On July 12, I had the opportunity to visit the city of Higashi-Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture with Ms. Tamami Yono of the Disaster Prevention and Education Department of the Kahoku Shimpo. Over 1000 people lost their lives and 65% of the city was flooded by the 2011 tsunami. Nearly 75% of all residences in the city sustained some kind of damage, and over 15,000 people had to evacuate their houses. Nevertheless, the city has made great strides since the disaster, and is not only making proposals to restore the city, but also make it greater than it was prior to 2011.
Our first destination was the 3.11 Disaster Recovery Memorial Museum in Nobiru. On our way, we passed by a seemingly nondescript neighborhood. Under the overpass we drive on is freshly growing grass. Where the grass grows is where the road used to be. After the tsunami, roads were raised. Many of the areas we passed through are still under construction?cranes and piles of dirt being moved were abundant. We take a detour by the ocean, where sea walls are still being made higher.
The Memorial Museum is housed in what used to be Nobiru Station. Standing at the base of the station, you can just barely see through the mountains the new Nobiru Station. Nobiru, as well as neighboring stations Tona and Rikuzen-Ono, were all damaged in the tsunami, necessitating rebuilding the stations at higher grounds. While the outbound train leaving Nobiru passes through the mountains, where it stopped after the earthquake, the inbound train from Nobiru stopped near the station. The passengers on the outbound train survived, while most of the passengers on the inbound train were swept away. Due to its location, many buildings in Nobiru were surrounded on all sides. Some buildings located in valleys would first be flooded by water coming from the ocean, and then be swallowed by the waves again when they reflected off the mountains. A significant number of the passengers heading inland from Nobiru had fled to Nobiru Elementary School; unfortunately, it was one of those buildings buffeted twice, and most of those who fled their lost their lives.
Despite being in a tsunami stricken area, the station is surprisingly intact. While the pillars are rusted and grass grows through the platform, the main evidence of the tsunami remains the bent railing and station sign. Across from the old station, you can still see the area where track was blocked off. Behind is a memorial to those who died. What I found surprising but also quite thoughtful was that the names of those lost were displayed on removal metal slides instead of carved in, so if their family did not want their name left, they could remove it. I felt that it was nice that, if the surviving family did not want the names of their lost relatives displayed for anyone to see, they could just remove it. Behind the memorial, there still remain some houses, although there are also places all that exists is foundation. The houses that still exist in the area are raised above the ground on concrete; while this was not the case prior to the disaster, the houses were raised in accordance with new building regulations passed in the city.
Inside the museum’s first floor is a model of the new Nobiru community built higher in the mountains. I am told it took 6 years to build this community and start moving residents out of temporary housing. When I think about this, it strikes me how recent that is?only two years ago. And Higashi-Matsushima is one of the cities that has made the most progress on reconstruction.
As with many other places, the museum is decorated with markers showing where the tsunami came to on the building. I was told that some avoided the tsunami by stacking tables onto the second floor veranda and climbing to the roof.
Around the second floor are many artifacts from the station before the tsunami hit, namely a broken ticket dispenser and the station’s clock. The clock remains stuck at the time the tsunami hit.
Our guide, Ms. Saito, was from Miyato Island. Part of the city near the station is a set of islands, collectively referred to as Oku-Matsushima. Miyato Island is one of these islands. The Miyato bridge connecting these islands to the rest of the city was washed away, leaving the inhabitants of the island essentially stranded. Because local schools were located in Nobiru, she and several parents on the islands spent two weeks separated from their children.
She then tells us that she was also robbed after the tsunami. Since many people’s windows and locks were broken, it was easy for people to steal from others. She also recounts an incident where she had met someone who almost died from hypothermia. Thankfully, that person was taken to Matsushima for treatment.
In Higashi-Matsushima is also a JSDF base. Although the base was flooded by the tsunami, the soldiers were away in Fukuoka at the time, meaning that no one was hurt. Part of the reason why Higashi-Matsushima recovered with relative speed was because SDF forces helped clear wreckage in the city. In addition, the city also received international aid in its cleanup efforts after the earthquake; U.S. soldiers stationed in Japan participated in the removal of debris and setup of shelters as part of the project “Operation Tomodachi”, and the crown prince of Denmark also visited to deliver donations as well as talk with children affected by the disaster.
I also learned that, amazingly, nearly all of the wreckage generated by the disaster in the city was recycled. Citizens sorted the rubble and received the help of the local construction association in breaking large pieces down into a recyclable form.
