A school bell rings and excited giggles and the patter of rubber-soled shoes echo down the corridor as Shinichiro Hiratsuka, principal of Midoridai Junior High School in the city of Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, sits in his office picking over memories of the past decade.
They start on March 11, 2011, when he was stranded at his then-workplace in nearby Ishinomaki, unable to contact his wife, Naomi, or return to his home, normally a 20-minute drive away, due to the havoc caused by the earthquake and tsunami that struck earlier in the afternoon.
Four days would pass before he learned that the eldest of their three children, 12-year-old Koharu, was missing, and another five months until they found her. She was one of 74 pupils at Okawa Elementary School who perished during the 3/11 disasters.
“It was March, so there must have been cherry blossoms and the vivid greens of spring, but I have no recollection of color in 2011,” he says. “I was always looking down at the earth, searching. All I remember was a distinct smell and the piles of debris caked in mud washed up from the seabed.”
While other bereaved parents went about the heart-wrenching process of burying their children, the Hiratsukas scoured the land for Koharu’s remains, Naomi even acquiring a license to operate a digger.
Long after the couple’s quest for closure concluded, the scars remained.
Ten years on, for 3/11 survivors like Hiratsuka, everything is still as real and vivid as it was the day of the calamity.
In the immediate aftermath of the triple disaster, the nation seemingly came together and projected a sense of unity — symbolized by the word kizuna, or bond. But the kizuna narrative may not have withstood the test of time.
Some survivors feel distanced from the rest of Japan; some feel others don’t understand. Some were able to rebuild. And yet for everyone, the disaster is their own very personal experience, and everyone’s loss is different — family members, homes, businesses, communities and ways of life.
But in the end, every survivor — including Hiratsuka — has carried on as best as they could.
“As an educator I felt I must look cheerful in front of the children, but I would often burst into tears on the drive home,” says the 54-year-old, adding that, contrary to popular belief, time doesn’t heal — “you just get used to living with sadness.”
“I still cry, though less frequently, but I’m still heartbroken,” he says. “But there was a point when I thought, ‘How would my daughter feel if she looked down from heaven and saw me looking so sad?’ If all she sees is a survivor who cannot manage a smile, she won’t be cheerful either.”
Hiratsuka found some solace from an unexpected quarter. Having been instrumental in setting up an emergency shelter after the disasters and subsequently placed in charge of disaster prevention at his school, he found himself in high demand, delivering talks on the subject at schools and other municipal centers up and down the country.
A chance encounter at one of them led him to writing a book, “Kimi wa 3/11 o shitte imasu ka?” (“What do you know about 3/11?”), which was released last month. Written for children, it discusses the disasters and Hiratsuka’s change of perspective in the years that followed them.
“The message I want to convey is ‘live your own life and live it well,’” he says. “Koharu’s younger siblings have grown, and are now older than she was when she died. They have their lives to live, too.”
Hiratsuka says he has tried to practice what he preaches, re-engaging with his career, giving talks and meeting people he might never have otherwise met.
“That’s all down to Koharu,” he says. “When I pray to her now, I no longer say, ‘rest in peace,’ but ‘thank you.’”
He has also found time to reflect on the wider meaning of disasters such as 3/11.
“I’ve come to realize that, in the face of such a calamity, all humans become equal,” he says. “There’s no God, no Buddha — if there was, surely they wouldn’t inflict such pain and despair. Regardless of how terrible things are, all you can believe in at such a time is yourselves and your ability to join hands with fellow sufferers to overcome whatever calamity comes your way. It’s something that has become ingrained in our cultural fabric over centuries of natural disasters.”
Limited employment options
Further up the coast, cranes haul huge concrete slabs to complete the towering seawalls that marshal the once idyllic fishing village of Kyubun on the southwestern coast of the Oshika Peninsula.
Biting winds ruffle the waters of the shimmering Pacific, sending fishing boats moored to the pier into a squeaky jig. The harbor is otherwise quiet, the oyster-shucking sheds closed and the 70-odd houses that once squeezed on a narrow slither of land between waterfront and a lushly forested escarpment have gone.
A handful of storehouses have replaced them and, inside one, a huddle of fishermen train their eyes on a mahjong board, illuminated by the soft sunlight that filters through the frosted windows.
