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Every morning before work, Kenichi Kurosawa refuels a kerosene lantern at an altar beside a large billboard that reads, “Ganbarō! Ishinomaki,” which can roughly be translated as, “Let’s keep going! Ishinomaki.”

Kurosawa created the signboard after his two-story house was smashed by towering waves set off by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck off the nation’s northeastern coast on March 11, 2011.

Since then, the 11-meter-long wooden panel has become a symbol of one of the deadliest natural disasters in Japanese history.

“A month or so after the catastrophe, I painted these words on pieces of plywood and set them up on the foundations of where my home used to stand,” says Kurosawa. “It’s hard to describe what I was thinking at the time, but more than anything I wanted to tell people in my neighborhood not to give up. And I believe the message remains relevant today — perhaps even more so as we face another crisis in the form of a pandemic.”

Kurosawa is one of the the residents of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, selected to run in the Tokyo Olympics torch relay, set to kick off on March 25. The port city was among those hardest hit by the 2011 disaster.

Its death toll accounted for one-fifth of the nearly 19,000 that lost their lives in the calamity. One in 40 residents, or around 3,700 people, perished when the giant tsunami ravaged half the city, leaving a chaotic mess of flooded buildings, crushed cars and overturned fishing boats.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the disaster, and Kurosawa has been looking forward to taking part in the games. After all, the sporting extravaganza is being billed as the “recovery Olympics,” and the torch relay will symbolically begin in Fukushima Prefecture, the location of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant whose triple meltdowns in 2011 were triggered by the earthquake and tsunami.

But what was supposed to be a watershed moment for Tohoku’s reconstruction efforts has been overshadowed by concerns over COVID-19. Polls show that most Japanese are against hosting the games over fears an influx of foreign athletes could spread the virus. To make matters worse, Tokyo 2020 chief Yoshiro Mori recently resigned after facing an outcry over sexist comments. Over 1,000 people who had volunteered for the games quit after the fiasco.

Still, Kurosawa is intent on fulfilling his duty as torchbearer if the games go ahead as planned.

“What Mr. Mori said was indefensible — he’s been gaffe-prone since his days as prime minister,” he says. “But I think his remarks and whether or not the games should be held are separate matters.”

Kurosawa, who operates a plumbing company, was on his way back from visiting a client when the tremors struck at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011. He immediately called his wife, who was at a local bank, and told her that he would be driving back to their home in Minamihama, a coastal area of Ishinomaki.

The Tsunami Recovery Memorial Park in Minamihama, Miyagi Prefecture, is set to open in late March. | OSCAR BOYD
The Tsunami Recovery Memorial Park in Minamihama, Miyagi Prefecture, is set to open in late March. | OSCAR BOYD

“But then I heard the radio warning of a tsunami, and tried to call her again to tell her to run toward the mountains,” Kurosawa says. “By then, however, the phone was unable to connect.”

Worried about his wife, Kurosawa sped toward his house but was soon sandwiched between two giant waves that came roaring toward him, swallowing up vehicles as it approached.

“I got out and desperately climbed up a pine tree, and ended up spending the night on a branch,” he says. “Lumps of torn metal and pieces of floating logs knocked down other trees nearby, but luckily the one I was clinging on to withstood it all.”

The next morning he found himself shivering above a wasteland of mud and debris. He set himself down from the tree and began trekking over the mess to search for his wife. “I was plagued by the notion that my phone call may have killed her.”

By the end of the day, however, he had been able to find her at an evacuation center. She said she was rescued from the second floor of their home after the tsunami ripped through the first floor. The couple spent the next three weeks staying in the showroom of a kitchen manufacturer. His wife then temporarily moved to her parents’ home, while Kurosawa rented a truck and delivered water to evacuation centers.

A month after the earthquake struck, he decided to make the signboard. Over 400 lives were claimed in Minamihama. His home was in ruins, and many of his neighbors died or disappeared.

“I wanted to tell the survivors that we’re in this together, and that we will get over this together,” Kurosawa says.

A billboard bearing the words 'Ganbarо̄! Ishinomaki,' or, 'Let’s keep going! Ishinomaki' stands in Minamihama, a coastal district of the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. | OSCAR BOYD
A billboard bearing the words ‘Ganbarо̄! Ishinomaki,’ or, ‘Let’s keep going! Ishinomaki’ stands in Minamihama, a coastal district of the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. | OSCAR BOYD

Some of the people watching him paint the message were crying, he recalls. The simple billboard soon became a de facto memorial to the victims of the disaster. An altar was made next to it with a lamp carrying a flame lit from wooden chips collected from homes destroyed by the dark waves, and ceremonies have been held each year at the site on March 11 with prayers for the deceased.

In 2016, the sign was moved around 100 meters from where Kurosawa’s home stood to be part of the Tsunami Recovery Memorial Park set to open at the end of March.

“Starting this year, students from a local middle school will be painting the words on a new billboard every five years as part of an effort to hand over memories of the disaster to the next generation,” he says.

A lot has changed over the past decade. A massive, state-funded infrastructure drive has transformed the city. Seawalls as high as 10 meters now obstruct the view of the ocean. New roads and buildings have been constructed. Traces of the devastation may be hard to discern, Kurosawa says, but the memory of the tragedy will linger, especially for those who lost their loved ones.

“I applied to be an Olympic torchbearer to represent Ishinomaki and to remind the world of what happened here,” he says. “I would be disappointed if the games were canceled, but expect myself to take it in my stride. And if it is held, as planned, I will do my best to play my part.”

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