The series of earthquakes that began sometime before March 9, 2011, shook the shores of northeastern Japan in an altogether different fashion. They rolled and jostled as if moving through a liquid substance—a waterbed motion as opposed to the rigid shearing and shattering temblors that would follow. This is one of the most quake-prone regions of the world, so little thought was given to what are now known to have been foreshocks of the fourth-largest earthquake ever recorded.

***

In the bluing evening of March 10, Mr. Sato and two friends met at his favorite beach to check the surf. The dominant offshore winds rushed through a picturesque stand of pines, crossed the cold sand, and then feathered steely ocean waves. Despite the great conditions, the sea was nearly flat and had been for some time. Still, Mr. Sato and his friends held a sense of expectation. A moderate swell had been forecasted for the next day. And it may have been overly hopeful of the crew, but they thought they stood a chance at catching some pre-runners that evening. The ocean, however, showed little life.

Regardless, for Mr. Sato it was always important to make a connection with what he considered his beach. He’d been one of the first surfers in the north, and with his pick of spots to occupy, he made this ribbon between two rivers home base. Over the years it had become an important spiritual location too, as he’d spread the ashes of deceased friends and relatives in the waves—the first had been a childhood friend and the last was his father—so that when he experienced surfing here, he believed he was communing with them as well. “In your stead,” he thought, “I will ride some waves.”

Mr. Sato and his friends hung out and talked; they discussed the sandbars and, offhand, the increasingly smaller period between those shallow earthquakes they’d been feeling for days now. Shortly after sundown, the surfers said their goodbyes and went home expecting swell. In his car, Mr. Sato passed the pines, a neighborhood of about 200 homes, and an elementary school.

***

Satoshi Sasaki, a lanky longboarder who admired and copied the California-rebel style of Alex Knost, had been well aware of the foreshocks, but their soft roll and magnitude hardly put him on edge. Sasaki processed the quakes in an odd way. He’d had a hairdressing appointment for the next day, a Friday, and he remembers thinking, “I hope we don’t get a big earthquake while I’m getting that perm.” At 2:46 p.m., March 11, Sasaki’s hair was just about finished. He looked in the mirror and was admiring the tight artificial curls when he noticed them trembling. Sasaki wasn’t moving; the earth was. Then the big one struck.

***

Pete Sawka, the son of an American missionary family, lived with his wife, Christina, in a bluff-top cabin above Shobuta, the area’s oldest surfing beach. The property looked something like a Lake Tahoe resort on the ocean, with pines, patchy snow cover, and a gravely granite earth. Ten yards east of their front porch, a cliff dropped off about 30 feet to the ocean below. The couple kept a blue picnic table near the cliff edge, where they took in panoramic views of the coastline. They could see the shipping port, a gas refinery, and the plain of Sendai just a few kilometers south. At 2:46 p.m., Sawka happened to be standing in his cabin, looking through the bay window at the ocean. Then the ground rumbled and continued rumbling for a full six minutes. “This is a real earthquake,” he thought.

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Photo Credit: Obata
Japanese culture reveres the ocean as dangerous and powerful—a place for serious work, and not play.

When Sawka went to the front door and opened it, something outside was different. Maybe it was that picnic table. It leaned like a drinking straw. He stepped outside. A significant portion of their property had disappeared into the ocean below. Sirens began wailing.

He and Christina quickly departed for his parents’ house, which was on still-higher ground. Loudspeakers throughout the village then announced a tsunami warning. Estimated wave heights were given starting at 50 centimeters. With each announcement, the estimation grew: 1 meter, 3 meters, 5 meters, 10 meters. Sawka found his parents well, and as curious about the wave as he and his wife were. They stood on the cliff and argued as to the safety of their distance. Then the tsunami’s first wave hit. Somewhere below, it spilled around the Sawkas’ cabin hill as if it were a cobble on the shore. The following wave swamped the port and overturned freighters. Shipping containers scattered; buildings and large equipment were crushed. This was a one-two punch, the back end of which was a four-story wall. Seawater moved ashore, felling forests and plowing homes into homes like leaves in a tumult. At this point, the wave turned black. A fog rose from the debris and traveled with the water as it surged 6 miles inland. “I was smoking cigarettes like crazy,” Sawka said, “and then boom, fire on the water.” A seafront gas refinery exploded. Fuel slicks caught spark on the ocean, and the ocean itself caught fire.

