Monday, March 26, 2012

A year after the tsunami

Ishinomaki, Rikuzentakata, Ofunato, Kamaishi, Kesennuma, Fukushima… These places were suddenly placed on the map in the world consciousness on the 11th of March 2011. Before that fateful Friday, few people abroad had heard of these towns. Small as they were, together they still were home to hundreds of thousands of people. Only the largest city in the area, Sendai, might have rung a bell amongst those with an interest in Japan or world affairs in general. Having been destroyed by severe bombing during the World War II, Sendai had risen from the ashes to become a very pleasant city of more than a million inhabitants and the capital of the Tohoku region.
The smaller towns on the Sanriku Kaigan facing the Pacific had lived off the ocean for hundreds of years. Generations of fishermen had eked out a living in the sea and the area was the world leader in mariculture of oysters and seaweed. Sanriku kombu, nori and others set the world standard in quality and taste. Sanriku Kaigan had acquired new economic activities, including some heavy industry and notably tourism due to its unparalleled beauty, but much had remained the same for generations. That was much of the attraction in these ocean faring communities. On that cold early spring Friday, the ocean struck with unimaginable force claiming the lives and livelihoods of entire towns and communities.

Much has been written about the tsunami and the massive magnitude 9 Tohoku earthquake that caused it. I wrote about it immediately based on reports from the media supplemented by scattered messages that were received from family and friends in Tohoku. There have been scientific analyses of what happened and why, as well as many reportages about the human cost, about people who lost everything, about survivors crowding into temporary shelters where they’d have to live for months to come. Officially, more than 15,000 people perished in the event, with more than 3,000 still missing.

What also received plenty of attention in national and international media was the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant after the earthquake and tsunami. This sad episode revealed some unexpected incompetence and a dark side in the cosy relationship between big industry and the governmental agencies that are supposed to regulate it. These tensions continue till today, as the nuclear lobby and its pawns in the government have restarted the pressure to rebuild the power, while 80% of the Japanese people now favour phasing it out. But that’s another long story that I am not in the best place to comment on.

Just recently, I had the chance take a tour of some of the worst affected coastal areas. It was 1 year and 9 days after the event. Our friend, Takehiko Abe, living in the Iwate prefecture of Tohoku region offered to take us on a day trip to the coast. Another geographer by training, he shares my interest in the natural and human processes that shape the earth. In fact, Abe Take Sensei, as he is known, was Yoko’s high school teacher years ago (the ‘sensei’ part refers to the respect given to teachers in Japan). He picked us up with his Toyota Belta at Mizusawa town hall and we headed straight east across the coastal mountains. It was late-March but new snow was falling and the mountains rising some 800 metres above sea level displayed a tricolour pattern with the dark green of the conifers and the brown of the leafless trees against a matt of white snow on the ground. On the higher reaches as the winding road edged up the hillsides, the tree branches looked dreamlike covered with thick pads of white snow. In between, in the valleys, rice paddies glistened wet.
After some 60 km, we descended to the coastal plain along the Kesengawa valley. The river valley had provided a natural conduit for the tsunami waters, which had here reached 8 km inland wiping out everything low enough on the riverbanks with its force.

We arrived in Rikuzentakata, the town where the tsunami damage had been the widest, although there were towns where more people had died. The determinants of the death toll were varied, depending obviously on the geographical setting of the coastline and the settlements, but also on other factors. Abe Take Sensei explained that in Iwate prefecture, the population had been educated to drop what they were doing and immediately head towards higher ground when they heard the tsunami warning, whereas in neighbouring Miyagi prefecture to the south such education had not been given. So when the tsunami warning came, school kids and others in the Iwate towns like Rikuzentakata started running, grabbing smaller ones with them, while students in Ishinomaki in Miyagi were told to stay put in the assumed safety of the school building only to be swallowed by the waves.
Still, it was hard to see how anyone could have survived the onslaught of the waters in Rikuzentakata. Most of the city was built on the wide floodplain that seemed to go for kilometres before the coastal terraces rose above it. Virtually all the individual houses that had stood on the plain had been entirely wiped away. Not even their foundations could be anymore detected, as the bulldozers had pushed the unfathomable amount of rubble that had covered the land into high mounds that now dotted the landscape. In one place, in the middle of the plain, I saw the two headstones that had marked the entrance to a large house sticking up from the flat open land. The family’s name was permanently carved in the stone, but nothing else of them or their house remained.

Some of the larger and sturdier buildings constructed with reinforced concrete still stood, but were mostly only frames with their innards gutted out. Some, like the Capital Hotel that had held the prime spot on the waterfront, were so strong that it still seemed conceivable that they could be repaired. We stopped by the local hospital, which was gutted up to the 3rd and top floor. The flat rooftop luckily had been high enough to be out of the reach of the waves. Patients, doctors and nurses who had made it there had been rescued by helicopter. Close by, we saw an apartment building still standing. There the tsunami had reached up to the 4th floor pushing straight through the building taking with it whatever and whoever was inside.

Abe Take Sensei told about his daughter’s friend who had just recently moved to Rikuzentakata from Sendai with her husband and two small children, one of whom was just a new-born baby. The entire family had perished in the tsunami.

A visit to the city hall was heart breaking. The lobby, facing towards the sea but far from the water, was still full of rubble with cables and beams hanging from the ceiling. There was a crushed car, which the waves had washed in. On the floor, there was a pile of elementary school children’s rucksacks still full of books. A page from a photo album with faded snapshots of smiling children was lying amongst them. An impromptu altar had been erected at the entrance, with burning incense, fresh flowers and other offerings piled on it. Helplessly, I added my modest contributions to it. This was o-higan time during which, according to the Japanese Buddhist tradition, spirits return to the land. The flowers, drinks and food were placed there for them.