While we head to our second destination, we pass by the SDF base and through the area of the city known as Omagari. Omagari was once a residential area, but due to its proximity to the ocean, it was wiped out by the tsunami. Now, there exists no evidence that anyone even lived there. The lack of human presence was so great that Ms. Yono thought we had gotten lost. All there is in Omagari now are solar panels, sea walls, and a graveyard.
Our next destination was the Akai Civic Center. There, I had the opportunity to sit in on the first meeting for organizing the 28th Annual All Akai Festival. Akai is the northernmost region in the city, lying to the northwest. Ms. Yono is the chair of “Yarimashou! Bon Odori” (やりましょう！盆踊り, Let’s Dance! Bon Dance). The Bon Dance is traditionally done during the holiday of Obon (お盆), where the spirits of departed relatives are said to briefly return to world. People frequently return to their hometowns to celebrate. She is arranging for “Yarimashou! Bon Odori” to participate in the festival. Thanks to her, I was able to afterwards interview some of the local community heads behind the festival.
I talked with Kotaro Atsumi, the chair of the Akai Region Residents’ Association, Toshihiro Saito, the vice chair of the Association, and Shinichi Saito, of the Akai Civic Center. While Akai was less affected relative to other regions of Higashi-Matsushima, that isn’t to say the citizens of Akai did not have their own struggles. Mr. Shinichi Saito tells us about how he housed several relatives who had lost their homes. At its peak, his house had 32 people living in it. They had trouble securing food, and the children were incredibly restless. Even those in the community who had survived were stressed, as many of them did not know whether their families living in other places had survived or not. He then points out that, even enduring this stress, he and others in similar situations could not express their frustrations. They had to suppress their feelings in order to keep the peace in a high-stress situation. He muses that this may be unique to Japan.
Mr. Toshihiro Saito recalls that it was difficult that year to get the community to participate in events such as the Bon Dance. Despite the holiday celebrating those who are no longer with us, the community was in such low spirits that the Residents’ Association questioned whether they should even hold a festival. Mr. Atsumi agrees, telling me that many people felt guilty for attempting to have fun when others nearby were suffering. He says that the best they could do was try to create an environment where people could participate if they wanted to. He hoped that people would think more positively about their experiences.
Mr. Shinichi Saito adds that he was ultimately glad the festival was held, and that all the community leaders could do is try and get people to feel like it was okay to have fun. In other words, to create a place where people could “clear their minds”. However, as Mr. Toshihiro Saito notes, people will not freely talk about their experiences, as they do not want to relive painful memories. As they do not confront these memories, they cannot move on completely.
I ask the three what can be done to make people feel more comfortable discussing their internal trauma.
Mr. Atsumi states that while it is difficult to change cultural conceptions of opening up, people may gradually open to others over time or use indirect methods of communication to convey their feelings.
Mr. Shinichi Saito replies that the dissolution of multigenerational families, amongst other structural societal changes, is causing people to become more isolated. Problems like the phenomenon of hikikomori, or shut-ins, are results of this. Thus, he feels “that people need a space where they have a community. “ He adds that, although varying on the region, the number of people seeing therapists has been increasing.
Similarly, Mr. Toshihiro Saito says that they Residents’ Association attempts to have a wide variety of different events to help cater to the community’s interests. Furthermore, many initiatives he is in charge of to make the community nicer to live in, like planting flowers, for example, are done as a group.
The three men work incredibly hard to try and build their community. Despite this, when I initially ask them what they like most about Akai, Mr. Shinichi Saito initially answers, “I don’t know. You don’t really think about it normally…when my daughter visits, I’m reminded ‘this is a pretty nice place’.” While the community is nice, because they live there, it’s good points can be taken for granted. I believe that we can take a lesson from this?the tsunami, for many people, took away their communities. Even in places that weren’t directly destroyed by the waves, the stress, pain, and loss was devastating. While we tend to assume that what’s around us will always be the same, listening to people’s stories over the past two months had made me appreciate even the boring and mundane things in my life, because we can never know when they will be taken from us.
Afterwards, when I talked with Ms. Yono, she left me with a nugget of wisdom that I think would be best to share. She, too, wondered if she was doing enough to help the people in communities devastated by the tsunami. She, too, started to feel guilt. But, through talking with survivors, she found that letting ourselves that letting the disaster feel bad. The survivors want us to continue to live our lives, to not let the disaster destroy our happiness. That all we can do is listen and attempt to understand.