The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine
Japan’s worst disaster: 10 years on Julian Ryall returns to the site of the catastrophic tsunami
Ten years ago Shinichiro Hiratsuka watched as, under a gunmetal-grey sky, the first, small, tarpaulin-wrapped bodies were brought up the embankment from Okawa Elementary School and laid gently on the road. Singly, or in small knots, the waiting parents stepped forward, pulling back the makeshift shrouds to reveal the faces of the dead children. Even in utter grief, they were restrained. On more than one occasion, the only indication that a mother had found her child was her buckling at the knees and being held up by her husband. There were tears, but the crying was inaudible over the wind and the sound of the digging that continued in the mud and the wreckage of the school and a couple of hundred homes that had made up this village.
It was days after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake had triggered devastating tsunamis that ripped through hundreds of miles of coastal communities. I arrived in the Tōhoku region less than 24 hours after the 9.0-magnitude quake struck about 40 miles off the coast, to report on the aftermath for the Telegraph. That was when I met Shinichiro and heard his story.
I had been on a train in Tokyo, more than 260 miles to the south, when the earthquake hit. Tremors are a fact of life in Japan, but it was immediately apparent that this one was different. Mobile phone apps blared, the driver announced an emergency stop and my carriage came to a halt beneath a bridge that was visibly shaking. Within minutes I could see children holding satchels over their heads for protection being evacuated from a nearby school. A man across the aisle leaned over to show me live footage on his phone from news helicopters of the first tsunami rolling in from the Pacific.
Watching homes and schools, factories and entire communities simply swallowed by those unrelenting black waves was horrifying. The helicopters zoomed in on cars that were hastily being turned around by drivers who had seen the wall of water roaring towards them. The cars zipped along narrow roads beside paddy fields, while the waves were picking up the debris of these coastal communities and gaining on them. It was almost certainly an editorial decision to cut away before viewers could see what happened to the cars and their occupants.
The magnitude of what had been unleashed across a huge swathe of northeast of Japan was simply awe-inspiring; the damage it inflicted was terrifying.
I returned to Tōhoku – near the crippled nuclear plant on the coast of Fukushima Prefecture – several times in the years immediately after the disaster, but this March marks a decade since the worst natural disaster in Japan’s history. I wanted to see how the region has been rebuilt, and how the people who live there have gone about putting their lives back together. I do not know how I would have coped in the face of such adversity, but I hoped that the people I had met and spent time with on my trips were healing. I discovered that most have not.
The first time I had met Shinichiro’s wife, Naomi, she looked pale and drawn. Her 12-year-old daughter, Koharu, had been missing for a week. She and her husband had stood outside Okawa Elementary School for days, watching as the military went about methodically clearing debris from the playground where the children had been instructed to assemble in the event of an earthquake. The pile of mudcaked backpacks grew larger by the day, but even after the entire school grounds had been cleared, and the surrounding paddy fields, drainage ditches and streams had been combed, there was no sign of Koharu or four of her classmates.
Frustrated, Naomi left her job at another local school, and in an attempt to find her daughter, learnt how to operate a digger. Every day, after packing Koharu’s younger brother and sister off, she began scraping through layers of mud and river silt that coated mile after mile of low-lying land. Nearly five months after the tragedy, Koharu’s body was discovered three miles away in a neighbouring bay.
I spoke with Naomi several times in the following years; now, however, she no longer wants to talk about it.
‘It doesn’t matter if it’s a year or 10 years, we’re still in mourning, we’re struggling. Time makes no difference,’ Shinichiro says as we stand in the gravel parking lot across the road from the shell of the school, which has been left as a memorial to the children and teachers who died here. The concrete and brick walls managed to withstand the waves, but metal railings were twisted, much of the roof torn away and the windows are empty sockets. A memorial garden, with trees and stone tablets, is taking shape in what used to be the playground. A makeshift altar holds some photos of the school before the disaster, bunches of flowers and some origami paper cranes.
