10 years after tsunami: A Japanese town rebuilds its homes and heart

Blisteringly cold gusts blow in off the ocean and sweep across the boat landing. A snowstorm warning has been issued but there is no sign of flakes in the slate gray sky. Still, the temperature is low enough to chill even the hardy fishermen and women who toil on the water off this mountainous stretch of Japan’s northeast coast.     

It is a Saturday afternoon and many of the people who work the sea have finished for the day, but a few still tend to boats and nets. Tomoaki Saito is carrying crates from his 20-foot shrimp boat to a small, white truck parked on the quay. Mr. Saito goes shrimping every day – and has the weathered face and calloused hands to prove it – making his living from the briny waters as generations before him have done in Minamisanriku. 

The craggy inlet that leads into this fishing port is banked by steep slopes blanketed with trees. Similar terrain continues inland through the hills that surround the town on three sides. This striking tableau helped make Minamisanriku a popular tourist destination. Some of those who work the cobalt waters run bed-and-breakfasts to supplement their income, though fishing has always been the lifeblood of the town.

Minamisanriku hums with a quiet rhythm, which in itself is perhaps remarkable. Ten years ago the town was struck by the most powerful tsunami in Japanese history. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered waves that inundated more than 200 miles of coastline, killing 18,500 people and setting off a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant that reverberated around the world. Few places were hit as hard as Minamisanriku. 

“This town was buried by [52-foot] waves in five minutes. They had power beyond human imagination,” says Chouko Haga, who has spent all of his 72 years in Minamisanriku, 47 of them working for the local fishing cooperative. The soft-spoken Mr. Haga now dedicates his time to giving talks on what happened that day and how the town is working to revive itself.  

After the unthinkable human loss and almost total physical destruction, some wondered whether Minamisanriku would continue to exist as a town at all. Residues of that fateful day remain. Empty lots and open spaces dot parts of the landscape, in between the soba noodle restaurant, offices, park, and shopping center that have been rebuilt as the town was moved to higher ground. But much of the activity of daily life has returned.

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Minamisanriku, in that sense, mirrors the rest of Japan a decade later. Most of the destruction has been repaired, the more than 200,000 people who lost homes have largely been resettled, and work is progressing on the long decommissioning process at the badly damaged nuclear plant.

Yet even in this country, with its culture of stoicism in the face of adversity and emphasis on the collective, the people of the Tohoku region stand out for their resilience amid such a wrenching moment. 

The wall of water

March 11, 2011, was unfolding like most any day in Minamisanriku. Kazuhiko Endo was thinking about what he was going to do on the weekend while working his wakame seaweed beds. Then, shortly before 3 p.m., the earth began to rumble. Soon, it was shaking violently.

Like many people who live on this disaster-prone coastline, he knew what would eventually follow – a wall of water. He grabbed what equipment he could and spirited it off to the building where he dries seaweed, about a half-mile uphill from the dock. Then he headed for even higher ground. 

The picturesque slopes of Minamisanriku’s inlet compressed the surging waters, amplifying the already immense power of the tsunami. Wave after wave hurtled over the 18-foot sea wall, obliterating the town.

Though 820 people here lost their lives that day, many more were likely saved by Minamisanriku’s disaster emergency team. Members heroically stayed at their posts issuing desperate warnings, closing floodgates, and contacting evacuation centers until the waves engulfed their building. 

The immediate response to the disaster was hampered by the devastating casualties and infrastructure damage suffered by the local police, fire department, government, and hospital. The main road in and out of town, which became congested as many of Minamisanriku’s 17,500 residents attempted to flee after the tsunami warning sounded, was destroyed. 

With the road and nearby railway line gone, and cellphone networks down, the town was effectively cut off. Supplies, rescuers, and medical personnel could only reach Minamisanriku by air.  

Among those unable to make contact in the aftermath was Mr. Saito, the shrimp fisherman, who was attending a fishing cooperative meeting 25 miles south in Ishinomaki, which was also devastated.

“I called my wife about 100 times but couldn’t get through,” he says. “She was safe, and so was my son because he was at the high school, which is up on high ground.” 

More than a dozen of his relatives in Minamisanriku and other communities along the coast didn’t survive. 

For survivors, the early weeks in the shelters were particularly tough: Food and clean water shortages affected the more than 10,000 evacuees. Poor sanitation led to outbreaks of disease, and radiation was leaking from three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant to the south. 

The spirit of pulling together was crucial as the town began the long, arduous task of resurrecting itself. In some ways, the bonds of this close-knit community grew tighter.

The recovery began with what Minamisanriku residents know best – fishing. In April, a few short weeks after the disaster, the seafood market – a vital piece of the town’s identity – reopened one day a month in a makeshift tent. 

With much of their fleet destroyed, fishermen and women banded into small groups the first few years after the tsunami, sharing boats, equipment, and catches. “Fishing is a hard life, even tougher than farming,” says Mr. Haga. “It was pretty competitive before the disaster. There was quite a lot of rivalry between the fishermen. But after what they went through, and then working together, they are much more cooperative now.”   

The equipment Mr. Endo thought he had carried to safety was washed away, as were his boats. “But with money donated through a 24-hour TV charity program, fishermen in Chiba [north of Tokyo] bought me a new boat and brought it here,” he says. “People here now find it easier to talk to each other, because of that experience we shared.” 

Mr. Endo’s wife, Kurumi, survived the earthquake that struck Kobe in 1995, killing nearly 6,500. Living through that disaster prompted her to volunteer in Minamisanriku, helping to revive the farming of seaweed, for which the area is famous. 