***

Kiyotaka “Yokko” Yokooka had been in his surf shop, preparing to leave for the day. He needed to pick up his 7- and 10-year-old daughters from school. On his way out, the racks, counters, and walls began to shake violently. “We were always taught that the big earthquake would come someday,” Yokko said. “I knew this was the one.” Yokko jumped into his work van and sped off for the school. He quickly found his younger daughter, but was told that the elder, a girl with disabilities, had already fled with a caretaker. He made a beeline for his home, where he assumed his daughter and the caretaker would rendezvous. They found the house vacant, so Yokko and his younger daughter continued to search likely locations. The van’s dashboard held a portable navigation system that could be used as a television set. Yokko flipped it on. The television news broadcast an aerial view of the unfolding disaster. This was how he learned that the broad plain of Sendai, where he searched for his missing daughter, was being subsumed by the tsunami.

***

Mr. Sato was making his way through city traffic to a beach neighborhood next to the river. He owned a car-import business headquartered there. En route, the road before him began shaking “like a snake.” Traffic snarled. He called an employee at the garage to see how the business had fared. On a hunch, he asked the worker to lock up and meet him in the city. The worker chose one of the import cars and pointed it away from the beach. But he quickly ran into bumper-to-bumper traffic. Then the worker saw the water coming from behind and homes folding in its path. He jumped out of the car and climbed a balcony to the roof of a house. All he could do was hold on. The wave struck and pushed the structure off its foundation. The roof began to float. The worker rode the surge inland. Sometime later, a motorboat happened by and the castaway was invited aboard. Eventually, however, the water began to recede back into the ocean. The boat driver fought the current until the engine exploded. Sato’s worker ditched the boat for another rooftop. But this house, too, began to crumble and sink. It lodged against a telephone pole, which the man climbed. He watched and waited. Finally, he withdrew a cell phone to inform his boss of the delay. “Like a cartoon,” Mr. Sato said.

***

In the van, Yokko’s younger daughter spotted the caretaker’s car and then her sister riding in it. For the Yokookas, a personal tragedy seemed averted. In the days following the tsunami, however, the prefecture’s problems were just beginning. Loved ones were missing. Electricity was out. There was no fresh water. The only fuel available lay in the gas tanks of the surviving cars. Foodstuffs were running desperately low.

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Photo Credit: Kimoto
The culture on land is the strongest predictor for what happens in the lineup.

“The world congratulated Japanese morals because we didn’t loot during the disaster,” Yokko said. “But this was misleading. If we didn’t get food soon, my neighbors and I had already decided to loot the
convenience store.”

Despite everything, Yokko felt an intense desire to see what had happened to his beach. To get there required running a gauntlet of devastation, one now guarded by national-defense forces. He couldn’t explain the senseless use of fuel to his wife, and they argued bitterly. But Yokko wouldn’t be deterred. He passed so many foundations cleaned of their houses that the route looked like a new development rising from a dump site. At the checkpoint, he concocted a lie. To say that he wanted to check the surf would have been an irrecoverable offense to the missing and the dead.

