Columbia Professor Gerald Curtis Shares His Tohoku Diary

Tohoku Diary
Gerald Curtis

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.

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USJC Volunteer on Her Visit to Japan

A reflection from the region by USJC volunteer, Masami Hokama:

As the bus entered Kesennuma City, I saw an ordinary small town, people walking on streets, normal.  

Then, the scene before me changed from ordinary to some sort of a war zone.  One building after another, the first floors full of rubble, some empty.  I saw piles of mangled cars and trucks everywhere.  Some buildings were still standing, but with broken glass and rubble inside.  The bus drove slowly and took many wrong turns because the map of the town was useless, due to missing street signs and destroyed or unrecognizable landmarks.

We arrived at Mr. and Mrs. Sato’s house, where we were assigned to help as volunteers for the day. I’d been taking pictures on the way feeling shocked, horrified, and sad, but part of me was still an outsider looking in.  When the bus stopped near the Sato household, I realized that this is their home, their neighborhood, now surrounded by debris and the smell of rotten fish. I was there to help clean up, so their lives could get back to normal, or as normal as they could be.  I put my camera down and left it on the bus.

I had to walk very carefully to the house because of all the debris and mud. I saw dead fish on the side of road and on top of the garage roof.  The walls on two sides of the house were gone on the first floor. The second floor seemed intact, although we did not go upstairs. Mrs. Sato told us that she, her mother and the family dog were stuck on the second floor for two days until they were rescued by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.   

We got to work.  First, we took items like broken pieces of wood and mud out of the house. Then, we started shoveling out the fish, papers, and household items that were all mixed up in the muck.  It was still a surprise when I saw a four foot long tuna in the middle of the house. The smell in the bathroom was unbearable, where mud, rotten fish and maggots filled the sink and bathtub. Even with a mask on, I wished for stronger sets of lungs so I could hold my breath longer while working in there.

With all the hard work by the fellow volunteers and the Sato family, the first floor of the house was cleared of all debris. I even saw the hardwood floor! Mrs. Sato handed drinks and snacks to the volunteers.  I told her that I’d brought my own drink and snack, but she insisted that I take one from her. In fact, she insisted that everyone take drinks and snacks.  It was amazing how thoughtful and kind she was despite the tragedy around her. Mr. Sato was also kind: he was mostly cheerful and funny, telling jokes and making faces.  However, he teared up when thanking our group for our work that day.

I was able to help clean one house, but there are so many more.  Standing there, surrounded by piles and piles of debris, I knew it was just the beginning.  It will be a very hard time for everyone. I will always remember this day and will continue to help, anyway I can.

Reflections on Japan from USJC Staff

The Sato family home in Kessennuma, where volunteers from America helped local organizations with recovery efforts

U.S.-Japan Council Staff Member Saki Takasu and several Council Members and Board Members traveled to Sendai to assist in relief efforts and learn about the next steps to recovery. Her posts include observations on the breathtaking islands of Matsushima, the recent Shinkansen service to Tōhoku, as well as the Genki Notes program (a joint project between the USJC, Emerson College, and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership).

We would like to share some of Saki’s thoughts on working with the “Flight of Friendship,” From Oregon With Love, which this blog has discussed here:

I joined the Flight of Friendship group after sitting in on meetings in Tokyo… [and] I was ready to become an observer of what is truly happening in the affected regions and to see how the plans and desires from Tokyo and the U.S. could connect with these areas.

And I was surprised.

I was first surprised at the extent of normalcy in the areas. Sendai City was full of people on a Thursday evening – salaried men going out for drinks, young teenagers meeting friends in stores, neon lights on the city streets. Even in Kessennuma City, a coastal city that was hard hit, the train station was intact and buildings looked as if it hand not experienced any tremors. But one cannot be fooled by this façade of normalcy. The economic impact is felt as you step into the semi-empty restaurants, talk to business owners and see the shops that are closed as you walk away from the main street.