The folks of Minamisanriku are “quiet, kind, and calm,” says Ms. Endo. “They don’t show their sadness.”

Returning in 2013, she met Kazuhiko and they married shortly afterward. Now they work the seaweed beds together. 

A false sense of security

Approximately 20% of the globe’s major earthquakes strike the Japanese archipelago, many of the strongest along its northern Pacific coast. The area near Minamisanriku was battered by tsunamis triggered by massive tremors in 869, 1896, and 1933. 

The 1960 Great Chilean Earthquake is one of only three recorded as more powerful than the 2011 temblor. It caused a tsunami that traveled for nearly 24 hours across the Pacific and hit Minamisanriku with 16-foot waves, killing 41. Mr. Haga was in elementary school and remembers the day clearly. 

“Because of that, we had tsunami drills every year,” he notes. “And that is why the town’s three schools were built on high ground. That saved most of the children in 2011, and the schools were able to be used as evacuation centers.”  

Yet the sea wall built in response to the 1960 tsunami gave some a false sense of security. “My older brother and his wife thought they would be safe as their place was high up and the 1960 tsunami hadn’t reached it,” says Mr. Haga. “But the waves hit the house and they both died. My wife went [to their house] at first, but decided to go further up the mountain and somehow escaped.”

He shows a picture of himself standing on the foundation of his former home, all that was left of the house that had stood in the center of the town. “I found nothing, not a single photo, a dish, a piece of clothing, that I could keep as a memory,” he says. “But I used a piece of the foundation as a rock in the garden of my new house.” 

A physical renaissance

Under Minamisanriku’s reconstruction plan, authorities decided that only commercial buildings would be built on the site of the old town center. Residences would be placed on higher ground, presumably beyond the reach of the next tsunami.

The basic elevation of the town has been raised more than 32 feet using rock cut from the encircling mountains. Construction continues on the flatlands where the old town stood, but like the emotional scars quietly borne by so many, evidence of the destruction is not easily erased. 

At the heart of the town’s physical renaissance is the Sun Sun Shopping Village. Moved from a temporary location to its current spot in 2017, it houses dozens of shops and eateries in two broad rows of wooden buildings. The restaurants all serve local seafood. Even pizza is topped with harvests from the sea: One outlet’s signature dish is wakame seaweed pizza. 

Along with other elements of the rebuilding plan, the shopping village was designed by internationally renowned architect Kengo Kuma (designer of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium), a source of local pride. 

A footbridge connects the shopping village to the Minamisanriku Memorial Park, which opened in October 2020. At its center is the shell of the three-story disaster emergency building, its reddish-brown steel girders the most visible standing remnant of March 2011. The building and what happened there have been a source of friction in this town still working through its pain. 

For some, the sight of the building is too raw a reminder of that ominous day. Even among the families of the 41 government workers and citizens who died there, opinions are divided. For now, the town has decided to keep it as a memorial until 2031, and then look again at whether to demolish it. Recriminations have also surfaced over whether the disaster team should have been ordered to evacuate. 

Mr. Haga is convinced that the actions of Miki Endo helped save the life of his wife and many others. She is the young team member who broadcast warnings over the town public-address system for 30 minutes after the earthquake struck, until the waves engulfed her. In fact, dozens of others also died doing vital work, but it was the story of Ms. Endo that captured the public imagination. Her self-sacrifice made her a posthumous national hero, but the singular focus on her caused resentment among some who had also lost loved ones.            

Like many in the town, Mieko Endo, Miki’s mother, has kept herself busy the past 10 years as a way of not dwelling on the loss. She avoided news in the aftermath of the tsunami and was unaware that her daughter’s actions had become known even beyond Japan’s shores. Ms. Endo empathizes with the trauma experienced by all those who suffered loss, but criticism of the attention given to her daughter clearly stings. 

“After the earth had shaken that much, can you imagine how terrified she was? She was only 24,” says Ms. Endo, her eyes filling with tears. “She must have wanted to run away. I wanted her to run away. I’m proud of what my daughter did, of who she was.” 

When Ms. Endo opened a small guesthouse behind her home in 2014, there was only one candidate for its name, “Miki no Ie” – Miki’s House.

Gifts of “courage and hope”

Minamisanriku’s population is now 12,500, almost a third smaller than when the tsunami struck. Many of those who were evacuated to other cities and towns never returned. The disaster accelerated the demographic trends impacting much of Japan, particularly in rural areas: a shrinking population and the drift of young people to big cities. 

The Japanese often used to say they suffered from heiwa-boke, a self-deprecating phrase that translates to something like “peace-foolishness.” It spoke to the relative ease of life in the decades from the 1960s onward, when Japan enjoyed prolonged economic prosperity after rising from the destruction of World War II. It’s not a term heard often since the 2011 triple disasters of the quake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster.   

The major rebuilding on the northeast coast is almost done; the 10-year program is reaching the end of its cycle. The last few hundred people in temporary housing are due to move into new homes by the end of March.  

Minamisanriku has changed, but it is once again a busy fishing port and a tourist attraction. Indeed, with the help of a new highway carved through the mountains, it drew more than 1.2 million visitors in 2019, up from 880,000 in 2010. The hospital has been rebuilt with the help of $20 million donated through the Taiwanese Red Cross. 

Local people express gratitude for the aid they received from around the world. “It let us know we were not alone. It gave us courage and hope when we had no food, no clothes,” says Mr. Haga. 

“If you have your life, if you are still alive, then there is hope and the potential to do something, to carry on,” he adds. “That is what I felt then and what I feel most strongly to this day, looking back at these 10 years.”

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