The coast was unrecognizable. Metric tons of sand had moved or disappeared. Shipping containers and their loads carpeted the shore. A nearby Kirin Brewery had been gutted, and Yokko came upon a stretch of large brown bottles filled with beer. He loaded a cache into the van, knowing that neighbors would be pleased. Then his cell phone rang. It was Hiro Shimizu, a friend with a history of anti-nuclear activism. Yokko belonged to his emergency call network. “Power was cut to the nuclear power plant,” Shimizu said. “The backup generators aren’t working and one of the reactors is in meltdown; the others could be next.” Yokko was familiar with the plant. He envisioned the diesel backup generators in the basement and he guessed what had happened—and what was happening at that moment—just kilometers down the coast. Japanese news media wouldn’t report the extent of the situation for a full week.

***

Three years after the Tōhoku earthquake, the 130-foot-high tsunami, and the Level 7 meltdowns in three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, I traveled to northeastern Japan with a number of questions concerning the local surfing population. In our increasingly polluted oceans, I believed, surfers must surely be the canaries in the coal mine. In the instance of the Fukushima disaster, the contamination was in the water and so were they. As Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist Ken Buesseler said, “This is an unprecedented ocean event.” Dominant offshore winds blew an estimated 80 percent of Fukushima Daiichi’s atmospheric contamination out to sea. Additional releases went directly into the water. Radiation leaks from the plant actually increased in early April 2011. A number of dangerous mishaps have occurred since. And, with time, the community learned that the disabled plant continued to contaminate groundwater to the tune of 400 metric tons per day, and that this water had only one place to go.

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Photo Credit: Getty
As seen in this satellite view, three days after the tsunami, officials reported that a fire at the plant released radioactive material into the atmosphere. The region’s dominant winds blew up to 80 percent of the radiation out to sea.

I knew that for a short time the act of surfing had all but ended in the prefectures surrounding Fukushima Daiichi. To a Westerner, this seemed like a logical precaution. Some surfers drove to the far coast and surfed the Sea of Japan. Some went north. Some just plain quit. Some surfers up and moved their families as far away as Okinawa. But now, years later, I understood that surfers were reclaiming their waves, their beaches, and, in many ways, their identities. I could only assume that these individual decisions to return to the sea had been based on calculated assessments of individual safety.

Given the nature of this disaster, however, these were difficult and mercurial assessments to make. TEPCO, the energy company that owned Fukushima Daiichi, had built a track record of misinforming the public. The Japanese media underreported the significance of the meltdowns from the beginning. Most people felt that the government was not up front with them either. There was a paucity of information and a host of potential threats. In this atmosphere, rumor, personal theories, and world views filled the void.

One thing I thought I knew for sure was that the group of surfers returning to their affected breaks had to be the most dedicated and courageous I could point to. I wanted to know how their lives had changed, what mechanisms they employed to cope with this new environment, and how cultural norms dictated their actions. But mostly I wanted to know what the fuck they were thinking.

***

“The earthquake and tsunami were bad, and people died,” said 46-year-old Hiro Shimizu. “But the radiation is the disaster. There are places we just cannot go. There’s a lot of food we just cannot eat.”

I met Shimizu at Japan’s largest board-sports trade show, held an hour outside Tokyo in Yokohama. He grew up in Sendai, the closest coastal city to Fukushima, and he regularly surfed spots within kilometers of the nuclear plant. As a local standout, he found work in the surf industry. Later he married a woman from Osaka and they purchased land next to Shobuta Beach. Shimizu had poured the foundation of the house in which he planned to raise his two children. It was to be their dream home. In conversation it was clear that Shimizu loved this rugged coast, and that, before the nuclear accident, he was looking forward to a life close to his extended family.

The Shimizus represent one of many families who picked up and left. They considered the information available and made difficult decisions, the kind I thought that most Westerners would make. I imagined that if the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, just south of San Clemente, experienced a meltdown, hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians would do the same. But in talking to Shimizu, I first became aware of the vast cultural differences that make decisions like his family’s much more nuanced and costly in Japanese society. Repeatedly I would learn that cultural inclinations, more than the actual number of radioactive becquerels per cubic meter of sand or water, determined the course of surfers’ lives. I thought these decisions would be logical, but they were not; they were deeply cultural and personal.