From the smoke-filled shadows emerges Toshikazu Takahashi, hand raised, cigarette wedged between chunky fingers. The storehouse was recently erected on the site of his former home, where in the immediate aftermath of the disasters he set up a tent and lived with his wife, Teruyo, mother, Mitsuko, and dog, Denmaru, braving the elements for over five months, even building a wood-fired bathhouse from the debris.
“We’re living a bit more comfortably now,” he says as he leads the way up a flight of stone steps that links the harbor to a new residential zone, perched 20 meters up on excavated woodland that was once his childhood playground and the place that effectively saved an entire community.
“There were no video games back then, just the woods, and he knew them like the back of his hand,” says Teruyo, as she serves up piping hot coffee inside the living room of their spacious new home. “He knew the most sheltered places, and that we’d need fuel and wood to survive.”
Since the disasters, fishing in the waters off Kyubun and elsewhere in the area has become complicated and “unbalanced,” explains Toshikazu, with previously common catch such as salmon and whitebait now entirely absent and the likes of less sought after produce such as gazami crabs, a rarity before 2011, significantly more abundant.
With Kyubun’s population below 200, or around half its pre-disaster levels, the remaining fishermen are vying with hundreds of others in the region for a finite wakame seaweed market, he adds.
The village’s population decline has little to do with the direct impact of the disasters and more to do with increasingly limited employment options, he says.
Only one of Kyubun’s residents perished during 3/11 — the wife of a fisherman who initially evacuated, but decided to return home to collect some belongings. “In small communities such as this, we pull together, through thick and thin,” says Toshikazu, 63, pointing out that the characters for “Kyubun” mean “give” and “share.”
“After the quakes there was all this talk about kizuna, as though it was something that was born out of the disasters,” he says. “We don’t use that word, we don’t need to — it’s something that’s been in communities like this for a long time.”
Many in the region agree, referring to the “neo-kizuna,” which was largely employed to refer to the ties formed between disaster responders, such as volunteers, and the 3/11 survivors, as a fabricated, politically loaded concept, popularized to divert attention from other societal issues.
Today, few understand the true meaning of kizuna, which refers to being “shackled” like a horse, hawk or other creature, says Nobuo Higuchi of the Great East Japan Earthquake Bereaved Association.
“It doesn’t have entirely good connotations anyway, but this new meaning was completely engineered, and temporary in nature and practice,” says Higuchi, who is also head priest at Ishinomaki’s Muryojuan Temple, which was badly damaged during the disasters.
“It’s like the Tokyo Olympics, which has nothing to do with Tohoku or its recovery, being called the ‘Recovery Olympics.’ These are just officially trumped up expressions to conceal inconvenient truths. It’s whitewashing.”
The inconvenient truth of greatest concern to Higuchi is that members of his congregation who lost loved ones during the disaster continue to suffer emotionally and cannot move on, he says.
“The majority of Japanese are completely dissociated (from this suffering) because they aren’t suffering themselves. They look the other way.”
According to studies, such suffering may continue for some time, with trauma resulting from natural disasters being especially pernicious due to the large numbers of people impacted.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, survivor guilt, and mood and anxiety disorders can take years, even decades, before they go into remission, some studies suggest.
Recently published research by Akiko Sakai, a professor of clinical care at Fukui University, analyzed the process of psychological recovery among 3/11 survivors at one-, four- and seven-year intervals. Factors affecting psychological changes — including human relations, living environment, health conditions and perceptions of the future — “fluctuated ambivalently” depending on the mental state of individual survivors and thus the time it would ultimately take for them to recover, she found.
While Sakai’s study focused on adult members of the Tohoku population, other research indicates children are particularly susceptible to stress-related conditions such as PTSD, while a 2019 survey of children orphaned by the disasters found about 20% of them still experienced mood or anxiety disorders — twice the normal level.
Naoki Tsuda, who had just graduated from junior high school in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, at the time of the disasters, says for some years he experienced moments of depression and anxiety, triggered largely by a bitter realization of an irrecoverable past.
“When I thought about the place where I was born and raised, it made me feel extremely sad,” he says of his childhood home, which was among some 4,000 houses in the lower-lying areas of the city flattened by 17-meter tsunami waves.
“I felt the same when I thought about childhood photos that hung on the walls but had been washed away with everything else,” he says. “Suddenly there was nowhere to call home — not even a memento of it. The townscapes I knew, they were gone.”