Shinichiro is clearly uncomfortable dredging his thoughts and emotions up once again, and he speaks in clipped sentences. A teacher at a junior high school in the centre of Ishinomaki, a larger coastal
town some 20 miles away, he was unable to contact his wife immediately after the earthquake, as landlines were severed, mobile phone masts were down and roads were flooded. His school was turned into an emergency shelter for 2,500 people who had lost their homes, and he did what he could to help for four days, assuming his own family was safe. On the fifth day, he managed to reach his daughter’s school. ‘I got here and I could see a row of bodies laid out and, just as I arrived, they were bringing another body out from a drainage ditch,’ he says. ‘I knew then that she could not have survived.’
He has written a book, he says, that he hopes will help children dealing with similar tragedies in the future.
‘I look back and there is no colour in my memories of the last 10 years,’ he adds. ‘Much of it is a blank. The smell of the rubble is what I remember most.’
The dykes that were meant to protect Okawa and its residents – around 25ft tall then, and considered adequate to deal with the threat posed by a tsunami – are still being rebuilt, although this time on a grand scale. Great slabs of concrete coat sea walls that rise 40 feet or more from the banks of the broad Kitakami River. New bridges are rising on tall pilings. The government is throwing money at the affected communities, creating jobs in an area that lost much of its economy, but the sense is that it’s almost an apology for the failures of sea defences that let these people down.
Tadao Kamiyama is an oyster fisherman whose home in the hamlet of Nagatsura, on the tip of the peninsula a few miles past Okawa Elementary School, was washed away by the tsunami; the 15ft waves here were still sufficient to kill, as one of his neighbours discovered. Kamiyama, now a sprightly 80-year-old, escaped by driving up the switchback track behind his house with his wife after the first tsunami warnings began blaring.
‘There used to be 50 houses here, but they’re all gone,’ he says, indicating with a sweep of his arm an unpaved road bounded by a new, chest-high sea wall. ‘And they say we can’t build here any more because it’s a flood zone, so we have to move.’
For now, a square portable building stands on the site of their former home and Kamiyama’s wife washes dishes with a hose in what passes for a front garden. Local fishermen lost around 30 boats in the tsunami, but there were enough undamaged vessels for them to help in the hunt for survivors.
He nods when he is asked if he found anyone. He shakes his head when asked if any were alive. There were, he says, children among them. He doesn’t want to talk about it.
Ryukokuin Temple once stood halfway between Okawa and Nagatsura, but it was scoured flat by the waves. A small, temporary structure has been erected on the site of what was the main hall for a lone Buddhist priest to continue to serve what is left of this shattered community, and saplings have been planted in what were once its well-tended gardens. A small pond is uncared for, although two seated jizo statues were recovered from the mud and placed facing each other where the main gate used to stand.
Behind the temple hall is a newly laid out graveyard. Some older gravestones were salvaged from the debris and have been placed within the walled boundaries of a traditional family grave plot. Most of the markers, however, are new. Some are replacements for stones that were lost or destroyed, but there are many that now bear the names of entire families.
Small bottles of sake have been left on graves as gifts for the departed, along with cartons of juice for the children who are here. The flowers are brown and twist in the breeze.
Roads that were impassable in the spring of 2011 have been rebuilt and the physical recovery becomes increasingly apparent the closer I get to Ishinomaki. A decade ago there were around 160,000 people living in the town, snow was falling and the sirens were sounding as the first waves rolled inexorably into the mouth of the river, swiftly topping the protective concrete walls on either side and pouring unhindered into the narrow streets. The waves brought fishing boats from the bay and cars that they had picked up on the way. They acted as battering rams in a town that still had
‘It doesn’t matter if it’s a year or 10 years, we’re still in mourning. Time makes no difference’
a lot of traditionally built wooden homes. Even sturdy concrete and steel structures were ripped from their foundations by the force of the water.