Snow on the beach is standard. Gloves are a must. Dry suits are common.

“Japanese people must take care of their parents,” Shimizu explained. “Old people either can’t move or don’t want to. It is too difficult for them to start over. And if the parents stay, the children must remain to care for them. That’s why my friends stayed, and that’s why they’re surfing now. I know I wouldn’t stop surfing either.”

It is hard for Westerners to understand how important respect and care for one’s elders are to the Japanese. When he looked in the mirror, Shimizu said, he saw that the shame of leaving his parents and moving his young family to his wife’s hometown of Osaka caused a stress that had physically aged him.

Many of his closest neighbors lost everything in the tsunami, but, like Pete Sawka’s cabin nearby, Shimizu’s plot was elevated enough to avoid damage. Their neighborhood was not evacuated, and in fact it lay on the outer edge of the farthest designation of the radioactive fallout zone. Most of his peer group found justifications to remain. The government insisted that all was clear. Everything in his upbringing suggested that he stay and soldier on. I wanted to know why, exactly, they packed up.

This is where the Shimizus’ personal history found conflict with the dictates of culture. Years earlier, Hiro and his wife, Kana, had become attached to anti-nuclear groups when TEPCO initiated plans to operate a nuclear waste dump nearby. Activism educated a number of local fishermen and surfers, including Yokko, as to the workings of nuclear plants and the dangers involved with nuclear power generation. In fact, in 1997 a seismology professor named Katsuhiko Ishibashi theorized a scenario in which an earthquake disables a nuclear power plant and causes a meltdown near large populations. He envisioned a course of events in which radiation levels at the plant prevent attempts to contain the accident, and earthquake damage prevents evacuation. All Japanese activists knew of his work, which came to be known as the genpatsu-shinsai (“fatal event”) theory. And despite the fact that Japanese media were not forthright as to the extent of the situation, after the uncontainable hydrogen explosions, people like the Shimizus saw genpatsu-shinsai coming true. Further, Shimizu knew that a tragic legacy of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine was a high rate of thyroid cancers in children, who are much more susceptible to radioactive iodine of the type emitted by Fukushima Daiichi.

Shimizu spoke English in simple, powerful sentences. In hindsight, I realized that he’d tried to explain how activism set them apart from the cultural mores that would have kept them in the disaster zone. Not understanding, I pressed for the specific reason Shimizu and his wife abandoned their dream home at the beach when so many did not evacuate. Finally, Shimizu raised his hands as if to cup the glands below his jawline, indicating the enlarged lymph nodes and nodules developed by young victims of thyroid cancer. “Our children,” he said. “For my kids.”

“We were convinced that we needed to get out,” Shimizu said. “And I called all of my friends who had kids.” He called activist and professional longboarder David Kinoshita, who took the call as he was already fleeing south. Kinoshita’s evacuation heighted the Shimizus’ concern, and this is why Yokko received the next call.

***

Given the national state of mourning for the 17,000 tsunami victims, as he weaved through the former beach neighborhoods Satoshi Sasaki didn’t want to get caught singing along with, or even listening to, the radio. Grasses grew high, obscuring the cement foundations with nothing on them. This blanket of grief felt like a fog that would not lift. Sasaki figured they’d never barbecue on the beach again. He felt ashamed of driving around with a surfboard in his car, and honestly did not want to be seen enjoying the ocean. But he did want to surf—“so bad,” he said. So on one occasion Sasaki drove to an out-of-the-way pointbreak where he didn’t expect to be seen by anyone he knew. Concerning radiation, he said, “When I decided to go into the ocean, I thought, ‘Screw it, I won’t think about that.’” He was more concerned with militant fishermen who were known to chase surfers off of the point. Sasaki suited up, withdrew his board from the car, and walked out to the surf. On the wet sand he came upon mementos of the dead. Pieces of family photos had washed up, as had baby dolls, underwear, and “sadness.” Sasaki stopped walking midway. He turned around, went back to the car, and pulled his suit off.