Our team was in Kessennuma, and we were assigned to assist the Sato family. We stepped through a path made of old tatami mattresses and entered the back of the house, which now only had 2 walls and a support beam in lieu of a pillar that used to stabilize the house. The area was full of muck, household items and wooden boards. We quickly got down to the grueling task of throwing debris out of the house.

It was important to wear a mask, because the air is full of insects, dust and a noxious smell. Since Kessennuma is a fishing community, there are many canneries and seafood packaging factories nearby. Now, imagine all that unleashed into the city with the tsunami. We didn’t know whether to chuckle or gag when we found fish in the most peculiar places, like rooftops, or hidden in between household items. We also found a 15 lb. tuna (no longer alive) that made its way inside the house. We literally had to fish it out. This is all exacerbated with the stale water that had been trapped for nearly three months. We found many maggots feasting on the mud and fish.

Yoko Sato and her dog Ryu, who survived the tsunami from the second floor of their home

As we worked closely with the Sato’s, we became closer and they shared their horrific experience with us. Yoko has an elderly mother, and on March 11th, she decided to remain at home with her beloved dog, Ryu. They told their neighbors not to look for them, and waited to see what would happen. Right outside their window, they could see a traffic jam of cars trying to get to higher ground. 30 minutes after the tsunami alert, they could hear the water come up, and it reached the second floor. They live right by the river and the seaport, so it was uncertain where the water came from. Yoko’s husband, son and daughter were all away from home, and she wondered if they would be all right. Two days went by, and the Self Defense Force finally forced open their front window and cleared the debris to let them out. All family members survived, and the Sato’s are now living in a rented apartment.

You can learn more about the efforts in Kessennuma, as well as read accounts from the Sato family, on Saki Takasu’s blog.

The Washington Post Reports from Miyagi Prefecture

Washington Post correspondent Chico Harlan wrote a piece for Tuesday’s paper chronicling the rebuilding efforts in a tsunami-struck town. Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture has been the subject of many media reports and, thankfully, many donations and relief missions. This article pays special attention to individuals working in Minamisanriku, including local government employee Jinichi Sasaki:

He writes “OK” several dozen times each day, and Jinichi Sasaki figures he’ll scribble the word for years before anything about his town feels right again.

In this tsunami-obliterated fishing port, rebuilding begins with one word, which Sasaki, a municipal employee, writes — in English — on every invoice and delivery form. He uses it in lieu of a signature, in part because he likes its simple utility — an antidote for a place that was destroyed. A truckload of rubber boots: OK. A fresh crate of rubbish bags: OK. Forty thousand 500-milliliter bottles of water: OK.

Minamisanriku needs all of these things, and after Sasaki stamps his approval on the paperwork, volunteers stack the just-unloaded items in the sports arena that, eight weeks after the tsunami, keeps this town on life support. This is where Sasaki works, carrying three cellphones to keep pace with calls from donors, reminding them of the town’s ever-changing wish list. Inside the arena, boxes of clothing and canned food reach the rafters. Outside, rubble extends for 3.5 square miles.

A sequence of natural disasters March 11 reduced Minamisanriku to a place of profound grief and need. With rebuilding efforts in their infancy, officials such as Sasaki are realizing that the town’s shortages — too few supplies, too few jobs, too little safe land for new homes — could persist as long as the bad memories.

Sasaki’s worrying about the town’s needs prevents him from dwelling on his own. On March 11 he lost his car, his childhood home and his mother. At one point he was swallowed by the tsunami wave, long enough to think about his family and resign himself to death.

Since then, he has worked 60 days straight, and he has come to think that he’ll spend the last 12 years of his career — until retirement, at 60 — procuring and OK’ing the items necessary for an epic rebuilding project. Sasaki often updates the town’s Web site, maintaining a list of Minamisanriku’s top priorities. One month ago, the town had no sugar, no soy sauce, no nail clippers and no masking tape. Now it needs vegetables, cooking oil, sandals and toilet paper.