We drove up to a terrace behind the floodplain. There a Buddhist temple stood amidst a small forest. As is the tradition, the temples are usually located on higher ground and thus this and others survived the tsunami. The graveyard next to it had many new graves (including for pets) and people were there to bring flowers, buckets of water to wash the tombstones, and incense.


The tsunami also caused huge damage to the natural environment, which has gone—perhaps understandably, given the immediate impacts on people’s lives—underreported. The best assessment I’ve read about the environmental damage comes from my friend Vicente Santiago-Fandiño, a scientist with many years in Japan. Such irreplaceable loss was evident in Rikuzentakata, its Matsubara beach destroyed. The beach had been recognized as one of Japan’s most beautiful natural sites since the Taisho period in the 1920s. The 2 km stretch of sandy beach was lined with some 70,000 pines. The tidal wave left only one of them, a 200 year old tough tree standing. It still stands there as a lone sentry guarding over its fallen comrades, but its future is not promising. Despite efforts to protect it—it is testimony to the spirit of the Japanese that they would dedicate any energy to the tree under these dire circumstances—its standing place has become waterlogged with sea water and its roots exposed to the saline water are dying.

As we left the town and headed north on the coast the snowfall intensified, the wind whipping it sideways turning the bleak landscape into monochrome. The road took us through several tunnels till we emerged on the other side of the mountains. Here there was less snow and the weather was turning sunny. Ofunato was built along a long and narrow bay stretching north and protected from the open ocean by a thin peninsula to the east. The town and its port still had not been safe from the tsunami. Yet, the atmosphere here was somehow more optimistic and I hope it wasn’t just my own mood improving with the sun coming out.

We stopped in Fukkoo Yataimura, an area where prefabricated housing for shelters had been erected. In the same area, we were delighted to find, many restaurants and izakaya drinking establishments—even some clubs with live music—had reopened after their original places in downtown Ofunato had been rendered unusable. It was time for lunch, so we decided to have some here. The choice was—unfortunately—left to me, as it was assumed (partly correctly, I’m sorry to say) that I had the most food limitations in company. I regret to say that I do have some prejudices towards seafood that is not readily identifiable as fish. And that, in essence, is what the Sanriku delicacies consist of. Our previous visit to Sanriku had been slightly embarrassing We had stopped in Kesennuma—no longer in existence—which then was a major fishing port and the main centre of Japan’s shark fishing industry (I am not fond of that: most sharks are endangered and the Chinese fancy for shark’s fin is driving the despicable trade, which is both wasteful and inhumane). Abe Take Sensei had designs for us to eat a long and fabulous seafood lunch at one of the local places. The restaurant was great: wooden tables with no tablecloths, entirely genuine with no tourists around—and you could get any creature from the ocean, cooked or uncooked. Abe Take Sensei was ordering various delicacies—from shark’s heart to sunfish, mambo, with an odd, flat face—when I shocked him by asking for a simple grilled samma, a pike mackerel, common in any non-specialist restaurant and amply available in supermarkets. Till this day, I have a reputation in Iwate for having ordered samma teishoku in a superb seafood restaurant.

Well, I’d take such embarrassment any time if that brought Kesennuma back. This time in Ofunato, however, we settled for a small Chinese restaurant and sat at the counter. The lady running the place was very friendly, even cheerful, despite the fact that a year ago her restaurant had been destroyed and she had had to relocate to temporary barracks. The food the cook—her husband labouring in a small space behind some curtains—produced was very tasty. This time the meal contained no seafood. The inside of the little restaurant was painted red. The top of the counter was decorated with artistic calligraphy in gold drawn by hand with a brush by a Chinese volunteer who had visited the restaurant. The proprietor explained how the sea connected coastal areas in Japan since ancient times. The local dialect here, which she masters, is closer to that in Kyoto far to the south and west, than to the dialect spoken further inland in Iwate.

Continuing north, we arrived at Kamaishi, with a tall white Buddha statue, Kamaishi Dai Kannon, overlooking the city from a high forested cliff. 

The town is located in a narrow valley at the end of a bay. Thus it had been badly hit. “In this town, most people died,” said Abe Take Sensei as we entered the city. Not quite, but the devastation was still visible. The main street, running up from the harbour, was lined with buildings that had been gutted until the 2nd and 3rd floors. 
Amazingly, shops had reopened in buildings that were still operational. “Oh my, that barber is open,” Yoko exclaimed as she noticed the classic red-blue-white spiral marking the small shop squeezed in between badly damaged buildings. Around town we saw many stores that were open again and tempting customers. The reconstruction has brought to the area large numbers of workers—mainly men without families. The barbershops and izakayas would likely be in demand.

 The double tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami was horrible. Luckily the nuclear disaster, bad as it was, took place far enough not to threaten this area. Still, so many lives ended and so many others were devastated. The economy of the region and the country suffered an incredible blow. Yet, people and towns are slowly being reconstructed and bouncing back. 

This is not the first time Sanriku has been badly hit: in 1896, the Meiji-Sanriku earthquake caused a major tsunami in the region killing at least 22,000 people; then again in March 1933, another earthquake sent in a destructive tidal wave. One can only admire the Japanese people whose stoic discipline, organization and respect for other people and community has done what in many other places would seem impossible: cleaning up, building back, re-establishing businesses, restarting lives in the face of incredible adversity. Where one would not even know where to start and the enormity of the task would seem insurmountable, after just a year they have brought new hope to Sanriku Kaigan.

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