There are towns along the Pacific coast in Tohoku, the region northeast of Tokyo, with names like Ofunato and Rikuzen Takada in Iwate prefecture, and Minami Sanriku, Kesennuma, and Watari in Miyagi prefecture that until March 11th of this year meant little more to most Japanese than the names of towns along the Maine coast mean to most Americans. Many people knew little more about these towns than that they were places from where Japanese got a lot of their fish, and that they have a harsh winter climate and hard working people of few words.
The 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami that struck Tohoku on that day in March changed all that. Now the names of these towns, towns that I visited over several days at the beginning of May, and others on the northeast coast evoke images of miles upon miles of devastation where houses, ports, fishing boats, merchant shops and small factories, rice fields and hot houses for vegetables and strawberries have disappeared, turning the landscape into an endless vista of debris punctuated by the occasional presence of a boat or car perched on the roof of some concrete structure that did not collapse under the incredible force of the tsunami. The tsunami left more than 25,000 people dead or missing. It damaged or destroyed 125,000 buildings, and spread an estimated 27 million tons of debris over a wide expanse of the northeast Pacific coast. In Miyagi prefecture alone the debris tonnage is the equivalent of 23 years of the prefecture’s garbage.
Few lives were lost as a result of the earthquake itself. Japan has gone to extraordinary lengths to adopt strict building codes, early warning systems, earthquake evacuation drills, and other measures to protect people and property in the event of a major earthquake.
Japan’s bullet train system has a network of 97 earthquake detectors. About fifteen seconds before the 3.11 quake hit the tracks, automatic brakes stopped all 27 bullet trains then running, including those on the tracks of JR East, the company that operates the bullet train line from Tokyo north through Sendai to Aomori, 444 miles away. There was extensive damage done at many places along the route to stations, bridges, and tunnels but no lives were lost.
Earthquake damage to the train station at Sendai, Miyagi prefecture’s capital, had been repaired by the time I got there on May 4th, two days after bullet train service resumed along the entire Tokyo-Aomori route. Neither at the train station nor anywhere else in the city center was there anything to indicate that Sendai had been violently shaken by the strongest earthquake in its history.
In Tokyo high-rise buildings swayed, and did so for so many minutes that it made some people feel as though they were sea sick, but none collapsed. Falling objects killed or injured several people but overall damage was minimal. In the north the earthquake knocked out electricity, gas, and water lines, but power was restored relatively quickly in areas that were beyond the reach of the tsunami, and deaths and injuries were few.
I stayed one night at an old inn in Ichinoseki in Iwate prefecture, one of the harder hit inland cities. There were cracks in the walls of the inn but there was electricity and gas and running water. The owner told me that her elderly mother, who was standing at the entrance looking confused and anxious when I arrived, became so frightened by the intensity of the earthquake that she completely lost her hearing. The owner said that she was putting off fixing the cracks and repairing other damage that the earthquake had caused because she assumed that at some point there will be a much more powerful aftershock than any they had so far. The only question was when it would come. If the inn survived that quake, she would make repairs then. Lying on my futon on the second floor, I fell asleep hoping that we wouldn’t find out the answer about the inn’s survival that night. We didn’t. If there had not been the tsunami, the lead story about March 11th would have been about the remarkably successful earthquake disaster prevention measures Japan has adopted.
After arriving in Sendai and checking into the hotel, I headed out to the Sendai airport. Driving toward the ocean from the city center, everything looked normal for the first ten kilometers or so. Then the scenery suddenly turned bizarre: a smashed car sitting in the middle of a rice field, wood, metal and other debris scattered here and there. The closer I got to the ocean the more destruction I saw: a two-story building for example whose walls were still intact but without any windows left on either the first or second floor. The tsunami had blown them out, washing away most of the things that had been inside and drowning people who were living there. I could see large characters painted at the top of what had been the building’s entrance. They indicated that this had been a community old age home.
There was an incredible number of cars tossed about helter-skelter throughout the area along the coast, many so crushed and mangled that it looked as though they had been involved in head-on collisions. One car was perpendicular with the front half of its hood buried in the ground, looking as though someone had tried to plant it. Others were upside down and one looked as though it was trying to climb a tree. The Self Defense Forces have been collecting and sorting the debris and piling it up – wood here, scrap metal there – for eventual disposal. Every so often along the side of a road there would be a stack of ruined automobiles piled on top of each other and taking up the equivalent of half a New York city block. Since automobiles are virtually the sole mode of transportation for people who live in this coastal part of Sendai, it is not unusual for a household to have several cars for family members to commute to work. Never have I seen so many ruined automobiles.
The area around the airport, the large Sendai shipping port, the Wakabayashi ward, which suffered the most death and destruction in Sendai, and everything in between was a scene of utter devastation. It is going to take imagination, money, bold planning, and strong political leadership to rebuild this area. The rice fields have been inundated with salt water and the land in many places has sunk 70-80 centimeters. Restoring this land to agricultural use will be difficult and expensive. The port will be restored and airport repairs will be completed, but in the absence of some development scheme that at the present time seems to be nowhere in sight, the population of this corner of Sendai and even more so in the affected towns along the coast undoubtedly will decline, leaving behind mostly elderly people who cannot or do not want to leave the only place they have ever known, even if there is nothing there.
The tsunami rolled across the Sendai airport, washing mud and debris onto the runways and doing extensive damage to the terminal building. With the bullet train system down, the airport not functioning, boats unable to enter the Sendai port, and roadways cracked and covered with debris, it was a monumental task to get relief supplies and rescue workers into the region.