The clean-up effort was also a search and rescue effort, as thousands went missing in the wake of the tsunami.

Sasaki thought he might feel different if he lived and surfed somewhere else. So he approached his parents with the prospect of moving away. His elderly mother said, “Please, don’t.”

“So I knew I couldn’t,” Sasaki said.

To lighten his mood, he made the long trek to the beaches east of Tokyo. At Chiba he saw something that shocked him: children. They were frolicking in the waves. In the north, there were no children at the beach. The common refrain was that adult surfers would die of old age before cancer could finish them. But parents wouldn’t let their kids enter the water. Sasaki’s trip to Tokyo only reminded him of what they faced at home. He decided he didn’t like Tokyo after all.

Sasaki didn’t surf his home breaks for a full year after the disasters. I asked him why, if indeed he didn’t care about radiation. He looked at me squarely and said, “Because of the ghosts at the beach.”

***

In the absence of an active surfing population, Yokko was forced to close his surf shop. He found work renovating damaged homes, which was much more abundant. Still, he had some time on his hands. And being a creature of habit, even if he didn’t surf, he went to the beach. This was an odd scene. Yokko found himself parking in ways that allowed for the most efficient evacuation route. Others had this idea too, so the rears of parking lots were popular. Yokko didn’t like to turn his back to the ocean either, for fear of what might be coming. He wasn’t the only one. The region experienced more than 1,000 aftershocks in the wake of the 9.0 Tōhoku quake. Nearly a hundred of these registered above a magnitude 6.0. Some caused minor tsunamis and even deaths. Anytime a quake hit the beach and the sirens went off, surfers scrambled for the sand and scurried up to parking lots, where they waited for a lump on the horizon. In time, like the tide, they eased back out.

***

After the disasters, Mr. Sato continued to surf and go to work, but he surfed the distant Sea of Japan and his work consisted of cleaning up the refuse and rubble around the shell of his import shop. His entire stock of 20 cars washed away in the tsunami. Mr. Sato thought he saw five or six of their carcasses smashed in with the refuse of the neighborhood, but they were not worth saving, or even thinking about again.

Japanese surfer Manabu Watanabe still lives in the Fukushima Prefecture and continues to surf many of the same waves he has his entire life.

The former neighborhood around the shop, once dense with structures, was wide open and quiet. Ironically, the destruction of area homes allowed Mr. Sato a view of something he really couldn’t see before: his river-mouth sandbar. “And the waves there were always awesome,” he admitted. Flotsam and debris occupied the lineup for weeks, and locals said there were still bodies out there. For this reason, groups of elders ordered younger surfers not to surf the affected areas. Mr. Sato, however, didn’t have elders and he couldn’t stand seeing so many waves go unridden. Concerning radiation, he shrugged; he was too old to worry about it. Mr. Sato paddled out. “A lot of people thought I was nuts, but I don’t give a shit. We’re all going to die. We’re all going to return to the ocean.”

***

“Take smoking cigarettes,” said Sawka, a gregarious, bearded American who grew up in Japan. “Everybody knows it’s unhealthy. But people still enjoy it; they take a calculated risk. Same thing with surfing here. Personally, I think the amount of radiation is insignificant.”

At the time, I thought this is what Sawka had to believe to continue surfing. He did admit one caveat, that he didn’t like his head to get wet, which to my mind was akin to hiking without getting your boots dirty.

Shimizu and Yokko had contacted Sawka to act as my translator and guide. He picked me up from the train station and we headed for the beach. I thought he was giving me a tour of the devastated areas, but Sawka was only driving to his house to check in with his wife. “We didn’t need TV,” he said. “We were living it.”

