MADISON, Wis. -- I woke up Tuesday (July 9) morning to the death of Masao Yoshida. He was 58.
I felt a great loss.
Yoshida wasn't a relative, or even an acquaintance. Nor have I ever met him (although I wish I could have interviewed him).
But while pursuing stories on Japan's most hideous disaster in 2011, Yoshida was high on my mind.
A graduate of the Tokyo Institute of Technology (my father's alma mater), Yoshida was an engineer by training, and worked as the plant manager at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant when the monstrous 2011 tsunami and earthquake hit the nation.
He led the team, dubbed the "Fukushima 50," and fought an almost impossible battle to bring the heavily damaged nuclear power station under control, as the world watched on TV, listening to pundits' clueless discussions of the semantics of terms like "nuclear meltdown."
No government officials, certainly nobody at the electric power company, and not even academics in Japan wanted the world to hear the word "meltdown." Everybody played things down.
The nuclear reactors, by then, however, were overheating, causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
Fukushima nuclear power plant after the partial meltdown
Yoshida was up against the wall.
His battle was not just against the runaway reactors. Yoshida's fight was also against the management of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), his employer.
Engineer who defied orders
In my opinion, Yoshida should be best remembered as an engineer who defied orders and thought on his feet (a rare breed, especially in Japan) when thrown into the indecisive chaos of his superiors. Vacillation is a national trait, but this time an almost non-existent crisis management system exasperated even most Japanese.
Let's turn the clock back to March 12. Here's an account reported by The New York Times.
On March 12, about 28 hours after the tsunami struck, Tepco executives had ordered workers to start injecting seawater into Reactor No. 1. But 21 minutes later, they ordered the plant's manager, Masao Yoshida, to suspend the operation. They were relying on an account by the Tepco liaison to the prime minister, who reported back that he seemed to be against it.
'Well, he said that was the atmosphere or the mood,' Sakae Muto, Tepco's executive vice president, explained at a news conference.
Mr. Atsuyoshi Sassa, former head of the Cabinet Security Affairs Office, said: 'Mood? Is this a joke? Making decisions based on mood?'
But Yoshida chose to ignore the order. The injections were the only way left to cool the reactor, and halting them would mean possibly causing an even more severe meltdown and release of radiation, experts said.
Actually, Yoshida never told anyone at that time that he defied the headquarters' order and continued to pump sea water. He kept mum until a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) came to Fukushima in May, 2011. During that meeting, he revealed for the first time the actions he took at the height of the crises.
According to a book written by Ryusho Kadota and published in Japan last year, entitled A Man Who was on the Brink of Death: Masao Yoshida and the Fukushima No. 1 Plant's 500 Days, as soon as Yoshida learned that a tsunami had knocked out the emergency diesel generators needed to keep the reactor cores cool, he kept only one thing on his mind -- that the Fukushima crisis had the potential to be far worse than the Chernobyl disaster in the old Soviet Union.
Yoshida was also a born leader, according to Yoichi Funabashi, author of Countdown to Meltdown, a book that documented -- blow by blow -- numerous decisions (and non-decisions) and actions (and hesitations) taken during the 2011 disaster.
Funabashi wrote that Yoshida, while steering the disaster response at the height of the crisis, held a meeting every day at 5:00 a.m. in the nuclear power plant's operation room. During the meeting, he made sure to praise any progress -- no matter how small it might have been.
At the end of each meeting, he always performed "ippon-jime," a Japanese rhythmic hand clapping among the whole team. "Ippon-jime," usually performed at a celebratory occasion, served to cheer up the team, and to unite the members in determination and solidarity.
Yoshida died of esophageal cancer. The illness was unrelated to radiation exposure after the nuclear accident, according to Tepco.