Locals on patrol in Tohoku

SENDAI (Kyodo) Like other Pacific coastal communities in the Tohoku region, the town of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, was devastated by the catastrophic tsunami that followed the March 11 quake. City Hall, fish processing factories in the port, homes and buildings were demolished.

Residents in the Horikiri district recently started patrolling their neighborhood, which is located on higher ground and suffered relatively less damage.

One night, a group of five men in the neighborhood watch group walked down a pitch-black street, still strewn in part with rubble, in an area where electricity has not been restored.

One man held a metal bat, another a golf club. They found a car parked on the street. Shining a flashlight on the car, one of them said, “Clear,” and looked relieved.

The neighborhood watch was formed after leader Yoshiaki Okumura, a 37-year-old self-employed man, saw a band of young people wandering around after the quake and tsunami ravaged town, he said. The voluntary watch group has grown to around 15 members.

Groups similar to Okumura’s have also formed elsewhere after residents were alarmed by reports of valuables stolen from collapsed homes or gasoline siphoned from abandoned cars dislodged by the waves.

“It will make a difference if we could just give out hints that this area is under guard,” said one of the men engaged in the watch.

Just days after the devastation, rumors of thefts spread in the Horikiri district. The neighborhood watch is also intended to “let people sleep in peace,” Okumura said.

The patrols are conducted by two groups that go out daily from 7 p.m. until 5 a.m. A bonfire is kept lit at the meeting point for the guards. Four to five men walk through the area, a job that takes around 30 minutes.

They pay close attention to collapsed buildings or damaged vehicles. The key point is “to find any signs of change” from their previous rounds, one member said.

Electricity has been restored in some areas in Onagawa. The neighborhood watch groups are planning to disband after power comes back in the areas they cover.

Hiroshi Takagi, 54, of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, said his pharmacy in the Kazuma district has been burglarized three times, with drugs and bottled water stolen.

In the district where many buildings have been smashed in the disaster, the first break-in took place two days after the quake and tsunami, Takagi said.

“I just cannot (forgive this) when we are trying our best to go on living.”

Takagi, armed with a bat, slept at his pharmacy every night after the first incident, but his shop was hit again, this time when he was away during the day on an errand.

At night, with the power out, hardly anyone is seen walking in his neighborhood.

“It’s almost like a ghost town at night,” he said.

Many residents are away, taking refuge in shelters. Thieves tend to target the second floors of shops that have survived the tsunami, Takagi said.

The National Police Agency said soon after the calamity that prefectural police in the devastated northeast experienced around a 60 percent increase in calls, with the majority requesting rescue, and others demanding that police do more intensive patrolling in their neighborhoods.

The NPA said it has sent around 190 uniformed officers and about 80 patrol cars to the disaster-hit regions from other parts of the country.

Police forces have also been beefed up in those regions to keep vigilance over wild rumors of crimes and nuclear power accidents, the agency said. Disinformation was something the agency also had to deal with after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.

According to the agency, after the Hanshin quake, rumors spread that sex crimes were increasing. But in reality, data showed no particular rise in rapes in Hyogo Prefecture that year from the previous year. Thefts and robberies in the prefecture were down following the quake.

This time, there are many rumors of looting and thefts. In one disaster-hit area, a neighborhood watch group was formed after rumors surfaced of foreigners looting the area, the police said.

Also on the rise is chain e-mails containing false information. Takayuki Ikuta, a local government employee who took shelter in Saitama Prefecture amid the nuclear plant crisis in Fukushima Prefecture, received such an e-mail from a friend.

The message said, “An account of a worker at the nuclear power plant: Rain contains a large volume of chemical substances that will turn you into a radiation victim if (it touches) your skin.”

Ikuta, 23, said: “There are many channels of information and it’s perhaps unavoidable that lies spread by word of mouth. But I would hope some measures would be taken to reduce disinformation.”

In addition to patrolling the disaster-hit areas, the NPA said it is trying to take steps against false information on Internet bulletin boards.