At first, Sawka did go to the refugee centers to gather news of the unfolding meltdowns, and to bum cigarettes. His language skills and missionary background, however, soon sent him whirling into a months-long odyssey of international aid work. He became a liaison between a flood of non-governmental organizations and his stunned neighbors. And in the midst of it he discovered a fascinating quality of disaster. “What I learned is that people are not permanently sad,” Sawka said. “There’s laughing and cigarette bumming. People make jokes about devastation, even their own situations. That’s something the foreign aid workers couldn’t understand. They thought everybody should be sad. In the thick of misery, people still need to have fun.”

This idea of fun was a small insight into the chasm between the lens through which Westerners viewed the catastrophe and the experience of the locals. We could write the Japanese off as contaminated and screwed. But they had to keep living here—to breathe and eat and keep trying to have fun.

Sawka and I ran into Sasaki checking the surf near the port of Sendai. Bitter winds blew down from the snow-capped mountains, and flurries of snow dust roiled in the parking lot. The surf wasn’t that great, so we decided to head south into Fukushima Prefecture. On the way, I asked to stop off at something Yokko had mentioned in passing—the Nami Wake Jinja, which roughly translates as the “wave-splitting shrine.” Standing since the ninth century, it had been described to me as the place where “the wave stops.” There are several ancient markers like this in the region, and each admonishes future generations not to build any closer to the ocean lest they be swallowed by a tsunami. This Shinto shrine consisted of a tiny house-like structure, a stone tablet, and a lacquer-red arch—all wedged between a convenience store, an intersection, and a noodle shop. Buildings rose up all around. Sasaki gave me a coin to offer and he showed me how to pray before tugging the rope on a brass bell. A placard nearby listed tsunami waters that had stopped at this place since 869 A.D. The big ones ran every 200 years or so. The 2011 Tōhoku tsunami was right on track, and this site would have been nailed if not for the recent construction of a toll road that was raised up on a three-story earth berm. Video of the water hitting the far side of the earthworks looks like muddy water brimming a bathtub. As Sawka drove away, we passed all of the houses whose builders failed to heed the Jinja’s warning and, if not for a fluke of road engineering, would have been obliterated.

Local surfers often organize around their surf shop clubs and tend to go to specified beaches together. This leaves lots of empty stretches for the independently minded.

I pondered the act of sending a message into the future and the difficulty of reaching the intended audience, even if they ate noodles, or went to the convenience store, or stopped at the stoplight next to the message.

***

In a 2013 presentation at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), marine scientist Ken Buesseler mentioned that his study of human-released radiation in the ocean had all but ended due to the rarity of release events. He’d studied radioisotopes that had been floating around the Pacific since the atmospheric tests of the 1940s and ’50s, as well as radionuclides from Chernobyl in the Black Sea and contaminants leaked into the Irish Sea from the Sellafield nuclear facility in England. Each of these events was separated by decades, and Buesseler had moved on. Then Fukushima Daiichi happened and both Buesseler and WHOI were thrust back into the game. In fact, WHOI launched an ocean-going expedition out of Yokohama in June 2011, just three months after the accident.

Before March 2011, Japanese scientists found the waters off of northeastern Japan to contain some of the lowest levels of cesium-137 in the world. According to WHOI, they found just 2 becquerels per cubic meter—that’s two tiny radioactive decays in a volume of water that could fill a truck bed. One of the reasons this is considered such a small amount is that the ocean is naturally radioactive. Potassium-40, a radionuclide that comes from eroded rock, is thousands of times more abundant. After the explosions and fires at Fukushima Daiichi, however, waters close to the plant tested around 60 million becquerels per cubic meter, enough to mutate marine animals and their offspring.

But as industrial-scale polluters will say, “Dilution is the solution to pollution.” The Pacific Ocean is the biggest body of water on the globe, and the parent company of Fukushima Daiichi claimed that levels of radionuclides dropped off precipitously after the initial event, disappearing into the Pacific. In fact, Buesseler’s recent samples showed levels of cesium-137 near the plant at about 1,000 becquerels per cubic meter—not exactly 2, as it had been before, but lower than the U.S. EPA’s limits for drinking water. “I wouldn’t be concerned [with surfing] at those levels,” Buesseler said in conversation, adding, “I certainly wouldn’t go fishing where they’re surfing and eat that fish every day.”

