A small, lazy fishing village on the northeastern coast of Japan, Rikuzentakata was the kind of town memorialized in the sentimental “enka” pop songs of the postwar 60s and 70s. The graceful cedar trees which lined the harbor helped to shield the town from the cool sea breezes that constantly blew in from the Pacific Ocean. Behind the trees, a 20-foot high concrete embankment with gigantic flood gates spanned the bay-shore and gave the citizens of Rikuzentakata assurance of protection in the event of a tsunami, the ocean waves frequently triggered by earthquakes.
Before moving to Franklin and reporting for Macon County News, I lived in Japan for almost eight years. During that time, I had the privilege of visiting Rikuzentakata on numerous occasions. The village is not exactly a major tourist destination, but I traveled there with a friend from the town whose family always welcomed me warmly to their humble farmhouse on a hillside overlooking the community of Otomo, just north of the downtown area.
Mayumi Yoshida grew up in Rikuzentakata. She is the middle child of three, but only her brother, Hiro has decided to stay in his hometown. Similar to small, rural communities in the United States, the younger generations in Japan often choose to move to larger, urban areas to make a life for themselves. This steady urban migration coupled with the general aging of the Japanese population had already strained many small communities to the economic breaking point. Then came the tsunami.
The Japanese people are all too familiar with tsunamis on their quake-prone island. Japan has the most advanced early warning system in the world, including an unbroken ring of emergency loudspeakers which circle the entire island nation. But on March 11, all of this preparation for what many knew to be inevitable proved futile. The giant wave caused by the 9.0 magnitude super-quake that occurred just 30 miles off the coast of Iwate Prefecture and due east of Rikuzentakata was more than the tsunami barrier could withstand.
Recently, the horror and destruction of the Japanese tsunami has taken a backseat to the catastrophic danger posed by the subsequent nuclear meltdown occurring in slow motion at the Fukushima Daiichi (“Number One”) Power Plant, a disaster which was recently upgraded to the level of Chernobyl. But not so for those whose lives have been irrevocably changed forever by the wave. The tsunami brought the most devastation the country has witnessed since WWII, with property damage of more than 100 Katrinas combined (already estimated at over 300 billion USD) and human costs far exceeding.
Authorities say about 12,600 people have died as a result of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. More than 14,700 are listed as missing. An additional 300 have reportedly died of post-disaster factors such as cold temperatures and unsanitary conditions at evacuation sites. Meanwhile, the aftershocks keep coming, such as the 7.1 magnitude aftershock which struck the quake-shocked Tohoku (Northern) region last Thursday night and another in Fukushima on Tuesday.
That the tsunami's greatest impact was on small, aging, economically struggling communities like that of Rikuzentakata, is just another of the many tragedies wrought by the wave which pushed miles inland at places and left an utter wasteland in its path. How will these people ever be able to put their lives back together? Where do they begin? And who is there to do the work?
By March 24, 880 people from Rikuzentakata – a town of only 23,000 – had already been found dead, whether buried under the huge piles of rubble or floating out at sea. At that time, 1,600 were still missing.
“I cannot get used to seeing my hometown this way,” wrote Yoshida in a Facebook post updating her friends about the situation. Yoshida, who works abroad for a Japanese NGO (non-governmental organization), just happened to be in the country on March 11. She had spent a couple of weeks in Rikuzentakata visiting her family but was in Tokyo preparing to leave the country again on the afternoon the earthquake struck.
The hours and days which followed offered nothing but stress and confusion for Yoshida, as she tried desperately to contact her family members in Rikuzentakata as well as her sister, Miki, who lives in Sendai, another city hard hit by the tsunami. All communications in the most severely affected areas were disabled after the quake. Highways were impassable, and train service to the northern prefectures was completely shut down.
Working with her NGO, Yoshida was eventually successful in organizing an expedition to go to her hometown and assess the damage. Not until she arrived was she able to confirm that her family had indeed survived the quake and tsunami unharmed and that their 100-year-old farmhouse remained intact. Built on a hillside, the home was beyond the reach of the devastating wave.
Though incredibly grateful to be reunited with her family, the devastation which Yoshida found in Rikuzentakata was difficult to comprehend. “I was able to meet with my family, and our beautiful old house remains unaffected,” she wrote in another post, but added that the destruction in her hometown “could not possibly be described with words.”
Yoshida also reported on the exceedingly grim situation faced by survivors, many of whom had no shelter in the days immediately following the disaster. “Its freezing cold here, and many are still living under minimal conditions,” she wrote. “Many remain isolated, without any mode of communication, no petrol, no food, and no light and heating under such harsh weather.”
Working from Yoshida's assessment of the situation, the Nippon International Community Cooperation Organization (NICCO), Yoshida's NGO, immediately set about coordinating a relief effort for the town to meet the immediate needs of the survivors, which include bringing in medical supplies, emergency generators and volunteers. There is much to be done, and their efforts are ongoing.
The reconstruction of Rikuzentakata, and thousands of small towns just like it up and down the northeastern coast of Japan, will likely take decades. Many communities have simply been erased. “The town and the houses can be recovered within several to ten years perhaps, but they will never be the same,” Yoshida wrote in a recent post. “The deceased and the survived have to continue on their own paths, but never again together.”
During the weeks since the wave, there have been moments of celebration when loved ones were reunited or neighbors discovered to be safe, but as these moments become more and more rare, the existential weight of a new reality settles in for the citizens of Rikuzentakata.
“As for myself, the spiritual loss is too great to accept,” wrote Yoshida. She added, “The Tom Waits lyrics come to me: ‘I never saw my hometown till I stayed away too long.’”
Yoshida has since returned to the Middle East where she manages an international development project for NICCO in the West Bank of Palestine.
For more information about NICCO, visit http://www.kyotonicco.org/english/index.html. Numerous other organizations are actively assisting in relief efforts for the tsunami affected areas of Japan, including the American Red Cross, Save the Children and UNICEF (the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund).