Ten years have elapsed since the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident of March 11, 2011. The author returns to the disaster-hit northeast coast and reports on the progress being made toward reconstruction and revitalization.
A decade on from the most devastating natural disaster to strike Japan in recorded history, life in the communities that dot the inlets and bays of the northeast coast is in many ways very different. In others, it is reassuringly the same.
The Great East Japan Earthquake struck shortly before 3 p.m. on March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 megathrust event approximately 70 km to the east of the Oshika Peninsula of Miyagi Prefecture. The fourth most powerful earthquake anywhere in the world since accurate records began being kept in 1900, the tremor triggered a series of powerful tsunami that barreled ashore along beaches from Chiba Prefecture in the south to Hokkaido in the far north.
In places, experts have calculated that the tsunami reached heights of more than 40 meters and were traveling at speeds up to 700 km an hour when they came ashore, with some traveling as much as 10 km inland. Residents of these communities were in many instances only given a few minutes’ warning to take shelter. Inevitably, there was great loss of life, with nearly 20,000 people killed or still listed as missing.
The quake and tsunami also badly damaged four of the reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, causing meltdowns of three reactors and the release of large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. Residents of towns and villages that were under the plume of radioactivity were evacuated and their homes declared off-limits.
After the waves receded, the clear-up and reconstruction began.
Minamisanriku: Rebuilding on Higher Ground
Today, bitterly cold winds tinged with snow are again blowing into the bay where the Suijiri River flows into the Pacific, but the town that stood on this spot in 2011 will not be rebuilt. The tsunami scoured Minamisanriku from the map and local estimates put the number of dead and missing from this community alone at 1,206.
“My house was close to the hospital in the center of the town, but when I got back there some time later, only the foundations were left,” says Haga Choko, who was a member of the Miyagi fishing cooperative at the time but retired in 2016. Today, 72-year-old Haga is a volunteer working for the town’s tourism association and giving presentations about the impact of the tragedy on his home town.
“When the water had gone down again, I could not find a single photograph, a dish or a piece of clothing as a memory from before the disaster,” he says. But people recover, communities rebuild and life goes on, he insists.
“I have used a piece of the foundation in the garden of my new house,” he says. “Now, homes are being built in other parts of the town that are in less danger if there is another disaster. They are building on higher ground, but that also means that they have to build new communities of people. So we are holding events—even simple things, like drinking tea together—so people can get to know each other.”
A man-made beach was reopened to the public three years ago, with the tourist authorities working hard to attract people to enjoy activities such as salmon fishing, sea kayaking and accompanying oyster fishermen as they bring in their catches. Local fishermen have largely resumed their operations, with generous grants from the government enabling them to purchase new boats, nets and other equipment.
The hospital that stood in the center of the town was damaged beyond repair, so a new hospital has been constructed, with 22 billion yen of the 52 billion yen total cost donated by the Taiwan Red Cross. The gesture was much appreciated, Haga says.
“We still have close ties to Taiwan, with people coming here to volunteer or do homestays, while there is also a young Taiwanese currently working with the town tourism association,” he says. “We were very grateful for all the help and aid that we received from all around Japan and across the world. It gave us courage and made us feel that we were not alone.”
Yet memories of the tragedy are never far away, Haga admits. His older brother and sister-in-law died in the tsunami. Their home was on a hillside and they believed they would be safe because they had escaped a large tsunami that started off Chile in 1960 and caused widespread damage in north-east Japan. They believed they would be safe this time as well, Haga says. But the tsunami was far larger and more powerful than anyone anticipated.
Experts say the unique geography of Minamisanriku worsened the scale of the disaster here. The community was built at the mouth of the river and surrounded by steep-sided and heavily forested hills. Those features served to funnel the wave into a narrower area and forced it higher. Some estimates put the crest of the wave at more than 40 meters, with debris lodged in trees on the hillsides supporting that suggestion. It was certainly above the observation deck on the roof of the town’s three-story Crisis Management Office.
