“Come on up,” said a man wearing dark-blue overalls and a baseball cap. “Come up and see the view.”
Anywhere else in Japan and it would have been a welcome invitation. In the tiny village of Unosumai in Iwate Prefecture, however, it was made and accepted with the understanding that “the view” would likely be sickening.
So, on an overcast day in late May, myself and two colleagues followed Yoshinobu Ryokawa into the smashed entrance of his three-story concrete building and made our way up to the roof. We were in the middle of a reporting trip to areas of the Tohoku region of Honshu hard hit by the magnitude-9 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, and Ryokawa had called out to us as we negotiated the rubble of what had been Unosumai Station, about 100 meters away.
Up on the roof, the 70-year-old gripped a railing and began pointing out former landmarks. “That’s where the train line was. That’s where the station was. There were houses all through here,” he said, waving his arm.
Now, of course, the vista was very different. Beach sand from the coastline about a kilometer away covered most of the ground, punctuated by smashed timbers, metal and other debris.
My colleagues and I were probably wearing expressions of disbelief. Ryokawa decided to back up his assertions about what used to be there with evidence.
“After the quake struck, I ran up here to take photos of the damage,” he said, opening up a red plastic folder full of photos — some of them sets forming 360-degree panoramas. Now we understood what the village had been like. Yes, there was the station, the train line, the houses — the many hundreds of houses.
He then flicked over some more pages. “After I took these, I went downstairs for a minute to take some more shots, but then I saw the tsunami, so I came back up here and kept shooting as it came,” he said.
Ryokawa’s second series of photographs, taken just 30 minutes after the first, show a landscape transformed. The town has become a river. The station, railway line and houses have vanished under what Ryokawa estimates was an 8-meter torrent that swept on to the mountains in the distance.
Fortunately, the wave came only to the third floor of Ryokawa’s building, where he and his wife, Kiyo, lived and rented out rooms for cafes and other businesses. Since the tsunami, they have been holed up at an evacuation center near Kamaishi Station, the nearest hub, which is about 6 km away.
“I had this building constructed 35 years ago,” Ryokawa said. “I knew it was solid, but if the tsunami had come any higher I was ready to climb up on top of the water tank,” he said, pointing to the rusted structure still sitting on top of the roof.
Marooned on top of their building in the middle of a swirling mass of water and debris, Ryokawa and his wife watched helplessly as cars and houses were carried by — many with people clinging to them.
“We called out to people to jump or grab something,” he said.
A Sagawa Express courier who was perched on the roof of a house that was being washed past managed to jump to the roof of a building next to Ryokawa’s. He was saved. But so many others weren’t.
“I called out to one woman who was on top of a car to grab something, but she yelled back that it was no good,” he said. “She’d given up hope.”
The tsunami also snatched away two of Ryokawa’s seven siblings and four friends from his year at school. All lived in Kamaishi.
Ryokawa’s voice was quiet and mostly steady, but it faltered sometimes — as though he had come to the point where disbelief borders on resignation, and he was still teetering on the edge.
“There’s no point just sitting around the evacuation center all day,” he said. “Whenever I get some time I come down here.”
“Every day they clean up the town a little more, and soon they’ll start bulldozing wrecked buildings. I give directions, try to make myself useful,” he said.
And thus he had called out to people like us.
“I plan to ask that they bulldoze this building last,” he said. “Until then, I want to clean up the first-floor room and exhibit all these photos. I want to show people what happened here.”
Would he mind if we printed the photos in The Japan Times?
“No, please do. The more people who see what the town was like before March 11 the better.”