Those who had not fled retreated to the upper storeys of their homes. Those in fiveor six-storey apartment blocks were able to evade the rising waters; those in typical two-storey homes could not. When the waters receded, they left a mess of vehicles and boats, telegraph poles and shipping containers, the roofs of collapsed houses, furniture, items of clothing, books, bottles and all the other detritus of a town hit by a disaster. And bodies. Over everything was a thick layer of cloying, stinking mud.
New buildings have risen from the crumpled structures of a decade ago. A baseball stadium that became a base of operations for the Self-defense Forces has reverted to its former duties, the grass of the infield that was churned up by trucks and tracked vehicles replaced and once more pristine.
The paved area alongside Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital today has cars parked on it. The last time I was here, it had been turned into a makeshift landing pad for a rapid procession of military helicopters that were bringing in casualties from outlying islands or remote towns that had been completely cut off by landslides or flooding. The rotors never stopped as medics unloaded their cargoes, on stretchers or into wheelchairs. As soon as one aircraft was on its way, another was lining up its approach.
Smokers with the thousand-yard stare of those in profound shock huddled under blankets around the main entrance, while inside the sliding doors the entire cavernous lobby had become a triage centre for the countless casualties that were flooding in. People sat slumped against the walls, elderly people had been given cots and covered with space blankets. Some were attached to drips. Others appeared to be sleeping. Mothers hugged children. The floor was awash with mud, snow melt and bandages.
Today, the central parts of Ishinomaki have largely been rebuilt. The debris has long gone, shops and restaurants have reopened and people are on the streets – although there are still empty plots that are scars on the town and become more frequent the closer one goes to the seafront district. There is life here again, but it is still muted.
Two days after the earthquake, I passed teams of soldiers calling into wrecked buildings for survivors, before climbing the hill that rises steeply in the middle of the town. A traditional stone torii gate stands directly in front of Kashimamiko Shrine and, from this elevation, I could see up and down the coast a few miles in each direction. The bridge over the mouth of the river and a traditional stone kura storehouse had, somehow, survived the onslaught from the sea, but the rest of the coastal plain, for as far as I could see, had been reduced to the outlines of buildings’ foundations.
In the community at the base of the hill where I stood, the tsunami had reached 65ft high, the experts later calculated, and it swept away everything in its path. The shipyard for local fishing boats, small factories, temples and shrines, schools, corner stores and countless homes had simply been picked up and dashed together. Small fires were still burning here and there and a larger pall of smoke was rising to the south.
A decade on, I stand in the same spot, beneath the torii where Prince William paid his respects during a visit to Japan on the fourth anniversary of the disaster. The banks of the broad river have been hemmed in by new high sea walls, and the hard-hit port district and adjoining industrial zones have been mostly rebuilt. Some new homes and apartment blocks have gone up in what used to be the residential districts, but there are more empty plots here. Hundreds died here, and their descendants have no intentions of returning. Others were evacuated, and their memories mean they will never come back. What were once busy back streets and tightknit communities are gone.
On that day 10 years ago, I descended the steep stone steps from the shrine, passing a man trying to fill a container from a weak trickle of water coming from a crack in the concrete wall. The steps ended in a sudden plug of upturned cars, twisted steel, a section of roof and tree trunks. The only way to get past the block was to enter through the rear of Saiko-ji Temple, and I was clearly not the first person to have taken this route.
The temple’s tatami-mat floor was coated in a thick layer of mud that smelled of the sea and oil, while a clear line on the walls showed that high tide here had been chin height on me. The temple’s sliding doors were open and I picked my way past the bell tower, which had a car leaning against one side but was otherwise apparently undamaged. The remains of what had not long before been people’s homes were strewn haphazardly in a wall that had been built up by the waves.
This was one of those working-class districts that had evolved over centuries, with little in the way of town planning. Homes were cheek-by-jowl, some still with the wood and sliding paper doors of a century ago, others corrugated iron-clad designs that are cheap and easy to build. Many were home to several generations. There were corner shops and a neighbourhood store selling beer and sake. There were almost certainly a couple of small restaurants whose patrons were all locals, selling ramen or sushi. As a community, it was unremarkable for anyone who did not live here.