Eyewitnesses report seeing around forty people who worked in the office or had sought refuge there as the waves swept in clinging to the hand rails around the roof. Only eleven managed to hang on. Endo Miki was working at the office and was tasked with repeatedly instructing residents to evacuate over the town’s tannoy system, her voice the soundtrack to several video clips as the disaster unfolded. Endo, 24, was one of those swept away, with her body found seven weeks later.
In 2014, her mother, Mieko, opened Miki’s House guest house in a peaceful valley with a tumbling stream and lined by bamboo groves.
“I try to keep busy and to be cheerful,” Endo says. “It is one of the reasons that I opened Miki’s House guest house, so I’m too busy thinking about keeping it all running smoothly that I don’t have time to think about other things.”
Now 63, she is presently overseeing the construction of a large wooden pagoda and a barbecue in the garden of the guest house and she hopes to have it ready for the summer. Her husband, a fisherman, spends a lot of time at sea, she says.
“We cannot just think about Miki because there were lots of people who died and we must remember all of them,” she says. “It was not just Miki that did her best to help others and we must keep the memories of all of them alive.”
The robustly built Crisis Management Office is one of the few buildings that was not completely washed away by the tsunami, although it was reduced to its skeletal girders and twisted metal. Today, it is being turned into the centerpiece of the community’s memorial to the disaster, with parkland rising to a man-made hill with benches and a stone monument. Vast levees have been constructed along the banks of the town’s river and its tributaries, with a stunningly sculpted footbridge by world-renowned architect Kuma Kengo linking the two halves of the valley.
As another defensive measure, the center of the town has been raised by 10 meters, using rock from the surrounding mountains. The rebuilding plan stipulates, however, that no homes can be constructed here because of the risk of another tragedy. Shops, restaurants and small businesses have returned, however, and a complex of single-story wood structures has evolved. There are small supermarkets selling local produce and seafood, a pizza restaurant next to a ramen shop, a coffee shop and a patisserie. A sense of community is slowly re-emerging.
Ishinomaki: Hearts Still Healing
A little more than 50 km to the south is the coastal town of Ishinomaki, one of the largest on this stretch of coastline and also badly damaged in the 2011 tragedy. The roads that were impassable in 2011 have been restored, bridges rebuilt and the rivers once more tamed by concrete barriers. Similarly, the central parts of the city have been rebuilt.
The waves that rolled into the mouth of the Kitakami River a decade ago quickly overwhelmed the town’s defenses, with water pouring into the narrow side streets and sweeping all before them. Older, traditional homes made largely of wood were quickly destroyed, with more modern structures also soon ripped from their foundations. The debris that the waves picked up on their inexorable journey—small fishing boats and cars, telegraph poles and unrecognizable lengths of steel, concrete or wood—tore through these tight-knit communities, flattening everything in their path.
There are still many empty plots in the city center, becoming more frequent closer to the river, but elsewhere shops and restaurants have been rebuilt and reopened while the train station—under more than 1 meter of water at one point—is fully functional once more.
Higuchi Nobuo became head priest of Saiko-ji temple immediately after the disaster, when his father retired. The temple is at the base of the hill that dominates the town center and was badly damaged in the disaster. The homes, shops, schools and businesses that made up this part of Ishinomaki were entirely wiped away, with the debris forced up against the temple and the hill. A wall made of cars, parts of buildings and the countless personal possessions of people who used to live here towered above the roof of the temple and 58-year-old Higuchi admits that it was something of a miracle that it survived more or less intact.
“Before, this area was home to hundreds of people who lived in a community of little homes,” he says. “Everyone knew each other and they lived so close together that they could hear their neighbors talking in their houses next door. They looked out for each other. That was their strength. But now they have all gone.”
Yet he has optimism that the community that he cares for will eventually be able to recover.
“If anything is predictable, it is that the human heart can overcome difficult times,” Higuchi said. “The feelings of people here are still too damaged, and that makes it hard for them at the moment. But it will happen.”
