The earthworks are simply mind blowing. 24-7, the conveyor belts bring earth from the nearby mountains and pile it on the coastal zone to raise the level of the low-lying land by at least 10 meters. It’s more than four years since the tsunami leveled the Sanriku coast and killed more than 15,000 people and made 230,000 homeless on Japan’s Pacific coast. This rehabilitation work that shows virtually no end is a demonstration of Japanese spirit and tenacity.
I traveled back to the Sanriku coast together with Abetake-sensei to see the progress in reconstruction. We did our first jointtrip here in March 2012, just a year after the great east Japan earthquake and tsunami had laid waste to the most unexpecting part of Japan. Abetake-sensei is my wife’s high school geography teacher in Mizusawa, in Iwate Prefecture.
Mizusawa is luckily some 60 km inland and higher up in elevation from the coast. Although the earthquake affected my family’s area, the tsunami did not reach even close.
Abetake-sensei picked me up in Mizusawa this rainy morning and we crossed the coastal mountain range to reach the Sanriku coast. The rather high limestone mountains have all their steep slopes covered in thick forest. In odd flat locations one can suddenly see perfectly maintained rice paddies on terraces where the terrain has allowed adequate space. At this time of the year, their green is so bright as to shine amongst the dark hills. The rainy season – tsuyu – is supposed to be over but the rain has been heavy since last night.
We stopped at Daitoo, a town about half way to the coast for a rest stop and a cigarette for my host. Daitoo is in a beautiful spot in a valley protected from all sides by mountains. We continued onwards driving through the village of Ohara, a small agricultural congregation by the Satetsugawa river, a tributary to the Kitagamigawa river that flows from the north to the south traversing Mizusawa. We were still on the western side of the watershed, meaning that the river flows inland towards the more major Kitagamikawa river.
Having soon crossed the next range – through some distinctly impressive bridges and tunnels above and through mountains – we started descending to the coastal plain. At this stage the road followed Kesengawa, a charming if not a major river known for its Ayu fisheries (ayu or sweetfish caught in rivers and often grilled or fried is one of the delicacies of the Tohoku region). The Kesengawa drains into the Pacific Ocean and when the tsunami struck, its flow was reversed bringing the devastating flood waters as far as 7 km inland.
Descending onto the coastal plain past the sea terraces, the landscape had changed so much that it was difficult to get one’s bearings. On both sides of the road there were huge mounds of earth leveled by bulldozers while enormous conveyer belts transported more earth to the piles from the nearby mountains. It seemed that the goal was to raise the level of the entire coastal plain by 10 meters. For what purpose, was not imminently clear. Hundreds of men and machines were at work now more than four years after the tragedy.
Access to the coastline was blocked from the main area of the former town. We drove south towards Kesennuma and found a road that led to the fishing port. Even there men were at work establishing seawalls. Still, I was able to get to the waterfront to observe the bay where boats were again active.
The legendary lone pine – Ippon Matsu – that became the symbol of resilience after the tsunami is long gone. It was one in many tall pines that lined the coast and miraculously survived the tidal wave – but despite the efforts of the city officials, scientists and the public, it died because of the salinization of the soil and groundwater after the intrusion of the sea. It lives on in numerous flags and posters and a monument is being established for it, I was told although it was impossible to reach the location. Many Japanese people – including school groups – were strolling around the area with their cameras.
The work will continue for years. It begs the question, though, what for? This is not the first time the Sanriku coast has been hit by a tsunami and it won’t be the last either. This time the destruction and death toll were huge, mostly because of the coastal development and population concentrations on the waterfront. So why spend all the trillions of yen and years of civil works only so that the coast could be rebuilt and people could reestablish themselves in the hazard zone? Unfortunately, this seems to be an expression of the Japanese attitude, a downside of the tenacity: Engineering and civil works to tame the nature – and at the same time do irrevocable damage to the surrounding mountain environments. Here this seems even more futile because the coast has already been depopulated and virtually all people left for the cities and towns further inland, many with no intent on returning. Some of the old folks may want to return to their home areas but even they would likely not want to live right on the coast where their old neighborhoods were destroyed and friends died. Most likely, the official approach will be to provide homogenous housing, which will be convenient but not appealing.
Naturally, Rikuzentakata is not the only community on the Sanriku coast that is struggling with recovery. The central government is paying for the efforts but it is the local governments that decide on how the money should be spent. In fact, the central government has been criticized for not spending enough of the allocated funds, so massive civil works like those here are welcome, so that large amounts of funds can be disbursed. The local governments have a wish to make the communities livable again. The trouble is that nobody knows who and how many people would eventually return.
The tsunami disaster had a profound impact on the coastal communities, not only in a physical sense. The very fabric of the communities was torn apart. As my friend, Prof. Mikiyasu Nakayama of Tokyo University, has found in his research, many younger people who used to live with the grandparents in three generation households – especially young women dominated by the mothers-in-law – have found it liberating to move away and establish a new life on their own in the urban areas. Even others have realized that modern life in the city with all its amenities is convenient. There is no going back.