RIKUZENTAKATA, Iwate Pref. — Yasuhiko Konno stands next to a pile of debris that reaches over two stories high. He bows his head for a moment and takes a deep breath.
This was his sake brewery, one of the best in Japan, with a history that goes back hundreds of years. A week after he barely escaped a tsunami that flattened it and nearly everything else in sight, he’s come back for the first time, and it takes him a second to collect his thoughts.
“I will do everything I can to bring us back for business, to start up again,” he says.
Konno, 64, is a respected man in this town on Japan’s eastern shore, and others bow as they pass him amid the wreckage. As the initial shock and sorrow of their tragedy fades, the small towns hit hardest by the disaster are beginning to think about the future, and it will be men like Konno who lead the way.
He feels that traditional, hand-brewed sake, which is sold as a beverage but also used at weddings and in offerings to the deceased, is a part of Japan’s heritage, and that he has a responsibility to somehow carry on. As a business owner, he also provided for his 67 employees, 11 of whom are still missing.
“We were close, it was like a big family at the factory,” says Shizue Suzuki, 56, who has worked for Konno for 37 years.
Now she is one of 1,800 homeless living at a middle school nearby, where she volunteers sorting clothes and cleaning toilets. Without her job at the factory checking the bottles before they shipped out, she worries her family won’t be able to pay the loan on their five-year-old house, which was swept away by the waves.
Konno also lost his home and stays at a community center a few blocks over. Each day, he stops by all of the local refugee camps, checking the lists of names and asking for information about the missing.
After the powerful earthquake rocked his brewery last week, he gathered his employees in the traditional garden, then let them leave for the day to check their homes. About 20 minutes later the 3-meter waves came.
“I never imagined a tsunami would reach this far,” he says of the spot 2 km inland.
Konno made it out with his wife with minutes to spare. Three employees stayed to try to save this year’s batch of sake, then scampered up a nearby cliff as the water crashed in behind them.
The Suisen sake plant was formed from several smaller breweries, some of which go back over 200 years. The site was a registered cultural treasure of Iwate Prefecture. Konno’s sakes often win the top prize for the prefecture, as one did last year.
Now, the sweet smell of fermented rice hangs in the air, and massive green storage tanks, which can each hold 50 kiloliters, are scattered throughout the neighborhood — he heard one is 5 km away. Mixed among the chunks of ancient cured wood are belongings from the houses nearby — a basketball, a tiny pink toilet seat, a chipped record.
Konno’s son, Yasuaki, who is 35, appears from behind a mountain of detritus, the brewing warehouse where he used to work. “My mind is totally blank right now,” Yasuaki says.
The two poke among the wreckage and find some of their sake bottles that survived intact.
A few hundred feet behind them, a group of firefighters find a body that didn’t. They wrap it in a pink blanket before carrying it away.