Lee Ann Roripaugh Delves into the Devastating Effects of the Tohoku Earthquake in ‘tsunami vs. the fukushima 50’

A haunting collection that weaves pop culture with tradition to describe devastation and loss.

lee ann roripaugh tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 Book Review
tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 Book Cover tsunami vs. the fukushima 50
Lee Ann Roripaugh
Milkweed Editions
March 12, 2019

In March 2011, a tsunami caused by an earthquake collided with nearby power plant Fukushima Daiichi, causing the only nuclear disaster in history to rival Chernobyl in scope. Those who stayed at the plant to stabilize the reactors, willing to sacrifice their lives, became known internationally as the Fukushima 50.

In tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, Lee Ann Roripaugh takes a piercing, witty, and ferocious look into the heart of the disaster. Here we meet its survivors and victims, from a pearl-catcher to a mild-mannered father to a drove of mindless pink robots. And then there is Roripaugh's unforgettable Tsunami: a force of nature, femme fatale, and "annihilatrix." Tsunami is part hero and part supervillain--angry, loud, forcefully defending her rights as a living being in contemporary industrialized society. As humanity rebuilds in disaster's wake, Tsunami continues to wreak her own havoc, battling humans' self-appointed role as colonizer of Earth and its life-forms.

"She's an unsubtle thief / a giver of gifts," Roripaugh writes of Tsunami, who spits garbage from the Pacific back into now-pulverized Fukushima. As Tsunami makes visible her suffering, the wrath of nature scorned, humanity has the opportunity to reconsider the trauma they cause Earth and each other. But will they look?

In 2011, a devastating 9.1 magnitude earthquake rocked Japan, causing not just widespread destruction and loss due to seismic activity and strong aftershocks, but resulted in devastating complications due to a tsunami that swept away residents in the Tokoku region, notably Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. The tsunami – fierce, destructive and deadly, with waves over 50 feet high – destroyed the Japanese coast, clearing everything in its path including the power supply at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant at a terrible cost.

Lee Ann Roripaugh offers a glimpse of the devastation, heartbreak and loss in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and the tsunami that followed, both fiercely personified in her latest poetry collection, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, as a being that has no name – an “annihilatrix,” “tabula rasa” – a force compared to the likes of Gidora, Godzilla and Mothra as powerful yet lonely; a femme fatale that’s merely searching for her place in the world.

Along with personifying tsunami, Roripaugh delves into first-person poetic monologues, weaving elements of Japanese folklore and popular culture – from iconic monsters, to the serpentine Kiyohime – with Marvel heroes and villains in poems such as “radioactive man,” “year of the hitachi snake,” “hulk smash,” and “hisako’s testimony.” Haunting and beautiful, the poems in tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 bring to light the desolation of a country destroyed by crippling loss – of life, of love, of home – through isolation onset by explosions and the fallout of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, which exposed first-responders (the Fukushima50) and survivors to horrific new realities that turned homes into deteriorated evacuation zones.

everything was fine, fine, fine

for weeks, everything was daijobu
while our village was irradiated:
the soil, the water, the produce,
the dust particles, the rain

three months later, Iitate
was a ghost town crumbling
to dust, infested with mold
and vermin, and we had become
part of the nuclear diaspora

– excerpt from “mothra flies again”

Among Roripaugh’s most powerful poems were those written in first-person monologues, in which the loss and devastation of life, culture, and belonging were explored. In “radioactive man,” Roripaugh examines the isolation of the affected Fukushima 50 through an unnamed man who risked everything to help cool down the Fukushima Daiichi reactors only to be faced with fear and ostracization by family, friends, and society due to his internal radiation levels.

Turned away by his ex-wife and children, the man is forced to return to the dilapidated ruins of his hometown, wherein Roripaugh draws a brilliant yet unbearable parallel to Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan:

sometimes I think of visiting
my two kids, who live
with my ex-wife in Tokyo,
but then I remind myself
of the invisible dust coated
in cesium particles that’s in
my clothes, my hair, my skin

just the thought of this undid him,
made him feel so solitary and blue
he left the earth behind for eons,
to brood in exile on the moon

– excerpt from “radioactive man”

Roripaugh’s turn in “hulk smash” also captures feelings of profound grief through the haunting tale of an unnamed survivor struck down by tsunami — who took his wife and daughter along with the wreckage — while drawing similarities between the Fukushima disaster and the atomic bomb. Unable to visit his evacuated home town but for five hours a month under radiation guidelines, the man earns the nickname “the hulk” because he cares little about what happens to his body, desperate to find the remains of his three-year-old daughter:

because so what, I no longer
care about being exposed
to radiation, and maybe
it’ll make me stronger anyway,
like the weird profusion
of too-bright and hardy flowers

blooming in the irradiated wake
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki…
maybe even strong enough
to hold on to what matters.

because how can I let this be?

because my arms are empty

because she was only three

– excerpt from “hulk smash”

Roripaugh does more than personify tsunami and describe the horrors of the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, however. In addition to weaving threads of Japanese folklore and culture to Marvel superheroes, she balances popular culture and social media with Japanese tradition, which resonates most strongly in “ama, the woman of the sea,” a poetic monologue following a pearl diver who embraces the tsunami with open arms. At home in her profession, which is slowly dying out, the unnamed woman leaves her life behind to embrace the crashing waves of destruction as a woman of the sea.

and though tourists still come
to see diving on Pearl Island
it’s no longer real, just a show,
like an image held still in time –
not of how things really are,
but of how things used to be.

– excerpt from “ama, the woman of the sea”

Packed with meaning through deftly woven connections that bring together both past and present reckonings, Roripaugh captures the calamitous impacts of the Tohoku earthquake in a way that will entice, inspire and haunt readers long after the final page. tsunami vs. the fukushima 50 pulses at the heart of Japan, and captures the lasting impacts of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that will always pervade Japanese history, society, and culture to this day.

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Melissa Ratcliff
the authorMelissa Ratcliff
Senior Staff Writer
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.