On July 17, I went to the town of Shichigahama. Shichigahama (七ヶ浜, lit. seven beaches) is named for the seven beach villages that combined to form the town: Yogasakihama, Yoshidahama, Hanabuchihama, Minatohama, Shoubutahama, Matsugahama, and Touguuhama.
The town was destroyed by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Unfortunately, the tsunami came both from Matsushima in the north and from Sendai Airport in the south. 6,143 people suffered injuries, and 111 people lost their lives. Over half of the households were damaged as well. However, despite the destruction wreaked by the waves, most people in the town were able to flee. Shichigama, as a result, has lost very few people relative to other places affected by the 3/11 disaster.
My guide from the Kahoku Shimpo, Mr. Yoshiki Sutou, describes Shichigahama’s situation as one of “rebuilding” as opposed to “revival”. This rebuilding has been going very smoothly?there are no longer any residents in temporary housing, for example.
Our first stop in Shichigahama was the Shichi no Resort in Hanabuchihama. The resort was first opened in 2017. At the opening ceremony for the resort, owner Masayuki Azumi stated, “I hope that [through the opening of Shichi no Resort] we can revive, develop, and expand human connections.” The buildings have a very chic modern aesthetic, and normally the area is quite popular. While eating lunch in the restaurant, we can look out onto the ocean. It would seem that the area’s recovered and is starting to flourish again. Despite this, there remains evidence of the tsunami. Much like in Yuriage’s Kawamachi Terrace, there used to be an abundance of residences that have been moved inland or cleared and never rebuilt. In addition, on top of the Resort building is a tsunami evacuation area.
On our way to our second destination, we pass by Doushouji, a temple marked as an evacuation area prior to the 2011 East Japan earthquake and tsunami. 47 people fled to Doushouji. However, the height of the temple turned out to be less than that of the predicted waves, and those people again ran for higher ground. A building nearby shows the heights to which the tsunami reached.
In Shichigahama, I also had the opportunity to see a performance given by the “Kizuna F Project.” The Kizuna F Project (絆, bonds) is an organization started by a number of students at Kouyou Middle School. The “F” in the name stands for “Hometown (ふるさと, furusato), Rebuilding (復興, fukkou), and Future”.
Makoto Senarita, a teacher at the school, taught a class on disaster studies. The goal of this class was to get the students to reflect on the disaster in order to participate better in society. 20 of these first-year students formed Kizuna F Project in March of 2016. They have since organized a number of events such as “Kizuna Cafeteria,” in which 40 students went to shelters in Matsugahama and planted flowers, cooked, and held activities for the residents.
The group currently consists of 10 members in total. Six of them appeared Shiomi Elementary School, presenting for second graders. They adapted the story of members Miu and Yuu Onodera into a short kamishibai, or paper play, aimed at children. Miu and Yuu lost their mother and grandmother in the tsunami. The members narrate the story while also using illustrations, like a live picture book. While Miu is originally from Rikuzen-Takata in Iwate prefecture, she was saved by family friends from Shichigahama and has since formed a connection with the community as she has been attending school there.
Before they start their performance, two of the students talk briefly about their experiences during the earthquake and tsunami. One student, Youta Watanabe, shares that while his school evacuated successfully, his house was left without power, gas, or running water. “Your ordinary life collapses when natural disasters happen,” he tells the children. Another, Nene Suzuki, details how she heard the sounds of “sirens, women screaming, and trees falling…All I could say was ‘I’m scared.’”
Before they start the play, one of the members says “it’s okay if you forget the information…I just want you to remember that this happened.”
After their presentation, the members of Kizuna F Project split up into two groups and play a disaster prevention game with the children. They would display a card with a disaster, and on the other side was an animal doing an action. The Kizuna F Project members would present the kids with a card, and then they would have to do the corresponding action. For example, if there’s flooding, you have to put on athletic shoes so your feet don’t get wet. They are very skilled with the children, and I was impressed at how energetic the kids got playing the game.
I was able to briefly speak with Miu in between performances. She told me, “I would like everyone to treasure their everyday life, to be thankful for the peaceful everyday we normally take for granted.”
We then visited the town hall, where I spoke with Shigeki Ogino, the chair of the Policy Department of the Town Hall. He informed me of the progress made to prevent future disasters. Since 2016, the town has made a new hazard map with updated evacuation sites. He emphasized the importance of community and relationships in recovery. To help foster community, for example, schools in Sh?butahama and Hanabuchihama were merged.
Mr. Ogino also says that he believes that “words are more important than documents”; Shichigahama, as compared to other municipalities, has few records of tsunami height. He also discusses the importance of actually implementing maps and drills and reevaluating what works and what does not.
He also says that when rebuilding, it is important to retain that region’s “likeness”. In other words, to prioritize the words of locals over those of professors from distant places.
Interestingly, Mr Ogino also tells me in contrast to many other municipalities, Shichigahama’s number of households has increased since the disaster. One reason is that people from other places that were disaster-struck, such as Onagawa or Ishinomaki, have moved to Shichigahama. Another reason is the changes in family structure to favor the nuclear family, resulting in families taking up multiple households. However, a lot of houses by the coast have been left empty. Some people just moved out of their houses during the tsunami, and no one is willing to live there. While there are plans to replace the houses, Mr. Ogino expresses the concern that Shichigahama is so small that replacing those houses will change the “likeness” of the town.
Overall, looking at Shichigahama gave me a lot of hope for how areas can recover from the 2011 disaster while not forgetting it. The stories of Miu and the other members of Kizuna F Project serve as an example of how we can raise a new generation to be conscious of the mistakes that were made in the past. The buildings like Shichi no Resort, too, were made keeping in mind fortifications needed to protect against the waves of a tsunami without losing the “likeness” of the place.