3/11: The Second Anniversary

A Late Spring in Tōhoku (Part 1)


Two years have passed since the earthquake and tsunami that devastated coastal Tōhoku, but for many of the victims, the healing has barely begun. Revisiting the communities he reported on in the spring and summer of 2011, Kikuchi Masanori encounters a mixture of optimism and bitterness as the region slowly rebuilds.

 Ishinomaki: No End to the Pain

A barren wasteland stretches all the way to the distant shoreline, crisscrossed by dump trucks carrying earth and debris. A gutted two-story building stands alone in this desolate landscape beside a wooded hillock whose evergreen trees have turned a rusty brown.

This is Ōkawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where 74 of 108 children and 10 of 11 teachers died on the afternoon of March 11, 2011—swallowed up by the tsunami that took almost 20,000 lives along the coast of northeastern Japan. Two years after the disaster, the rebuilding of levees, roads, and other infrastructure is progressing apace. But time seems to stand still here at Ōkawa Elementary School, where so many young lives were lost in the space of a few minutes.

I spent late February and early March this year visiting communities along the coast of Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, the area hardest hit by the March 2011 earthquake. I had been to the region three times previously to report on post-disaster conditions (the first time in March 2011, just after the tsunami), but this was my first visit in a year and 7 months. In June 2011, I had focused particularly on Ōkawa Elementary and had come away with the feeling that this site, more than any other, embodied the tragedy of March 11, 2011. For despite the oft-heard protestations that the tsunami was an act of God that no one could have foreseen, the community of Ishinomaki remains haunted by the sense that the deaths at Ōkawa Elementary could and should have been avoided.

“Here we are approaching the second anniversary of her death,” says Satō Katsura, “but I feel more bitter than ever.” Satō’s daughter Mizuho, a sixth-grader at Ōkawa Elementary, was killed about two weeks before she was scheduled to graduate. “I have serious questions about the way school officials have evaded responsibility in their explanation of the events and their dealings with the parents.”

Satō is deeply distrustful of the school and the Ishinomaki Board of Education. In the course of a series of public meetings held by the school board at the parents’ insistence, a number of disturbing facts came to light: during the 50 minutes between the earthquake and the arrival of the tsunami, no one ordered teachers and students to flee to the high ground behind the school, the most obvious refuge in such a situation; the school failed to take advantage of the school bus that was waiting nearby; and its tsunami evacuation manual made no mention of an evacuation area. The board repeatedly revised its account of the evacuation process and its rationale, and it was many months before school officials accepted the blame and offered parents an unequivocal apology. So far, no one has been fired, demoted, or censured in connection with the events at Ōkawa Elementary.

Ōkawa Elementary in Ishinomaki where many teachers and pupils lost their lives. A dump truck passes alongside, carrying earth and rubble from the surrounding area.

“We owe it to all the children who had their futures stolen from them to get to the truth of the matter,” says Satō Kazutaka, whose sixth-grade son Yūki died that day.

“There are plenty of people in this community who lost all their children that day. Some are so frustrated by the school’s irresponsible attitude that they’ve given up. They say, ‘None of this will bring back our children.’ They want to put it behind them. But for most of us, this is far from over.”

Aizawa Yūichirō covered the Ishinomaki beat for years as a reporter for the Kahoku Shinpō, a regional Tōhoku newspaper. Though retired from the paper, he continues to investigate and write about Ōkawa Elementary. “The idea of putting children’s lives first just wasn’t part of their culture. When you look at the inadequacy of the evacuation manual and the chaotic evacuation process, you realize that the disaster at Ōkawa Elementary was caused by human beings.”

Early this year, in response to calls from the bereaved families, the Ministry of Education finally ordered an independent inquiry by a panel of emergency-management and legal experts, who met for the first time in February. The commission plans to submit an interim report in June, after interviewing family members and school officials and gathering information on the school’s evacuation process and its treatment of the victims’ parents. A thorough investigation is needed to even partially restore the community’s faith in its schools and to ensure that a similar tragedy does not occur again.

A memorial tower placed in front of the main gate of Ōkawa Elementary School.


Minamisanriku: A Glimmer of Light

The Disaster Preparedness Center in Minamisanriku. When it was struck by the tsunami, around 30 people had fled to the roof. Only 10 of them survived.

From Ishinomaki I head north to the neighboring town of Minamisanriku. I last saw Minamisanriku when I came to report on the state of the coastal areas in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. The onslaught of a series of waves reaching at least 16 meters in height had left a scene of total devastation. The number of dead or missing is now estimated at around 800.

I make my way to Shizugawa, the town’s central district. The endless mountains of rubble and debris that greeted me on my previous visit have been cleared away, leaving mostly vacant land. Among the few structures that remain standing is the three-story Disaster Preparedness Center, where 42 municipal employees lost their lives in the tsunami. Here, too, the only activity is a continuous stream of construction vehicles passing up and down the city streets.

The town begins to show more signs of life as I near the main shopping district, about 1.2 kilometers inland. At Minamisanriku Sun Sun Shopping Village, a temporary shopping plaza opened in February 2012, some 30 establishments—eateries, a stationery shop, a beauty salon, and so forth—are doing business out of prefabricated storefronts. On February 25 this year, the makeshift shopping plaza commemorated its first anniversary with an oyster festival and “revival market” (fukkō ichi), attracting shoppers from around the area with a selection of local specialties and seasonal delicacies, including fresh oysters.

