Major Construction, Quiet Developments Will Change Tōhoku Island

Robert D. Eldridge [Profile]

[2017.05.17]

On a beautiful but chilly morning at the end of March 2017, a major engineering project was taking place in northeastern Miyagi Prefecture. But despite the ambitious scale of this operation, it attracted little national or international attention.

The site was the Ōshima Strait, separating the island of Ōshima and a peninsula leading out from the city of Kesennuma on the mainland. Workers were placing a 356-meter bridge between the Sannohama district on the southern tip of the peninsula and the northwestern portion of Ōshima. The bridge, built in Okayama Prefecture and ferried up to Kesennuma, has been a dream of the islanders since the early 1950s.


A Miyagi prefectural government video showing the bridge construction process.

A Physical Lifeline at Last

Oshima was—and, technically, remains until March 2019, when the roadway opens—accessible only by ferry and smaller boats. The ferry ride, which costs ¥410 round trip, takes 25 minutes and runs once or twice an hour between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. While the 2,900 Ōshima residents have access to basic services on the island, major shopping, medical, and other needs must be taken care of on the mainland.

For those not involved in fishing, tourism, or other on-island related employment, residents must commute to jobs on the mainland. Likewise, children attending high school, or young people going to college or vocational institutes, must move away to cities that have those schools. Families generally need to possess multiple vehicles, using some to get around the relatively large and hilly island and often maintaining others across the strait to take care of their needs in the city.

The ferry Kameyama sails across the Ōshima Strait with the island’s peak that gives it its name behind it. The ferry service is scheduled to come to an end once the bridge route is completed.

Their lives involve inconvenience to be sure. At the same time, though, they are fortunate to be able to live in such a breathtaking area—Ōshima is located within a national park, and the island itself is known for its natural beauty. Known as the “Green Pearl,” the island boasts beaches with some of the best views in the country. The islanders are blessed with fresh and delicious seafood from the surrounding waters, and Kesennuma Port is a world-famous stopover for fishermen.

Cut Off from the World

This ideal setting all changed on March 11, 2011, when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck. Minutes later, massive tsunami rushed deep onto shore, killing more than 1,700 (approximately a tenth of Kesennuma’s total population at the time) and turning the bay into a “sea of fire” as ruptured fuel tanks and debris ignited.

The death total and overall destruction in the city would have been much worse, though, had not Ōshima been sitting at the entrance to the bay as a natural barrier. The island essentially took the brunt of the massive tsunami, which swept across the low-lying Sotobatake district to effectively divide the island in two. Fortunately, the island itself only saw 31 deaths (with 7 more succumbing to disaster-related complications later, bringing the total to 38).

A massive crane barge sets the span down on its pillars. The main structure was built in Okayama Prefecture and shipped to Miyagi for installation.

Because Ōshima had no bridge connecting it to the mainland, it remained isolated for weeks following the disaster, as the ferries and other means of maritime transportation were destroyed and the bay itself was unpassable due to floating wreckage and underwater debris. The islanders had to fend for themselves in the bitter March cold, with no electricity or fuel, little food and water (they used the junior high school’s pool water for drinking), and shortages of other vital supplies. Helicopters could of course reach the island, but Japan’s Self-Defense Forces did not have enough available to make much of a difference, especially when relief had to be delivered across hundreds of kilometers of devastated coastal areas.

The US Marine Corps’ 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, based in Okinawa Prefecture, was eventually tasked with an amphibious landing that brought much needed help, relief supplies, and utility repair trucks, tractors, and vehicles. Most importantly, the Marines brought hope. By the end of the first week of April, the island’s main port and roadways had been cleared and the long process of rebuilding could finally be begun.

The Birth of a New Ōshima

Nothing is more symbolic of the reborn Ōshima than the bridge that will end once and for all its physical isolation. The impact of the tsunami made clear the urgency of the need for this connection, and no one in the central, prefectural, or local governments could deny the islanders the bridge any longer.

The locally elected representative from the island, who went into politics nearly two decades ago with the goal of making the bridge a reality, cried when the cranes lowered the arch-shaped structure into place.

His tears were of joy, but were tinged also with worry about what will come. The community had long debated the pros and cons of a bridge, and while the people of Ōshima wanted it, there is still some sentimentality about lifestyles to be lost and anxiety about the future.

The island will predictably lose a certain charm and identity as the bridge brings easy access to the island, along with new people. The local economy will change, and not only in good ways—Ōshima may see a population drain, along with school consolidations and closures, now that it is easier for the islanders to travel to the mainland. But that decrease hopefully won’t be as bad as the 20% drop the island has experienced over the past six years due to the loss of employment and other factors after the tsunami.

A young schoolgirl from the island photographs the new bridge pillars during a tour of the site for Ōshima residents. Her worried question to her father, “Is the ferry really going to disappear?” hints at the uncertainties that remain in the islanders’ future.

Although it is getting less attention now, rebuilding continues in the Tōhoku region. The most important rebuilding, however, is in the individual lives of those living there and the communities to which they belong. It will be worth watching the impact that Ōshima’s new bridge has on the lives of the island’s people.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: A barge brings the span of Kesennuma’s new bridge to Ōshima into place. All photos © Murakami Morifumi.)

  • [2017.05.17]

A former tenured associate professor at Osaka University and deputy chief of staff, G-7 (Government and External Affairs), Marine Corps Installations Pacific. Served as the political advisor to the Marines’ Forward Command Element at Camp Sendai following the 2011 tsunami disaster. Has published numerous books, including Japanese Public Opinion and the War on Terrorism (co-editor, 2008), Megaquake: How Japan and the World Should Respond (translator and co-author, 2015), and Tomodachi sakusen: Kesennuma Ōshima to Beigun Kaiheitai no kiseki no kizuna (Operation Tomodachi and the Special Relationship Between Ōshima, Kesennuma, and the US Marine Corps) (author, 2017). He can be reached at: robert@robertdeldridge.com.

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