On June 20, 2019, I, along with a representative from Kahoku Shimpo, went to some of the sites affected by the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. Leading us was Sebastien Boret, an associate professor at Tohoku University. We visited Yuriage, a community within the city of Natori, as well as the Millenium Hope Hills in Iwanuma, the city next to Natori.
Professor Boret studies tombstones, graves, and memorials. In Japan, he was involved in advocating for the construction of a memorial to those who died in Yuriage during the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. He originally visited and volunteered in Yuriage as it was both near Sendai and suffered great destruction from the earthquake; he had just happened initially to see the damage that had occurred at a conference. His fascination with Yuriage escalated when he found out about the debate surrounding the reconstruction of the area?Natori is unique for being one of the last cities affected by the disaster to start reconstruction. While debris from the earthquake and tsunami were cleaned up relatively quickly, it took two years before rebuilding began, and the bulk of the work did not happen until 2015.
This delayed start was the result of the inability of the citizens to decide where to rebuild?a conflict between those who wanted to return home and those who now felt unsafe living near the ocean. Moreover, Yuriage was a relatively popular local tourist destination?many people came to fish there or shop at the Sunday morning market?and those tourists also had strong feelings about the direction reconstruction should go, further contributing to indecision.
Professor Boret was deeply inspired by the passionate attachment of those who had lived in and visited Yuriage, prompting the formation of a group advocating for a memorial to the citizens of Natori who died in the disaster, as well as further study. While there were originally 7000 people living in the Yuriage community, that number has dwindled to a mere 2000 since 2011.
Professor Boret has continued to follow the development of Yuriage. In March of this year, plans were finally decided and the construction of the area has started to speed up. However, as a result of the extensive destruction, the residential area being built is completely different from what was there before the earthquake.
Our first destination in Yuriage was the Natori City Memorial Park. It, along with the city, was official reopened on May 26th of this year. Despite this, the city is still clearly under construction. On our way to the memorial park, we passed by temporary housing, where many retirees who lost their houses live.
Next to the Memorial Park is a shrine. This shrine is called Hiyoriyama (日和山). “Yama” means “mountain” and “Hiyori” refers to the sun shining down on ships?in other words, good weather for sailing. This name is particularly poignant in light of the shrine’s proximity to the ocean, and the events of eight years ago. There actually exist several Hiyoriyamas. The one in Yuriage was built on an artificially constructed mountain. While people attempted to use it as a refuge during the disaster, unfortunately, the waves were too tall and most who attempted to flee there perished. While at one point, you could see the ocean from the top of the Hiyoriyama in Yuriage, this is no longer the case. Continued construction of sea walls serves as reminder of the tragedy of what happened in 2011.
Behind the shrine are memorial plaques to the dead (慰霊碑, ireihi). There are four placards; three commemorating deaths in World War II, and the fourth recording the events of an earthquake in the 1930’s. This last memorial served as a warning that eventually, another earthquake and tsunami would come. Unfortunately, this warning was ignored. The memorial plaques themselves were swept away in the tsunami, and were only returned to their original places afterwards. Some actually argued that the plaques should have been left were they were moved to serve as a more visceral reminder of what happens when we ignore history.
Across the road from the memorial plaques and Hiyoriyama is a new memorial created after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It was made in the shape of a bud, meant to symbolize the region’s regrowth after the disaster. It is 8.4 meters tall, the height of the waves that struck Yuriage. In front of the monument is a memorial plaque, in the shape of a seed, containing the names of those who died in the tsunami. It is significant in that, unlike other memorial plaques, it is not associated with a shrine. The Japanese name for these plaques, ireihi, contains the character for spirit (霊), normally giving them a semi-religious connotation. For the local government to construct such a monument is at testament to the severity of the situation.
Yuriage was one of the most heavily affected areas in Natori; after the tsunami, all that was left of houses in the area were the foundations, and due to the delayed construction, the area remained this way for several years. Across the street from the Hiyoriyama lie O-jizou-san (お地蔵さん, a Buddhist god overseeing unborn children, dead children, mothers who have died in childbirth, and travellers). They are normally placed in areas where people have died of unnatural causes. Unlike the monument, the O-jizou-san lie on private land. Some residents who fled and resettled still technically own land in Yuriage. Next to them, you can see flowers that people had planted. Some former inhabitants would even visit on weekends to add flowers. Although reconstruction has begun, the area is still mostly empty. Fishing is no longer done in this part of Yuriage; all that remains of the fishing industry are various fish processing factories.
After departing from the Memorial Park, we visited Kawamachi Terrace. The Terrace is located on what used to be one of the main roads in Yuriage, connecting the first and second districts of Natori. There used to be residences in this area, but most of them have been obliterated and have not been rebuilt. While there were fears that people would not come, it was rather populated when we visited. While difficult to believe now, with all of the reconstruction, this was one of the most dangerous places to be during the tsunami.