Emerging beyond the debris, I walked towards a group of people gathered a few hundred yards away, but I never reached them. The arm of what appeared to be an elderly man, still wearing a green sweater, was protruding from debris that had snagged on some concrete blocks. I found a stick, tied a rag to the top and jammed it into the mud for the recovery teams to find.
‘There is no colour in my memories of the last 10 years. Much of it is a blank’
It was jarring to see the human face of the tragedy. Different people dealt with what they witnessed in Tōhoku in those days in different ways. I was fortunate to be able to be relatively detached as it was happening – it was the only way I could have functioned and done my job – but it hit me hard once I returned to my home in Yokohama after about 10 days straight reporting from the disaster zone. And each time I went back, it left me wrung out. Even now I get flashbacks from those days of March 2011. And I’ll never forget that elderly man’s hand.
Nobuo Higuchi took over as head priest of Saiko-ji Temple when his father retired immediately after the disaster, moving to a different part of Japan. He believes it will take many years before the community can recover. ‘Everyone who lived here feels, even today, that they have been deprived of happiness and a normal life,’ he says. ‘Every one of them has asked themselves at some point, “Why did this happen to me?”
‘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 neighbours talking. They looked out for each other. That was their strength. But now they have all gone. Now, they are building big apartment blocks with thick walls that are designed to withstand a disaster, but that means the people can’t hear each other any more.
‘The people who have come back from the temporary shelters feel cut off. It’s as if the heart has been cut out of the community,’ he adds. ‘The people who are here now are not living happy lives. They are just not able to get over what happened.’
Around 7,000 people lived close to the temple, Higuchi says, and some 470 of them were killed. The vast majority were elderly residents who were not able to leave their homes quickly enough or who did not heed the warnings of the scale of the calamity that was bearing down on them. Many will have recalled the warnings that accompanied a tsunami that began off Chile in 1960 and triggered a mass evacuation on this stretch of the coast, but caused no deaths in Ishinomaki. It seems they expected a similar outcome.
‘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.’
Alittle more than 30 miles to the north of Ishinomaki is the town of Minamisanriku, where the Suijiri River flows into a bay that is surrounded by steepsided and heavily forested hills. Those geographical 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 130 feet, 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 threestorey Crisis Management Office.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing around 40 people who worked in the office, or had sought refuge there as the waves swept in, clinging to the handrails around the roof. Only 11 managed to hang on. Miki Endo 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, just 24, was one of those swept away. Her body was found seven weeks later.
‘I try to keep busy and to be cheerful,’ says her mother, Mieko, today. ‘It is one of the reasons that I opened Miki’s House guest house in 2014, 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, Mieko is presently overseeing the construction of a large wooden pagoda and a barbecue in the garden of the guest house, which she hopes to have ready for the summer. Her husband, a fisherman, spends a lot of time at sea, she says.
‘Sometimes I do get sad, so I come here because it’s where she used to play,’ she says. Despite her best efforts, her eyes are redrimmed. ‘And we cannot just think about Miki because there were lots of people who died and we must remember all of them.
‘It was not just Miki that did her best to help others and we must keep the memories of all of them alive,’ she adds. She is quiet. And then she says, in almost a whisper, ‘She must have been so frightened.’
The Crisis Management Office was stripped to its girders by the force of the waves and has been preserved as the centrepiece of a memorial park that is taking shape in what used to be the very heart of Minamisanriku. It is now dwarfed by colossal embankments designed to keep the river in check. But even this has proved controversial.
There are some who believe it must remain as a reminder of all those who died. There are others who say the twisted metal only serves to bring back bad memories of the disaster. One thing is certain, no one is quite sure exactly how to move on.
‘The heart has been cut out of the community. People are not able to get over what happened’