Tsuda, who moved to the inland city of Morioka, also experienced feelings of survivor guilt. His own immediate family survived, although some of his neighbors were not so lucky. Among them were the parents of schoolfriend Hikaru Ito and his brother, Masaya, who were among the nearly 1,800 victims.
“Even after 10 years, I think it’s still too painful for them,” says Tsuda, 25, after the Itos, who have moved far away from their hometown, declined to be interviewed. “Going back there would probably be like revisiting 3/11 all over again.”
Ironically, Tsuda admits their tragedy helped him to grow. “They and other friends who lost family members went in search of them and I offered to help. I saw a lot of death among the debris, which made me realize how lucky I was. I think that shaped my thinking, to respect and value people and never take anything for granted.”
While newly built hilltop communities and imposing sea defenses mark physical progress across the region, many people echo similar sentiments to Tsuda when it comes to the breaking up of communities and the subsequent loss of a deep-rooted communal heritage.
A new paradigm
Land raising and extensive civil engineering projects in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, for example, have brought about the demise of long-standing communities and the bonds that had been forged up until the disasters.
“Many have moved away, but those who chose to stay are scattered around newly built residential areas and so on,” says Hiroshi Saijo, who, together with his wife, Seiko, rebuilt the family fish store in the coastal part of Togura district — the only one out of 80 households to return there.
“Being able to rebuild back where the original store had stood gave us peace of mind, helped us settle,” says Hiroshi, 71. “But the old community has gone, which is extremely sad.”
Rikuzentakata has many similarities to Minamisanriku. The coastal area where Tsuda’s home once stood has been raised 10 meters as part of the city’s new disaster countermeasures, which also included the building of a new 12½-meter-high, 2-km-long sea wall. It remains largely deserted, a broad plain sliced in two by the steep, freshly concreted banks of the Kesen River.
Across the Kesen, however, some houses and businesses have started to emerge, among them Yagisawa Shoten, a soy sauce- and miso-maker with a 214-year presence in the city that also fell victim to the tsunami.
According to Michihiro Kono, Yagisawa’s CEO, many residents were unwilling to wait for the city’s extensive rebuilding project to be completed and simply left the area, reducing the population to 18,000, down from 24,000 before the disasters. Yet, in his mind this represents a chance to rebuild, and “knock down” some of the traditional barriers that existed pre-3/11.
Kono lost numerous friends and family members to the disasters, and for a time sought help for PTSD and encouraged members of his staff who were suffering from trauma to get support, too.
Having evacuated to higher ground — all but one of his 35-strong staff managing to scamper to safety with him — he watched on in horror as his children’s elementary school was consumed by the waves.
It took about 24 hours to confirm their safety and another two days more to be reunited, but, with his business in ruins and his staff among the thousands left homeless, his despair soon turned into a sense of mission.
“The driving force was negative energy born from a sense of injustice and anger toward the tsunami and what it had done,” says Kono, 47. “Many of those who perished were people I’d worked with, socialized with, hatched plans with to make this town great — they were like siblings. I had gone to identify their bodies and felt I couldn’t face them if I didn’t vow to get involved in the rebuilding process.”
Kono has been instrumental in a variety of rebuilding aspects, ensuring local building contractors got a slice of the reconstruction pie and even pushing for underground power lines — a battle he ultimately lost to “vested interests.”
He also opened a new facility — a food court called Hakko Park Camocy, where local businesses offer their products inside a stylish building made from locally grown cedar and pine that he hopes will serve as a beacon for luring visitors and new residents from far and wide.
His dream is to create a new society that is more open to immigrants, who he sees as pivotal in stemming Japan’s depopulating, aging society. While before the disasters Japan in general and Rikuzentakata in particular was relatively closed to such external influences, the “inestimable” contribution from overseas volunteers and other players in the recovery process has made local residents far more open-minded, he says.
“People like me who were considered young at the time of the disasters are now at an age where we can make decisive contributions to a more sustainable society that works in a mutually beneficial way to solve some of the globe’s most pressing issues, such as depopulation and the refugee and immigrant problems,” he says, adding that it is this age group that understands the value of such things as multiculturalism and sustainable development goals.
“We have reached a certain stage in our recovery here over the past 10 years,” he says. “It’s time to start debating how to take things forward over the next 10. And, to that end, we need a new paradigm that builds and unites communities.”
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