We ate lunch at a shop selling katsudon called Momoya. The Momoya in the Terrace is actually new; the original Momoya was destroyed in the tsunami. All that remained was a single bag of katsuobushi (bonito flakes, frequently used to make dashi stock, a fundamental Japanese cooking ingredient). This bag remains on display at the new Momoya. Moreover, the owners of the restaurant lost their lives in the disaster, and with them, all of their recipes. The katsudon we ate at Momoya is based on the citizens of Yuriage trying for years to recreate the recipe based on their memories.
Next, we visited the location where the Sunday Morning Market is. The Market one of Yuriage’s most famous local tourist destinations and was one of the first places to be rebuilt. While it used to be an open space, it is now fortified with wooden structures and walls.
Near the market is M?moire de Yuriage, a memorial museum and space for survivors to discuss their experiences. At M?moire de Yuriage, we watched a presentation on what had occurred during and since the disaster. First were lists of statistics: 3930 buildings were destroyed. 911 people died in Natori, and 750 of those people lived in Yuriage. All of the schools and public offices in Yuriage were washed away.
In order to help children deal with the trauma of the disaster, in June 2011, the area arranged a project where children worked to build dioramas of the city before the disaster. Since almost all of the buildings in the city were leveled by the tsunami, constructing a diorama was one of the only ways that the children could have evidence that the city they grew up in ever existed. They then created dioramas of their memories of the tsunami, to help them process those experiences.
However, nothing was done to help the adults struggling at the time of the disaster. Eventually, a group called Yuriage Ami’s, a knitting group where members of the community could talk while knitting, formed, and recently they have begun to sell their products.
After the presentation, we heard the story of Yuko Tanno, a survivor of the 3/11 disaster and one of the founders of M?moire de Yuriage. She moved to Yuriage after getting married, in a household consisting of her, her husband, daughter, and son. On the day of 3/11, her daughter was graduating from middle school. After the ceremony at the school, the celebration continued at a nearby community center.
While celebrating, suddenly everyone’s phones started to vibrate. It was the noise for an earthquake warning?but no one at the time was able to identify it. It had been decades since the last earthquake. Mrs. Tanno was just a child when the last earthquake had happened.
Even then, many of the people who had been alive during that earthquake had older feature phones that did not ring. Regardless, that earthquake was only a 5.0. As a result, everyone assumed that the earthquake would not be that bad, Mrs. Tanno told us. Elderly people continually told others that there was nothing to worry about. The tremors lasted for three minutes, off and on. Even after the earthquake, most of the town was intact.
Then the tsunami warning came.
Last time a tsunami had hit Yuriage, it mostly hit coastal areas. Mrs. Tanno assumed that her house was far enough from the coast. She tells us she had no idea what to expect. She thought a tsunami would just be small waves. “I thought you’d be fine as long as you could swim,” she tells us wryly. After all, the elderly people who had experienced a tsunami were certain that it would hit somewhere else. It would never come to Yuriage. Tsunamis just didn’t come there. The last time a tsunami had hit the area was 80 years ago.
The tsunami hit 1 hour and 6 minutes after the earthquake. Mrs. Tanno details that she saw black smoke coming from between houses. It could have been houses set on fire. Propane pipes in houses burst and caused oil fires. She says that the experience was completely different from what she had imagined. She thought the ocean water would be blue or clear, as it is on the beach, but the water rushing around her was pitch black, like ink. Houses were demolished by waves, with the wreckage of one house colliding into the houses next to it and causing them to collapse, like dominos. She saw boats and cars be washed away. She even saw one of her daughter’s classmates be consumed. The sky turned black and snow started to fall. She and the others who stayed in the community center survived; some had attempted to flee to the school, which had been designated as safer due to being a few floors taller. Those who ran were caught in the waves of the tsunami before they could make it to the school.
That night, Mrs. Tanno saw the brightest and most beautiful stars. She believes that it was due to souls of those who had lost their lives.
Nearly all of the buildings and houses in Yuriage were demolished. 14 children died in the tsunami; one of them was Mrs. Tanno’s son. Worst of all, as all of those children’s houses and belongings had been washed away, there was no evidence that they even existed. All pictures of them were lost. This is why the memorial plaque Professor Boret helped advocate for is so important?it serves as the only proof that the children who died in the tsunami had ever lived. Mrs. Tanno was one of the people who had originally come up with the idea for the memorial; she was the one who wrote the inscription and remembered the names of the 14 children who had died. The monument is simple in construction, with just the names of the children inscribed on black stone, slanted to face the viewer. This simplicity makes it easy to touch the names. By doing so, the stone retains the warmth, replicating the warmth of the human body. In that sense, the children who lost their lives in the disaster can live on. Next to the monument are two desks, with handwritten messages by Mrs. Tanno.
Recently, there was an earthquake in Yamagata Prefecture. When I ask Mrs. Tanno about it, she responds that it was unfortunate that numerous houses had been damaged, but that clearly nothing has been learned since 3/11. The construction of those houses had made them vulnerable to destruction by earthquakes, and nothing in the past eight years had been done to fortify houses in areas vulnerable to earthquake damage.