“Sasaki-san,” one town employee in a pink vest tells him, “there are six trucks outside waiting to unload.”


“Sasaki-san, the Shizugawa High School evacuation center wants 2,000 plastic bowls,” a co-worker calls to tell him. “Can you help us?”


“Are you Sasaki-san?” asks a man in a windbreaker, walking into the arena. The man says that he has come from Oita Prefecture, the opposite corner of the country, because he has the skills to do electrical repair work and wants to volunteer.

“OK,” Sasaki says, directing the man to a volunteer help desk.

The rest of the article, titled “After Japan’s tsunami, a town climbs back,” can be found on the Washington Post’s website here.

Temporary Evacuation Project for Infants and Mothers in Niigata Prefecture

Posted on:

Translated from:

To save young lives from the harsh and stressful environment of the disaster areas, babies, small children, their mothers, and their family have been accepted by private accommodation facilities in Yuzawa Town in Niigata prefecture. Here, the children and their families can receive adequate rest and nutrition, as well as ongoing medical support.

This project is mainly run by 4 NPOs: the National Committee for Shopping Streets Town Planning Institute, the Japan First Aid Society (JFAS), the ATOM Currency Executive Committee Sendai Branch, and Humanitarian Medical Assistance (HuMA), with the cooperation of local government and surrounding area NPOs.

The conditions at shelters in the disaster areas have become increasingly severe each day. Especially for infants, hot water, baby formula, and diapers have been insufficient, making it difficult to maintain body temperature and adequate hydration. Because of this situation, malnutrition, dehydration, and infections are starting to increase. Mothers are also suffering from extreme stress and fatigue. The crises facing infants and mothers are extremely time-sensitive.

This project offers:

    • Free accommodation, meals, medical care (and in some areas free moving support) for babies, small children, their mothers, and their family
    • Complete acceptance and support by Yuzawa and the local government.
    • Private hotel rooms (Hotel Angel Grandia Echigo-Nakazato Hot Spring)
    • Medical support by pediatricians, nurses, and child care experts
    • Program extended until July 25, 2011 (including short stay)

HuMA is one of the NPOs supported by the U.S.-Japan Council Earthquake Relief Fund through the Japan Platform.

Special thanks to U.S.-Japan Council volunteer Masami Hokama for translating this piece.

Children, infants and mothers are able to live in a stress-free environment.

A lunch party and birthday party prepared by the hotel. The children are excited to have a birthday cake and presents.

Hollywood Celebrities, United for Japan

Ken Watanabe, known for his roles in The Last Samurai, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Inception, among many others, was among the first celebrities to respond to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Mr. Watanabe’s relief effort, United for Japan, has posted its second video, showing many Western celebrities with messages of hope and support for Japan.

United for Japan is organizing an auction, scheduled for June, which will feature items donated by celebrities. Their website is available at

U.S. High Schoolers Encouraged to Visit Japan

The Japan Foundation, an agency in Japan which promotes cultural exchanges with other countries, has announced a new initiative aimed at American high school students studying the Japanese language. The JET Memorial Invitation Program is named in honor of Ms. Taylor Anderson and Mr. Montgomery Dickson, two Americans in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program who were killed in the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The program will run for five years, with the support of both the Japan Foundation and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is open to interested high school juniors and seniors who have completed two years of Japanese language study.

According to the foundation, the goals of the program are to:

  • Enhance the motivation of Japanese language learners in U.S. high schools and promote Japanese language education throughout the U.S.
  • Encourage future generations to participate in Jet and other similar exchange programs to Japan, and
  • Develop networks among U.S. high school students who will act as a bridge to connect Japan and the U.S. in the future.

The program will run for over a week and will be based out of the Japan Foundation Language Institute in Osaka. Airfare to and from Kansai Airport in Osaka, as well as to and from the orientation area in San Francisco, will be provided.

The deadline for application for the 2011 program is this Friday, May 13. More information on the program is available in a PDF here.