear Power Plant. Photo by Ari Beser

“I was at work when the earthquake struck. While we gathered ourselves from the massive quake, the tsunami alert was issued. Officials predicted a three-meter-high [ten-foot-high] tsunami wave. My company ordered employees who lived in the coastal areas to return home to help the elderly residents evacuate.

By the time I got to my house, which was about one km [.5 miles] away from the coast, the time that the tsunami was supposed to hit had already passed. My father and both of my grandmothers were there. [My mother and sister were at work]. I suggested we evacuate, but my father said we would be fine because the predicted time had already passed. He stayed upstairs and my grandmothers and I were on the first floor watching the news. All of a sudden, the electricity cut out and the next moment my father yelled, ‘Come upstairs right away!’

I helped my grandmothers on their way up the stairs; they had weak backs and feet. I looked outside toward the ocean through a window and I saw something like smoke rolling over the trees planted along the coast to stop sand coming from the beach. I wondered if it was fire. But it was spray of the tsunami wave.

I looked outside toward the ocean through a window and I saw something like smoke rolling over the trees planted along the coast to stop sand coming from the beach. I wondered if it was fire. But it was spray of the tsunami wave.

I shouted, ‘We’ve got to run away!’ But it was too late. We decided to remain upstairs and resist the shock.

I saw the elementary school hit enormously by the tsunami making incredible spray. After a while the tsunami hit my home, but it stood strongly against the current. I thought we had survived, but this was only the beginning of the tsunami’s power. The water level rapidly grew higher and higher until it reached the ceiling. At one moment I thought I’d try to get outside, however, the current’s velocity was too strong and my efforts proved impossible.

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A wrecked car sits along the coastal plane of Namie, a year after the tsunami. Since the tsunami, residents have been allowed to enter the town for only a few hours during the day, however no one is permitted to stay over night.   Photo by Ryo Kanoya 

Meanwhile there was [just] a centimeter space where water lapped against the ceiling. I prayed that the water level would not get any higher. Helplessly the space became perfectly occupied by the water. I struggled, not being able to breathe. I drank much of the sea water against my will. I thought I had died. ‘I may as well exhale the remaining air in my lungs to die,’ I remember thinking.

The next moment I heard [a] cracking sound made by my home’s destruction. And I swirled outside of my house, the insanely violent current pulled me out like water down a drain. This moment I thought I was done.

I was drained from my house into the soup of seawater, cars, houses, and everything the tsunami carried. To my surprise, I was able to reach the surface. My father and I recognized each other, [but] I watched him get washed away toward the mountainside. I was washed toward the ocean.

I took off my jacket and searched for something that I could grab. Luckily a drawer for clothes came floating toward me and I climbed onto it. I felt relief. But I realized the incredible current was rapidly pulling me toward the ocean at high speed. When I was thinking what should do next, I found a pile of debris sticking in a huge tree ahead of me. I held on with all of my remaining strength as I watched people being swept away around me. I remember one girl in particular floating away on top of a drawer like the one I was on, I don’t know what happened to her. I waited there until the water level got low, slowly making my way down as the water receded until I was back on solid ground.

When I got to the ground I looked out at my destroyed town. I hid next to a giant rock to avoid the strong seaside gusts. March in Fukushima is cold, especially by the coast. I was shivering and wet, and I didn’t have any shoes. The next tsunami was about to reach me. But I was unable to move myself because it was too cold. I found a helicopter flying over and waved to it. But the helicopter wasn’t there to rescue survivors. ‘If you don’t move now, you’re going to die,’ I thought. And I mustered up the energy and got up.

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The plot of land that used to occupy Kanoya’s house, which was totally destroyed and washed away by the powerful tsunami waves on March 11, 2011. Photo by Ryo Kanoya 

I walked, ignoring the pain in my body and feet, and kept calling out ‘Anyone alive!?’ I only saw dead bodies.

Suddenly an elderly man came toward me. When we looked at the bridge we could see a fire department’s vehicle. We ran desperately toward it.

Meanwhile, I saw some survivors waiting to get rescued on their roofs. When we crossed the bridge, I found my acquaintance and he took us to the evacuation camp.  I can’t remember how long after we got there, but we were evacuated from there because of the core meltdown of the reactors at Dai-Ichi almost immediately. The evacuations started gradually. First it was only a few miles away, than more and more and eventually the exclusion zone as it is today was established.

Soon after I was reunited with my father and mother and sister in the evacuation shelter in Odaka, but we never found my grandmothers. If it weren’t for the nuclear reactor we would have been able to stay and search for them, and maybe even save them. Now my friends and I are the next generation of Namie, but we are spread out all over Japan. However it is up to us to continue the spirit of our town, I never give up the hope that one day I will be able to return and raise my family there.

Ari M. Beser  is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima.  Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.