Something to consider, however, is that these occasional measurements took place in an extreme environment, at the meeting place of the Kuroshio Current, the Oyashio Current, and highly complex local eddies. Sample levels varied, disappearing in some places and spiking at unexpected locales. Of exactly where the various radionuclides had disappeared to, WHOI reported, “significant gaps in understanding remain.”

Another conference attendee, exposure expert Dr. James Seward, said that long-term studies of the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks show that for people who receive a radiation dose above 100 millisieverts, the risks of cancer rise in a straight line with exposure. Only a few workers at Fukushima Daiichi may have received doses at this level. For the rest of the population this means, at worst, low doses over long periods of time—and on this point, there haven’t been enough studies to create consensus about its effects. Low doses could mean an incrementally increased risk of cancer, or it could mean nothing at all. Part of this has to do with the fact that as much as a quarter of a given population will develop cancer anyway. It may be that we’ll never know which, if any, were caused by the low dosages.

As much as 70 percent of Japan’s coastline has been re-engineered by man; from a surfer’s point of view, with mixed results.

Offhand, Buesseler would point out one of the most confounding aspects of the health risks local ocean-goers face: that the disaster is far from over. Estimates suggest that Fukushima Daiichi is contaminating 400 metric tons of groundwater a day. TEPCO is sucking up the most contaminated portion of this and storing it in large steel tanks that sit on a bluff above the plant. Each of these tanks equals 10 percent of the radiation released by the fires and explosions, meaning that 10 tanks encompasses the entire initial release. There are thousands of these tanks. TEPCO’s plan is to decontaminate the tank water, which is full of a radioisotope related to bone cancer, and dump it into the ocean. One of the problems is that they don’t yet know how to decontaminate that stored water. “The tanks are sitting above the ocean, connected by fragile piping, in an earthquake zone,” Buesseler said. Every day, more tanks are filled. Though he iterated that he is not an “alarmist,” Buesseler admitted that the cleanup effort at Fukushima Daiichi “is a mess.”

***

I am ashamed to say, considering that so many people continued to live perfectly well in Fukushima Prefecture, that as Pete Sawka and I surf checked along the coast, I suffered a strain of what the Japanese call the “nuclear allergy.” I was afraid. And to manage this fear, I carried a little Russian-made dosimeter, or Geiger counter. It looked like a toy, but the fact that it was Russian gave me confidence. Following Chernobyl, a lot of readings were taken.

From the toy I learned that Ken Buesseler was correct when he told me that I’d probably received more radiation on the flight over than I did on the ground. But as Sawka drove closer to the nuclear plant, the dosimeter ticked ever upward. The sound of it filled me with excitement and dread.

We were looking for a beachbreak about 12 miles from the nuclear plant. There were, in fact, several quality surf spots close by, a number of which were pioneered by Mr. Sato and his generation. One was called Bokujomai, a break known for the fact that it was warm even in winter due to discharge from the plant. Surfing without gloves was a real treat.

The hilly hamlets along the coast were postcard images of Japan in deep winter—tile-roofed homes with sculpted bonsai gardens and covered vegetable plots. We passed through some wooded hills into a valley of wheat-colored grass and turned down a dirt lane to the beach. Then I spotted something that terrified me. “Is that it?” I asked, pointing to an industrial compound of massive white tanks, equipment, and piping that revealed itself only as we reached the sand.

“Is that what?” asked Sawka.

I could barely say it. I thought we’d made a wrong turn somewhere. “Is that Fukushima Daiichi?”

“No, that’s some other plant—gas, I think.”