Iitate: Coming Home
The disaster that hit northeast Japan in 2011 was compounded by the destruction of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, on the coast just over 140 km to the south of Ishinomaki. The plume of radioactivity was carried to the northwest of the plant on the prevailing winds, falling on the towns and villages, farmland and forests of the prefecture. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes in the days after the three reactors suffered meltdowns. And while many people have been able to return to their communities as a result of a decade of work to remove everything that was contaminated by the radioactivity, there are still some areas that remain off-limits.
The village of Iitate was one of those that was evacuated after the nuclear leak, but residents last year elected a mayor who they believe will help the community get back on its feet. Makoto Sugioka is a 44-year-old Buddhist priest who studied nuclear physics at the Graduate School of the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
The evacuation order covering Iitate was lifted in 2016 and around 1,500 people now live in the community. That figure is significantly lower than the 5,800 residents before the disaster, but it is gradually increasing, Sugioka says. Some 150 newcomers have also moved into the town, he adds.
“The vast majority of the people who live here now are elderly former residents who had to move away because of the accident, but have since decided that they wanted to ‘come home,’” he says. “These are people who were born and raised here and lived their entire lives in Iitate.
“I have spoken to people who were children here during the war years and immediately after the war ended, when things were really hard, and they have told me that if they went through that, then there is no way that they are going to be defeated by a natural disaster,” he says. “They simply have a very deep love for their hometown.”
Sugioka was born in Tokyo but his mother is originally from Iitate, and he felt a personal duty in the aftermath of the 2011 accident to help the community.
“Before I ran for mayor, I worked in the town’s agricultural division and a lot of my job was communicating with local farmers,” he says. Before the nuclear accident, agriculture was Iitate’s primary industry and employment, but farming has been decimated by the radioactive contamination. Even if crops are certified as safe after rigorous testing, the public is still reluctant to buy anything that is identified as coming from Fukushima,
“The farmers that I spoke to were determined to battle on, to keep their family businesses and traditions going,” he says. “I thought that the best way I could help them do that was to become mayor.”
A key part of that has been convincing people to return, with the focus on younger people to rejuvenate a community that is primarily made up of older generations at present.
“It is quite difficult—the biggest problem is the lack of jobs—although we have had a number of young couples move here,” he says.
“The people who want to come here to live and work are open-minded about the situation and accept the situation that we are in,” Sugioka says. He admits that there are still some parts of the surrounding countryside that are presently off-limits due to elevated radiation levels, but he insists that the vast majority of the town’s 3,000 hectares are perfectly safe.
“People who do not want to know about the situation here will not want to come and we accept that, but those who are moving to Iitate are demonstrating what I would call a pioneering spirit and they are more than welcome here.”
Attracting more people to Iitate is the responsibility of Matsumoto Nana, who is originally from Fukushima City, which is approximately 35 km to the west but was spared the worst of the radioactivity thanks to the wind direction on the day of the disaster. Matsumoto, now 28, was a student in Tokyo when the earthquake struck and immediately decided that she wanted to help the people of her home prefecture.
“In the first year after I joined the city hall, we were simply trying to get the message out that people were coming back to Iitate, that there were people here again and that we intended to rebuild the community,” she says. “In the last three years, a lot of public facilities have been rebuilt or built and we are putting together plans on how we can make the most of those facilities.”
The town has a new fire station and police station, a large commercial facility has been created and Iitate Hope Village Academy opened in April last year, offering classes to children of elementary and junior high school age.
“We are also using empty facilities, turning them into residential venues for artists and so on, and we have made some old farmhouses into places for people to work remotely during the coronavirus pandemic,” Matsumoto says.
“I’ve learned a lot about the town and the local people in the three years that I have been here and I still want to see and learn more,” she adds. “I hope to be able to continue to support people who have come back to their hometown or outsiders who have decided that they want to live here and give them a new sense of purpose.”
Julian Ryall is a British journalist who is based in Tokyo and has reported extensively from the Tohoku region over the last decade.