Northern Japan: Nothing is as it once was


A family member retrieves photographs of her missing grand father and mother's old photos amongst debris in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, March 28, 2011.


Yasuyoshi Chiba

MINAMI SANRIKUCHO, Japan ― Driving toward the shore, the GPS navigation device announces: “Ministop is coming up on your right.” We stop the car next to half a building with a staircase that leads up to nowhere. The convenience store along with everything else around it has been erased by the recent tsunami.

Nothing is as it once was in this small fishing town in Miyagi Prefecture.

Hit hard by the 30-foot waves of the March 11 tsunami, only the occasional concrete shell remains. The modest downtown area is completely gone. Half of Minami Sanrikucho’s 18,000 people now live in evacuation centers.

About 9,700 people have been placed in schools and the Bayside Arena, where Mayor Jin Sato has his temporary office. The mayor said there are three temporary mortuaries with 300 unidentified bodies and another 9,000 people are missing.

Yoshiko and Shoji Kikuta, a retired husband and wife, search through the rubble of what used to be Shoji's parents' house. The couple lives in Sendai now, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) away. Shoji's parents passed away a long time ago, but the house remained a gathering place for extended family.

The wooden foundations jut out of the accumulated trash and possessions. “We renovated the house several years ago” Shoji said. A white teacup found in the midst of all the clutter isn’t his, he said. He's never seen it before. “We haven’t even found one thing from our house in this whole area” he said.

Yoshiko explained how the living room had a huge window facing the harbor. People would sit drinking beer and watching fireworks through the window during summer festivals twice a year. She wept as she explained the traditional Japanese family layout of the living area.

“This was the main street in town,” Shoji said, gesturing toward the cleared road in front of their house. Amid the tangle of fishing nets, buoys, wood and household objects, there is nothing left to show that this was downtown.

“Octopus”! Yoshiko shrieks, pointing into a corner of the mess. She runs across the ruins to pick up a huge octopus that was caught under where the living room floor used to be.

Minami Sanrikucho is famous for octopus. I wonder how long it will be until they can fish for this famed local produce again.

A lone fisherman, Tokuji Sugawara, walks by with his hand cart. The 78-year-old is collecting spare tires. He says he used to get up every morning at 5 a.m. to fish.

“I went out at 5 a.m. and was due to come back at 9 p.m., but came home early that day. I was washing the boat and noticed the water being sucked out to sea and ran for high ground,” he said.

He witnessed the big tsunami of 50 years ago, “but no one could ever imagine that a tsunami this size was possible” he said. He knew to run when he noticed the post-quake waters being sucked deep out to sea.

He was lucky. His house is up on the hill and the tsunami waters only came to his front doorstep. But he lost all five of his boats and hasn’t seen any of them since.