It was the feeling of putting your feet close to the cliff edge and then experiencing a wobble. I’d wanted to get close, then I didn’t. The wind, in fact, was at our backs. It sculpted peaks into elongated A-frames. One guy occupied a lonely lineup. The gusts were cold, the water frigid. I walked around, placing the dosimeter to items on the beach, becoming giddy when a mound of tsunami trash sent the device to ticking and pinging. We watched the guy in the water for some time. Given the small size of the surf, he struggled to paddle against the hard offshores and down the faces. I thought, “Fuck it—anyone who wants to wear a drysuit and surf freezing, isolated, wind-blown peaks should do exactly that.” Then my cell phone rang. It was a friend from the United States. He told me that some piping at Fukushima Daiichi had ruptured and had been leaking for two days now.

Before we’d set out, Sawka contacted two guys who surfed this spot regularly and asked them if they’d be game for an interview. The surfers declined, saying that they didn’t want to be made fun of for surfing here. That is something I don’t think I ever would have done.

***

That long flat spell preceding the tsunami was an odd stroke of luck for the local surfing population. With the offshores blowing all day long, the afternoon of March 11 certainly would have seen surfers at any number of beaches. In Tōhoku, to the north, the first tsunami wave blasted through multi-story sea walls. Caught inside, there isn’t a chance the surfers would have survived.

Three years after the disasters, surfers are reassessing their relationship with the sport and the ocean. Though still much higher than before, marine radiation levels have dropped off dramatically. The clean-up effort at Fukushima Daiichi is fraught with potential nuclear disasters that dwarf the original. Still, organizations like Surfrider Japan and local surf shop unions want to foster a stronger connection to the ocean in the nation’s youth so that decisions about coastal engineering, energy policy, and pollution can be made with them in mind.

A fairly established rumor had it that someone was surfing immediately after the tsunami, even as Fukushima Daiichi was hurtling toward meltdown. We cast through the tight-knit surf community to find this person, but no one had a clue, and the supposed spot he surfed changed with each telling. Then Mr. Sato pointed out that the lineups were jam-packed and rancid with debris. The sewage plant had been destroyed and effluent flowed unabated. Surfing would have been unpleasant, if not impossible. The myth of this lone surfer seemed to serve the same purpose as the ghosts seen on the beach, a stand-in for the people they were before the disasters.

I’d been searching for the ignition point that launched surfers back into their breaks even as dangers swirled about. My culture blindness kept me from acknowledging an obvious event. On November 11, 2011, Shinto priests and community leaders gathered their flocks at Shobuta Beach to pray for safety, to console the spirits of the tsunami victims, and to formally open the beach. This seemed to be what some surfers I talked with had been waiting for, a reconciliation with the deadly sea. After the prayers, a team of surfers paddled out. In the following months and years, the surfers who found it within their power slowly joined them.

Yokko said that he believed the sea was contaminated, but that he felt he’d suffer a worse sickness if he didn’t surf. Sasaki said he realized he couldn’t quit. “Half of my identity will disappear if I’m not surfing,” he said. Choosing the lesser of two evils, Sawka quit smoking cigarettes, but continued to surf. He said he thinks about radiation when he’s shopping for fish. “But then I think, ‘I’m gonna eat that.’” Something similar happens when he sees waves.

In his way, Mr. Sato—who broke taboos and surfed early on—accomplished of his own accord the kind of reckoning inspired by the ceremony. When he went to his favorite beach now, the neighborhood, the elementary school, and the pine forest were all gone. Even the beach itself had been changed. “So many people died there,” Mr. Sato said. “You will see them.” The feeling that the dead were still present did not bother Mr. Sato the way it did others. “When I go, I look around. I can see who is missing. I pray and I talk to my dead friends,” he said. “We surf because we’re surfers. And after the tsunami, I felt a deeper spirituality than before. Humans are born out of the sea. We’re all going to die, and we will all be returned.”

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