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

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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 Kanoya, 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. Kanoya, 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.

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 —> Read More