ISHINOMAKI, MIYAGI PREF. – Ever since the 9-magnitude earthquake rocked the Tohoku region two years ago, Tokyo doctor Naoko Ishii and her husband, Hajime, have been quasi-residents of the Ogatsu district of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.
Just a day after the havoc began on March 11, 2011, the couple drove north in a vehicle laden with food, water and medicine to help their compatriots in distress.
Days later, they stopped by the nearby fishing port of Ogatsu to dispense medical care because the town was in dire need of doctors. Tsunami had destroyed hospitals and knocked out the bridge spanning the Kitakami River, cutting it off from the rest of Ishinomaki.
“After I saw the patients, I realized that we had to come back here every week,” said Ishii, who has been making two-day visits to Ogatsu each week while working full time as head of the Sanno Clinic in Tokyo. “At the same time, we fell in love with Ogatsu.”
After the quake and tsunami crippled much of the region and left thousands dead or missing, an army of volunteers descended on the area, removing rubble and clearing away mud to show their solidarity with the victims.
According to the Ishinomaki Future Support Association, a nonprofit organization, Ishinomaki attracted 280,000 volunteers in the first year alone, a number equal to almost 150 percent of its population. They provided almost 900,000 meals for the residents, who were forced to live in shelters after losing their homes.
The number of volunteers peaked in May 2011 as attempts were being made to clean up the city and after tsunami survivors had settled into temporary digs.
Now, two years on, experts say a variety of support is still needed as the affected areas are far from normal: About 320,000 people from Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures are still unable to return to their homes.
“Longer-term assistance is required, such as psychological help for people living in temporary housing,” said Masaharu Nakagawa of Ishinomaki Future Support Association.
The couple made a long-term commitment to the town by setting up Magonote Clinic, the first clinic in Ogatsu to open following the disaster, after a scallop farmer donated space where they could set up an office.
A “magonote” is a backscratcher for reaching where “help is needed.”
Every Sunday and Monday, Ishii sees her 40 patients, most of whom are elderly and suffering from high blood pressure. Even though some nonprofit organizations dispatched doctors to the region in the aftermath of the disaster, Ishii said it was stressful and time-consuming for the elderly patients to explain their symptoms every time they saw a different doctor.
“I am here only two days a week, but I wanted them to feel at ease by being able to talk to the same doctor,” she said.
Although at first the couple were optimistic that the town would soon be restored, it did not take long for them to realize the reconstruction was too slow and the community will never return to its pre-3/11 state.
“Many residents are giving up on their town due to the lack of information about the reconstruction process, such as public housing plans for those who lost their houses,” said Ishii’s husband, who runs an audio parts shop called Konzertina in Tokyo.
To help residents get the information they need, he launched the Ogatsu Shimbun, a monthly newspaper both in printed form and on the Internet, last May.
He aims to keep Ogatsu residents informed about their community and the whereabouts of neighbors, as the former residents are now widely scattered across the region.
While the tsunami severely damaged or destroyed almost 1,230 houses out of the 1,660 residences standing in the port, only 150 temporary housing units have been built because a ban on the construction of housing was imposed on most low-lying coastal land.
Hajime Ishii mainly writes upbeat articles about Ogatsu, such as about the town’s famous festival of Shinto music and dance. Yet when he tries to cover stories about the conflicting views on reconstruction plans, such as the location of a new town center or the local government’s inability to listen to the residents’ opinions and requests, he becomes frustrated as some of them do not want him to stir up controversy or disrupt the “harmony” of their community.
“As an outsider, there are things that I cannot write (about),” he said. “To me, the city is trying to create another ‘care home’ for the elderly because the current situation only encourages pensioners to remain in the district and the population will keep declining.”
According to a survey by Ishinomaki authorities, more than 70 percent of the city’s residents said they plan to move away.
While many are leaving the decaying and dying town behind, the couple have no plans to quit and stop their weekly visits, as they are fascinated by the people, the fantastic scenery and delicious fresh local seafood, such as oysters, that the area has to offer.
“As long as my patients need me, I will be there,” Dr. Ishii said.