One of the establishments currently occupying Sun Sun Shopping Village is Yūshindō, a historic bakery and pastry shop established in 1910, during the Meiji era (1868-1912). The bakery’s fourth-generation proprietor, Abe Takekazu, speaks with feeling of his recent reopening.

“The old shop in the Shizugawa business district was swept away, and I had just about given up all hope. But so many people at the evacuation came up to tell how much they looked forward to eating my bread again. I began to think that maybe that was the most important thing I could do for the community. I decided to bring back the home-baked bread I had stopped baking ten years earlier and sell it alongside our pastries.”

Like the other shopkeepers, Abe lost friends and relatives in the tsunami, but he was able to summon the will and resources to reopen, thanks to the warm support of neighbors who had frequented his shop faithfully over the years.

But while reconstruction is moving forward, the town has already lost many of its younger inhabitants for good. Many of its older residents, meanwhile, are living in temporary housing built on high ground away from the town center. Finding it hard to make their way down to the shopping area, they are apt to spend their days at home, fretting over an uncertain future.

“Even so,” says Abe, “a lot of people around here depend on bread as a staple of their diet, and I really feel that the shop is appreciated. I’d like to work with the other merchants to reach more customers in the area, perhaps by sending out food trucks, and holding more promotional events.”

Looking every inch the town baker in his sparkling white apron, Abe sees me off with words of hope and an optimistic grin.

The Sun Sun Shopping Village in Minamisanriku. Abe Takekazu shows some of the bread from his shop.


Matsushima: From Recovery to Reconstruction

The town of Matsushima, named after one of the three scenic wonders of Japan, has been on my itinerary each time I have toured the area in the wake of the March 2011 disaster. Although it suffered less damage than many nearby communities, it lost 21 residents to the tsunami, and it has faced many of the same struggles since then.

I meet Mayor Ōhashi Takeo and find him looking substantially more relaxed than the first time we met.

“I was up to my ears dealing with disaster victims then,” he says. “But by the end of fiscal 2011 we had pretty much completed the basic recovery phase. From now on, I want to focus on reconstruction, including roads and port repairs, as well as some specific projects we have planned, such as securing evacuation routes for all town residents.”

As one of the region’s most popular tourist spots, Matsushima has found itself in a unique position to promote international friendship in the wake of the March 11 disaster. A family of American tourists from North Carolina—Kathleen, Michelle, and Eric Paul—was visiting the town when the quake and tsunami hit. The kind and generous assistance of the local residents saw them through the unimaginable chaos immediately after the quake and helped them make their way home safely while the region was still in a state of paralysis. Once back in the United States, the Pauls enlisted the aid of relatives to set up a Matsushima Relief Fund, which has donated $33,000, along with space heaters and electric appliances, to assist tsunami victims in the area. Last summer, they arranged home stays for 10 Matsushima middle school students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This coming summer, Mayor Ōhashi himself will be heading there to further cement the trans-Pacific ties forged in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Mayor of Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, Ōhashi Takeo.

According to Ōhashi, financial and human support from the national government was slow to materialize in the first few months after the disaster. Just applying for road repair funds involved endless red tape, and approval took an inordinate amount of time. But the town submitted its disaster reconstruction plan around the end of 2011, and with the establishment of the central government’s Reconstruction Agency in February 2012, the approval process has gained pace. According to the mayor, reconstruction projects are finally getting off the ground.

Even so, the mayor worries about the state of municipal finances. In fiscal 2011, the town government’s general account expenditures totaled ¥9.4 billion, about 60% above its typical pre-quake budget. The fiscal 2012 budget jumped to ¥16.2 billion, and the initial general account budget for 2013 calls for ¥19.0 billion in spending. Almost all of the extra expenditures are earmarked for reconstruction efforts. As of November 2012, there were 36 town projects being funded by central government reconstruction subsidies, awarded through the Reconstruction Agency.

“The surveying, planning, and design phases of these projects are all complete, and we’re reading to start construction,” says Ōhashi. “All of these projects are vital to our citizens’ health, safety, and welfare, so we’re counting on the central government to maintain adequate funding. At the municipal level, we’re going to do everything in our power to create jobs by bringing in new businesses and attracting tourists from all over the globe.”

Notwithstanding its natural advantages as a tourist attraction, Matsushima has had to contend with the same economic problems facing other small coastal communities in the region, as young people turn their backs on the fishing industry and head for the city. The town’s population today stands at about 15,000. Tourism, furthermore, has taken a major hit since the disaster. About 2.6 million tourists visited Matsushima in 2012, down from an average of about 3.6 million in the years before the quake.

For other stricken communities in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, the outlook is grimmer still. Towns that were struggling with the challenges of a dwindling and aging population before the disaster have no means of funding reconstruction on their own. The same applies to Fukushima Prefecture, which faces a long road to recovery from the nuclear accident triggered by the 2011 quake and tsunami. Meanwhile, the central government’s five-year estimate for reconstruction spending has risen from ¥19 trillion to ¥25 trillion. The cabinet of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has allocated ¥4.38 trillion for the fiscal 2013 special reconstruction budget, up ¥600 billion from 2012. But much more will be needed over the next decade. The government has a responsibility to see the recovery and reconstruction process through to completion.

(Originally written in Japanese on March 6, 2013. Photographs by Kodera Kei.)

Tōhoku Miyagi reconstruction 3/11