Japan: rebuilding in Ofunato


An elderly woman walks through the rubble in the devastated city of Ofunato on March 15, 2011.


Nicholas Kamm

OFUNATO, Japan — Along the water’s edge, volunteer townspeople and firefighters drag poles through the shallow water. They are searching for the dead in this city, which was completely devastated by the March 11 tsunami and earthquake.

A flotilla of small boats works alongside a Japan Coast Guard vessel to pull corpses from the sea along this coast in northeastern Japan. People pick through the rubble that was once their home.

Recovering bodies and planning for an uncertain existence are top priorities for the people of Iwate Prefecture attempting to rebuild their lives.

“The tsunami pulled back with huge force after it had swamped the town, and will have carried some people out a long way,” said Yoshihisa Sasaki, a city government official in Ofunato, Iwate.

Thousands were swept out to sea along the shoreline here and most of them have yet to be found, some never will be. Huge logs waiting on the wharf-side to be loaded onto ships were picked up and shot into the city like oversized blunt arrows.

Ofunato city has a long and brutal history with tsunamis, which have battered it down repeatedly over the years. It was hit by massive waves after offshore earthquakes in 1896 and 1933, as well as one caused by the 1960 Chilean earthquake — the world’s largest ever recorded tremor, at a magnitude of 9.5.

So far 222 people are confirmed dead, and nearly as many are still missing in this city alone, from what has been named the Great Tohoku-Kanto Offshore Earthquake.

The members of the Ito family are going through the stone and rocks that once constituted their house in Ofunato, hoping to salvage anything they can. They are in remarkably good spirits and say they have found relatives who are letting them stay at their house. As they are explaining what happened to their house, and contemplating what they might do in the future, they spot a 14-year-old neighbor who they haven’t seen since the tsunami hit.

“Hey, it’s so good to see you. How about your mother and father, and your younger brother?” asks Mrs. Ito.

“My mom and dad are dead; I just had the funeral for them up at that place. Nobody has seen my little brother, don’t know where he is,” the young boy said.

"That place" is in fact the gymnasium at the Ofunato City First Junior High School, which is acting as the main mortuary for the town. Dozens and dozens of coffins are lined up as a Buddhist priest performs quick-fire ceremonies for the families who park their cars in the school playground.

Under normal circumstances bodies are cremated in Japan. But a lack of capacity and fuel shortages have prompted the government to give special permission for burials to take place.

For survivors throughout northeast Japan, things are slowly improving. The weather is warmer and food supplies are slightly more plentiful.

“Medicine and food is getting through to nearly everywhere now, though the diet is poor and the danger from contagious diseases, such as influenza, is very real,” said Dr. Masaru Yanai, a doctor at the main hospital in Ishinomaki City located in nearby Miyagi Prefecture, where over 1,500 are confirmed dead. “I am also worried about my staff, most of whom have not slept or eaten properly since this all began.”

Once as many bodies as practically can be recovered have been — and the hundreds of thousands of homeless re-housed — then the medical, fire, rescue and military staff who have worked tirelessly through these tragedies will have to cope with the horrors they have witnessed.