Even now, people still think that they’ll be fine. That it could never happen to them. It’s that very complacency that results in the repetition of disasters. “If you respond after you’ve realized something has gone wrong, it’s already too late,” Mrs. Tanno says. “Instead of thinking that we’re living after a disaster, we’re just waiting until for next to happen.” People do not understand the severity of disasters until they experience them for their own eyes.
As part of M?moire de Yuriage, Mrs. Tanno and other survivors tells their stories and the stories those of who have died in the tsunami. As long as people continue to remember those who died, they are not truly gone. She wonders if people from overseas would think it strange that people who have had their lives destroyed by a tsunami would want to move back to the ocean, to make themselves relive their trauma. “You have to be a little bit ‘off’ to do what I did,” she says. For Mrs. Tanno and her husband, however, moving back to Yuriage was a way of connecting with their lost son.
When I ask her about steps to taken towards the prevention of future disasters, she seems to be somewhat resigned. The normal attitude, it seems, is that one should forget and move on. Forgetting about the disaster is “cool”, even. All celebrations and monuments related to 3/11 are dedicated to restoration and revival efforts, completely overlooking the tragedy that brought these efforts in the first place. Mrs. Tanno fears that people will forget why this reconstruction is necessary, and be doomed to repeat history.
She is also critical of the emergency drills. Instead of telling people where to go, they focus on what to do after you have escaped to shelter. The reasoning behind this, she believes is a problem of responsibility. During the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, numerous shelters were located on insufficiently high ground and washed away. If something happens to the shelters, as did in 2011, who is responsible for those people’s deaths? Informing people of shelter locations that were vulnerable makes those giving out the information culpable. She tells us that she was taught things like how to make onigiri. “People believe as long as they survive, then they'll be fine,” she adds.
While many have suffered through trauma, and many adults never received proper counseling, Mrs. Tanno says that some people don’t have the need to work through their feelings out loud. However, those who needed such a place to share their feelings and experiences did not have one. Nor was the government invested in trying to create these spaces. Still, individuals like Mrs. Tanno have tried to give resources for survivors to make sense of their experiences. “I never would have opened up a place like this if I hadn’t gone through the experience myself,” she says. In a sense, M?moire de Yuriage is a place for her to deal with her own loss.
In addition, several people in the community have reported seeing, meeting with, or hearing departed loved ones. One thing that Mrs. Tanno mentioned is that when interviewing her and others in her community, reporters would accuse them of seeing ghosts. Reporters wanted to turn her and her peers’ experiences into a sensationalist piece about crazy people who think they see dead relatives. However, rather than being strange or crazy, I think that simply they saw something that comforted them. It is not uncommon for survivors of loss to have feelings that their loved ones are still with them; it is a normal part of the grieving process.
When I ask Mrs. Tanno if there was one thing she wanted us to take away, she tells me that she wants us to outlive our parents. To not perish like her son did.
Our final destination was the Millennium Hope Hills in Iwanuma. Iwanuma was another city in Miyagi Prefecture devastated by the tsunami. The Millennium Hope Hills are located near Sendai Airport, which was completely flooded by the tsunami and was shut down for several months afterwards. The Hills serve as both a memorial and a defense. We visited the hills near Ainokama Memorial Park. In the center of the park is a memorial monument. This monument is 8 meters tall, the height of the waves of the tsunami in Iwanuma. Near the monument are the remains of houses that had existed before the tsunami.
There are two hills in the Ainokama Memorial Park, both designed to be refuges in the case of a tsunami. There are also several other hills scattered throughout the coastline; their heights range between 9 and 11 meters. The hills are actually made of the remains of houses that were destroyed in the tsunami. While, at first, the local government was concerned about using people’s houses, in the end, it was approved. In some sense, this gives hope to those who had their houses demolished in the disaster. At least the results of their experience will be used to stop a tragedy of that scale from ever happening again.
In order to prevent the extensive damage of 3/11, trees were planted between the hills and the ocean. These trees will eventually grow into a forest, which will serve to slow down the waves and minimize damage in cities from rubble flowing in from the sea. In addition, the seawalls were raised. Finally, the roads ruined in the disaster were raised when rebuilt, with the intent of minimizing the damage caused by the next tsunami.
While we were visiting the Millennium Hope Hills, we took a brief detour over the sea walls to the beach. The beach was littered with garbage and people’s belongings. It is said that debris from the disaster still washes up on the beaches to this day. Some of the sand from the beach was even black in color.
The experience of visiting these locations and seeing them in-person was an enlightening. While the day was filled with fun and lightheartedness, the shadow of the disaster that brought about the bustling Kawamachi Terrace or the beauty of the Millenium Hope Hills lingered. Although someone like me, and others who were unaffected by the disaster may be able to go to these places and enjoy them simply as nice places, people like Mrs. Tanno will never get that privilege. We owe it to her, those who suffered in any way from the disaster, and to those who lost their lives to not treat these things lightly. The only way we can lessen the burden of those who have had their lives irrevocably changed is to attempt to bear some of it ourselves. We should let these monuments serve as a warning for the future, like the ireihi warning an earthquake would eventually come again?hopefully, this time, the message will stick.