Reporter Recalls Covering Japanese Quake, Tsunami

NPR's John Burnett recently completed three weeks of reporting in Japan — and we hear some of his impressions. More than a month after the earthquake and tsunami, cities are still packed with debris, and hundreds of thousands of people are living in evacuation shelters. Burnett tells Michele Norris about the impact on the Japanese people — and about one tragic story he wished he could have told.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

It has been more than a month since the magnitude nine earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan's northeast coast. The numbers alone are staggering: more than 27,000 people confirmed or presumed dead, nearly 140,000 people living in evacuation shelters. And there was the crisis at the nuclear plant and the evacuations and the fears that followed.

NPR's John Burnett recently completed a three-week assignment in Japan, and he took some time to share with us the strongest impressions he'll take home with him.

JOHN BURNETT: It seems like I've covered a fair number of disasters over the years. And the last two that come to mind would be Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast of the U.S. and then the earthquake in Haiti in January of 2010. And the strongest impressions I bring out of the tsunami destruction zone in the northeast coast of Japan is just the utter apocalyptic destruction that's gone on up there.

I mean, think of a wave that hit in this one northern community up there, 124 feet tall was the height of the tsunami that the University of Tokyo researchers measured. That's taller than a 10-story building. The damage that this has done, I've never seen anything like it before, Michele.

NORRIS: Beyond the devastation of land, property, towns wiped out, what about the people you met? How are those who survived this holding up?

BURNETT: It's amazing. There's this Japanese concept gaman; it's a combination of patience, endurance and perseverance. And the people we've seen who've lost everything; loved ones, businesses, homes, they appear so resolute and even cheerful. I must say, though, it is wearing thin when there are people that are living together in high school gyms and community centers and these little partitions between them.

I mean, in one hard-hit city, Ishinomaki, 3,145 households have applied for 137 temporary houses under construction. So it just gives you an idea of how many homes they need.

But people are holding up remarkably well. The Japanese really embody this concept of gaman, of endurance.

NORRIS: Is it something that they reach for almost by default, but in this moment, do they have to, sort of, try very hard to hold on to that? Is it something that they're clinging to, to help them survive?

BURNETT: I wouldn't say so. I mean, I think it comes organically. It's who they are. And they also understand tsunamis and they understand earthquakes in a profound way. Grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers have told them about the disaster that was wrought by these earlier great waves, so, you know, here we go again.

NORRIS: How much do people talk about the concerns over radiation exposure?

BURNETT: Just around the evacuation zone, around the Fukushima plant, people are worried about what they're eating and drinking from the tap. They're worried about their children. They're worried about exposing their skin to the elements, and so you're hearing them talk about wearing long-sleeved shirts, wearing caps, sort of running from the car into the store.

The relationship between the Japanese people and TEPCO, Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the nuclear plants, has really worn thin. And I think some Japanese are not trusting what they're hearing from the government and from TEPCO anymore in terms of radiation exposure.

NORRIS: John, I've got to let you go, but I have one last question for you. One of the reasons we wanted to talk to you is often when reporters leave a big story, there are certain things that stay in their notebook, things that they didn't quite get to. Is there a story that you wanted to report that you just didn't have time to get to?

BURNETT: There was. There was the story of a mayor in a city called Rikuzentakata who lost his wife in the tsunami, and he had to decide whether he was going to be the chief executive of his city and oversee its evacuation and continue to be the mayor, or was he going to run home and warn his wife and try to save her. And he stayed at city hall. And his house was on the seaside and his wife drowned. And he's living with that enormous weight of the choice that he made when the tsunami hit. And I'd heard about his story, and I wished I could have talked to him.

NORRIS: I'm glad you were able to share it with us.

John, thank you very much. Thank you for your work. And thanks for making time for this.

BURNETT: It's my pleasure, Michele.

NORRIS: That was NPR's John Burnett.

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