Catastrophe revisited 12 months on

One of the first journalists to report from the Tohoku coast after March 11 revisits the sites of the disasters

The Ground Self-Defense Force troops have gone. So too the old blackboard with sheets of paper taped to it. I still remember a few of the names written in long lists there — the names of those whose muddied bodies could be identified after they were brought on military trucks to the makeshift morgue in Ishinomaki’s central gymnasium.

In the days after last year’s magnitude-9 Great East Japan Earthquake and the awful tsunami it triggered, survivors would gingerly approach that blackboard one after another and scour the lists for something they desperately hoped to not find. For too many, a few characters written there in black ink would shatter all hope just as suddenly and completely as the waves had wiped out their homes and communities on March 11.

The scenes of bereavement — an elderly woman barely able to walk, a young boy with hands buried deep into his eyes — had filled me with the kind of grief I’d thought was reserved exclusively for the passing of people you know and love.

A year on and I am back at the gym, which is now closed and empty. Like much of the Tohoku region I will travel through in the following days, there is nothing left here to recall what unfolded in this place.

As I am pondering all this — and reflecting that two of the names I remember on those lists were of little girls aged 1 and 2 — an elderly man stops to tell me the gym is undergoing renovation. “Renewal” is the word he uses.

My journey through the stricken region extending some 400 km along the Pacific coast will be filled with scenes of renewal, some heartening, but others tinged with a depressing deja vu as lives are resumed precisely where others were swept away.

A short walk from the gym, the Izumi district reveals little of the death and destruction I saw there a year ago. Where soldiers had carefully picked among the rubble along the main shopping street, the debris has now gone and a few businesses have reopened — though customers are few.

Rounding a corner I notice that a yacht the wave had impaled in the side of a building has gone — along with the building itself. Further on I search for a lady I met last March who told me how her husband, a gynecologist, had just overseen a birth when the quake hit. But their smashed clinic has gone and a temporary wooden bathhouse now stands in its place.

The panoramic view from the park atop Hiyorigayama Hill has changed as well. Buildings that had been crushed into the foot of the hill have been cleared and even the headstones of the battered cemetery have been meticulously replaced.

The smoldering buildings I saw from the same spot last March have been leveled now, and the nauseating stench of sea sludge mixed with gasoline has gone. The sirens, too, which I thought would go on forever, now wail no more. All is deathly quiet.

The same is true of places along the coast and into Iwate Prefecture, which had always seemed to be one step ahead in terms of mopping up and moving on. Among the withered, tsunami-shattered stumps of pine trees that once graced the waterfront of Rikuzentakata in their hundreds, I come across Toru Sato and his team, who are digging deep. At a dozen places along this sweeping bay, today pummeled by a numbing winter westerly, they are taking core samples of earth from up to 50 meters deep, which he packs in tubes, labels and puts into a long wooden box. “It’s all in preparation for a new sea wall,” he explains. “It will be 20 meters from its foundations to the top, and it will stretch all the way over there,” he says, pointing across to where fizzling whitecaps indicate there had once been a walkway in a waterfront park.

All along this coast, residents have been urged to move to higher ground, though if history is any guide, it may not be long before houses start reappearing in the danger zones.

However, one Rikuzentakata resident who has heeded the official advice is Hiroshi Tsuda, 54, who a year ago I met with his wife Eiko, 46, and their 16-year-old son Naoki at the site of their swept-away home 100 meters from the shore. They were searching then for photos or other mementos of their former life — Naoki seemingly in a deep state of shock far too burdensome for one so young.

His family, Hiroshi says now, are all well and living with relatives in their house, and Naoki is back at school. Soon, however, they will get started on plans for a new home several hundred meters inland. “It was never going to be practical to go back,” says Hiroshi, who, like his son, was born in the house the tsunami swept away. “Our neighborhood has been broken up, and I doubt it will ever be resurrected. All we want is some peace of mind, some semblance of normality.”

I wander through the flattened landscape of the Takata district where the Tsudas used to live — in the middle of which a monstrous pile of debris has been heaped up. Simply put, there is nothing left of the community, save few battered buildings marooned on the brown grids of earth stretching to the coast.

However, as I drive south through the outskirts of the city and then through Kesennuma and down the coast to Minamsanriku, traces of normality are beginning to reappear. The wrecked cars, trucks and boats that had lain strewn around every town and fishing village last year have gone, replaced by huge mounds of collected debris at every turn — debris for which we’re told there’s still no final disposal plan. Yet peppered among the ruins are small stores and cobbled-together shopping malls inside prefabricated units.

I stop for coffee at one in Minamisanriku, where Dai Ichikawa, a volunteer from Tokyo, is making a valiant effort to clear the fast-falling snow off the car park. “Many people seem happy when they come here,” he says, wiping away snow from his black-rimmed spectacles. “There is little else for them to do. Life must be monotonous in the cramped temporary housing.”

