A region rebuilding, six years later.
During the summer break I made a trip out to Miyagi prefecture in the north of Japan. It was my first visit to Tohoku – a region severely hit by the tsunami in 2011. Like so many people, my main exposure to the disaster was through the various news reports I saw on TV; footage of the waves building speed off-shore before hitting land with devastating force. Almost 16,000 people lost their lives from the disaster, and figures put the number displaced from their homes at a quarter of a million.
Usually when I travel to new places I write a bit about the food, different places to eat and sleep, and that kind of thing. But really for Miyagi I just want to focus on my own experience in Tohoku; a few thoughts about what it was like to visit those areas still trying to rebuild. I’m sorry if this post rambles a bit, or if I go off on tangents at times.
So often when these kind of events occur – be it war, natural disasters, terror attacks – it is easy to become desensitized to the direct affect they have on people’s lives. Social media and news channels mean we are exposed to multiple stories each day, and so if you aren’t personally involved then it can sometimes be hard to relate. Right now in Myanmar, for example, over 60,000 have crossed the border over into Bangladesh in recent weeks to escape militant fighting. For such a major news story there doesn’t seem to be much coverage by western media. I guess this explains why when attacks take place in Europe and America people seem to take more notice, as these are places people can relate to and have actually been to before.
I for one am guilty of skimming through the news, reading a little and moving on to the next article. However, I do also know what is like to be on the flip side of this. I was in Kathmandu in 2015 when an earthquake hit the city and killed 9,000 people. I was stranded for four days before being evacuated. I remember how my world was being turned upside down yet when I finally got internet access I found my social media feed still full of cat video and memes. It was a strange sensation feeling that the outside world didn’t seem to care about what was happening in Nepal, and to me. Of course people cared. They were just like me, skimming past the story as it didn’t really affect them directly.
11 March 2011 / 14:46 JST
When the earthquake and tsunami hit I was in my hometown of Bangor in Northern Ireland. Although I wasn’t living in Japan at the time, I had lived there before and so I felt a strong connection with the country. Watching the footage from so far away made me feel helpless, but of course if I was on the ground at that time there isn’t much I could have done either. Over the next few months, pictures would surface of the destruction, and for many people those images are still their only impression of Tohoku. As such, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel through this area and see what it is like now.
I think the one lasting thing I will take away from my trip to Tohoku is how beautiful it is. Not just the scenery, but the way in which so many people are living a simpler life to here in Tokyo. Small hamlets of houses, focussed inward on their own communities. No street names in places, yet the mail somehow still gets delivered. Driving for miles through empty roads, I would often see nothing but sea, trees, rice fields and mountains.
Of course, however, it is hard to ignore the seemingly endless construction that is happening round the coastline. Pristine scenic views distorted by diggers and concrete, the plan being to build huge sea walls all along the coast to prevent a tsunami causing so much damage again. In many parts you cannot see the sea while driving along the coast – and while human life is obviously more important than aesthetic beauty, these walls also mean that locals can’t see a tsunami is coming if in fact another earthquake was to hit. Part of me feels these barriers can only do so much, and that the unimaginable amounts of money being used to fund them should be directed elsewhere, at least in the short term.
I do, however, say ‘short term’ in the loosest possible sense. I was introduced to people who are still living in temporary housing six years after the disaster happened; houses more akin to shipping containers than anything else. Most of these people lost everything, including family members, and so I can’t help but feel that they will be reliving the past until they are offered new, permanent housing. For now, however, they are in limbo. Meeting some of these people in person was a pretty humbling experience, each with their own personal tragedy. I heard stories of elderly couples desperately trying to cling on to each other when the wave hit, but then one then having to let the other go as they couldn’t hold on any more. With the disaster, came guilt – people who felt they could have done more to save loved ones; be it hold on that little bit longer, or take a different route home from work that day to avoid the unstoppable current.
One such tragedy hit me harder than others, visiting the remains of Okawa Elementary School situated deep among the rice fields of Ishinomaki. When the earthquake hit, all the students ran out into the playground space for safety. The teachers had to make a split decision whether to try and climb a steep mountain behind the school or seek safety at a point further down the river. One teacher took his class up the mountain, while the others took the river route. One minute later the tsunami crashed over the river bank and killed 74 children and 10 teachers. The before and after photographs of the school are chilling – and the shell of the school is to be preserved in memory of those who lost their lives. One such picture from the before the disaster shows the children sitting outside on blue tarps happily eating their lunch in the sun. As a kindergarten teacher in Japan myself, this is something I do every summer with my students, and so I couldn’t help but think of all my student’s faces.
Okawa Elementary School was 4km from the shore yet distance seemed to be no obstacle for the wave, especially with so many rivers to travel through. Yet even on land I was astounded by just how far the water travelled and how high it became. At a gas station 1km from the shore, a mark has ben made to remind people just how high the tsunami was at that point. Seeing this in person really made me realise that no one could have survived the wave. It was just too high.
The Tohoku region has suffered a great deal, but it is rebuilding. The scars are still visible all along the coast, but the people who live there seem determined to not only stay in the place they grew up, but also promote it to the rest of Japan and the world. My visit coincided with the Reborn-Art Festival, a project that aims to not only regenerate Tohoku but also give people a chance to encounter values and a way of life they would not see elsewhere. All throughout the Ishinomaki and Oshika areas I saw people visiting the numerous art installations, and the project seems to have been a great success bringing new people into the region. It also gives those directly affected by the disaster a chance to reconnect with others and build a sense of community. One beautiful pop-up restaurant served food cooked by survivors of the disaster; survivors who had lost their homes, and even their family.
My first visit to Miyagi was a memorable one and I am very grateful for the opportunity to visit the remote coastal areas of the Oshika Peninsula. As much as I love living in Tokyo, city life can at times be suffocating – and it was nice to be surrounded by the ocean and forests every day. If you are planning a trip to Japan, I do hope you consider making the trip out here. It’s a beautiful part of the world.