On March 11, 2011, the magnitude-9 Great East Japan Earthquake propelled a powerful tsunami through the port of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, claiming 827 lives — nearly 10 percent of the town’s population — and destroying 70 percent of all of its buildings. It was the most severely damaged town in the Tohoku region. The horrifying video of this cataclysm depicts how the port’s fish processing factories, offices, entire houses, cars, ships and trucks were uprooted and pushed inland through a low-lying area tucked between sea and mountain that served as a funnel for a sledgehammer of debris. It battered everything in its path, toppling four-story buildings as it carved a swath of destruction.
Arriving there on April 1, 2011, I saw massive mounds of rubble and debris scattered across what used to be a community. Onagawa had been pulverized and the unmistakable stench of death was in the air as disaster search-and-rescue teams, one from India on that day, poked through the wreckage in search of bodies.
I spoke with the parking lot attendant at the Onagawa Medical Center, perched on a reinforced embankment 15 meters above the port, and he told me how the waters rose even higher and engulfed the first floor of the hospital. Peering toward the skeletal ruins of buildings below, I saw several cars dangling from fourth-story roofs, one of which the attendant said was his car that had been parked where we were standing.
The debris has now been cleared away and the central district has been transformed into a vast zone of bleak desolation. In the hospital, there is a photo gallery that chronicles the tsunami aftermath and stages of slow-but-steady recovery efforts. But there’s a long way to go.
The deserted area is slated to be elevated some 5 meters or so and thereafter used for commercial space stretching from the port to just beyond the 1933 tsunami stone tablets. These were erected to warn future residents to build no closer to the port, marking the boundary between safety and danger. Clearly those exhortations were ignored as land convenient to the downtown port area proved too enticing. Now there will be no residential housing in this district and rebuilding will slowly take place atop massive berms that have yet to be built.
The port is now functioning again with several fishing vessels moored along the quays flanked by the rebuilt seafood processing facility (funded by a Qatari foundation) that has restored jobs in the town’s mainstay industry. Total fishing sales in 2015 actually exceed pre-2011 levels, but mostly because prices are higher. The volume of the catch, however, and number of fishing cooperative members has declined by 20 percent and the once lively port district remains eerily vacant.
Yet Onagawa is not a ghost town and appears to be on the rebound as Yoshiaki Sudo, the dynamic mayor elected there in November 2011, has effectively tapped into local entrepreneurship, expertise and external funding to create a viable vision for the town’s rebirth. He drew on the support and advice of local businessmen who established a reconstruction coordinating body in April 2011 that has played a key role in generating private sector support, decisiveness and flexible solutions, often overcoming government inertia. Architect Shigeru Ban and AKB48 producer Yasushi Akimoto have been key supporters of the town’s rebuilding efforts. Train service from Ishinomaki was restored in 2015 with the opening of a sleek train station that even has an onsen. JR runs “Kenji” tours named after the region’s celebrated poet Kenji Miyazawa that enable day trips to Onagawa from Tokyo for those too rushed to linger.
The area between the station and the port is slated for commercial development and several stores opened at the end of last year in Onagawa Mirai Sozo, an appealing shopping district of several saltbox style wooden buildings decked with fluttering banners reading “Again Onagawa.” The town hall and other public facilities will be built nearby as part of a compact community concept. Planners want to avoid the fate of Kobe where the snazzy new mall constructed in the Nagata district after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 never attracted enough people to allow businesses to flourish.
It’s early days, but it does not seem that some of the businesses open on the day I visited this year are likely to last. For example, making a wordplay on Japanese, there is a cool display of a pink “Damborghini” constructed out of cardboard (danbōru) boxes in the Konpos factory store selling designer cardboard goods. There was a NHK World television crew filming the shop and faux sports car, but commercial viability may prove elusive. The cafes and bars drew Sunday crowds while high school boys were having fun waging snowball battles outside, but I was the only patron in the store selling team merchandise for the local amateur soccer side Cobaltore, while the decorative tile and flower stores were similarly empty. In contrast, a Nippon Foundation-supported store closest to the sea was selling distinctive local food products and doing a brisk business. One of the young staff had been a volunteer and decided to stay.
In between the shops and the port is a toppled kōban (police box) that will be preserved to memorialize the 2011 tragedy. The town is also building public housing to retain and attract residents, but this has proceeded at a slow pace because of difficulties in acquiring land, construction in difficult terrain on hard bedrock, soaring prices for construction materials and a lack of bids by construction firms on some of the tenders. Continued central government funding remains crucial, but that may be drying up.
The central government has declared the intensive phase of rebuilding Tohoku over and is slashing the next five-year budget plan (2016-21) to ¥6 trillion, down from ¥26.3 trillion (2011-16). That means hard-up, disaster-hit municipalities face an imminent fiscal crisis and many will have to drastically downsize or abandon visions of recovery. This is a far cry from the “whatever it takes” commitment that prevailed in the wake of the disaster and signals that the very incomplete and uneven rebuilding process has been put on hold. Taking vulnerable communities off “life support” and callously abandoning them to their own devices reinforces Tohoku’s resentment of long-standing national neglect and stokes suspicions that they are the collateral damage of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Onagawa’s demographic problems were well underway before 2011, with the population dropping from 16,000 to 10,000 between 1980 and 2010, a third of which is now over 65. The 37 percent fall in the town’s postquake population — the steepest decline in Miyagi Prefecture — means the tax base is shrinking. Anticipated restarts of the town’s three nuclear reactors will open the spigots of subsidies and taxes, but even so Onagawa’s rebirth faces steep odds. Local pluck and town pride, however, combined with influential power networks is making a difference. As the proverb goes, nana korobi ya oki (fall seven times, get up eight), evoking the hardscrabble spirit that has long prevailed in Tohoku, encouraging tenacity in facing adversity.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.