A year on and some 260,000 people are still living in such conditions in the three worst-affected prefectures — and they’ll continue to do so for quite some time. To rebuild infrastructure on the scale required here will take much longer than just a few years, and the sea-wall construction projects alone could continue into the next decade.

I push on down the coast, keen to try and locate another family I met on a later trip last year when they were camping out on the foundations of their destroyed home in Kyubunhama on the picturesque Oshika Peninsula in Miyagi Prefecture. Toshikazu Takahashi, his wife Teruyo and mother Mitsuko had, along with their dog Denmaru, by then lived in a small blue tent for six months — while slowly but surely building a bathhouse from the debris.

That first time I met Takahashi he had been ebullient at the arrival of a crane: It meant that he and his fellow fishermen could start clearing debris from the bay and then hopefully get the few boats they’d managed to salvage back in the water.

This time I found Takahashi down by the desolate waterfront with his surviving colleagues next to four containers that had just arrived for them to store their gear in. Another step forward, it seems — but Takahashi isn’t his ebullient self as before.

“They’ve been back to do more tests here,” he tells me later over hot noodles at the temporary ramen shop where Teruyo now works part-time. “They found traces of cesium — well below the government limit, but enough to put off our customers.”

There are plenty of rumors in these parts as to how it got there, he says. One is that the radioactive contamination is not from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant 150 km to the south — but from the Onagawa nuclear power plant a stone’s throw away on the opposite side of the peninsula. The road above it — the stunningly beautiful Cobalt Line that passes through the heart of the peninsula — has been closed recently due, locals say, not to post-quake repairs but to high levels of contamination there.

My curiosity piqued, I head for Iigohama, driving across the peninsula past tsunami-flattened fishing villages and another colossal mound of debris. For the first and only time on the trip, I also come across a group of volunteers — these helping a local oyster farmer get his business back up and running. A year ago you couldn’t find a hotel room for volunteers — but a year ago, there was a lot more work that needed doing.

Arriving at the tiny fishing community of just a few dozen households, I stroll through the now-deserted village and clamber up the steep steps leading to the local shrine, where Iigohama’s residents had watched in horror as the waves smashed into their homes. Below, all is silent — lifeless except for the flapping of a plastic sheet hanging from the sole surviving building. The water beyond, too, looks different: No longer is the scenic bay filled with the floating roofs of buildings and other debris.

On March 13 last year — when, among that flotsam, I was especially moved by a photo I found of a woman in a red kimono – shaken residents were thankful, they told me, for the official “safe shelter” nearby. Oddly enough, it was the gymnasium at Tohoku Electric Power Co.’s Onagawa nuclear plant.

My last port of call on this trip is to a Fukushima village that was untouched by the quake or tsunami — but to which residents are unlikely to return for years. Iitate, which a few years ago was named the most beautiful village in Japan, is just outside the government-enforced 20-km no-go zone around the Fukushima plant. However, several weeks after the reactor meltdowns, when it became clear that prevailing winds had made it a radiation hotspot, the village was abandoned by almost all its residents at the urging of the local authority.

I drop in on Nobuyoshi Ito, one of the few who have chosen to stay behind. Ito, 68, has continued to grow rice and other crops on his farm in an attempt to provide valuable statistical data about the effects of radiation.

Since late last May, when readings of radioactive iodine were still detectable, the only cause for concern has been cesium, he says. Even then the highest levels he has recorded have been the 101 Bq/hr found in his sweet potatoes — almost five times less than the government limit.

“Overall, data reveals there is no evidence that highly contaminated fields and areas yield produce with high radioactivity levels,” says Ito. “But it would be spurious to conclude that soil with low levels would yield produce with low levels of contamination.”

Since I first met him last year, Ito has had two body scans at the University of Tokyo, which he tells me have not revealed any alarming results. “I’ll be close to 90 should radiation cause me any health concerns, but I worry about young children and how thyroid cancer could quite possibly be a problem,” he says.

As I leave, he says that he feels sorry for the local farming families, many of whom have tilled the Iitate soil for generations. The village, he says, should serve as a warning to all. “One day they were suddenly told to stop and leave because of the radiation. Iitate was suddenly a hotspot, but people are greatly mistaken if they think this is just a problem for Iitate.

“On the days after March 11 last year when explosions occurred at the Fukushima plant, the direction of the wind, the timing of the rain, meant that radioactive material landed here. What if it had rained later, or the wind blew harder and in a different direction? Then it might be your children facing possible thyroid cancer in 10 years. Is nuclear power really worth that risk?”

As I head back to the supposed relative safety of Tokyo, I reflect on Ito’s warning and the scenes I have taken in on the trip. The most lingering memory was those huge piles of debris, most of which has yet to find a home. Then there were the people, who, despite also being in an enforced state of limbo one year after the disasters, had kept their sights firmly fixed on the horizon.

Rob Gilhooly is a freelance photographer and writer whose first years in Japan were spent living in Fukushima Prefecture. His website is

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