Still a long way to full recovery

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Still a long way to full recovery

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A 60-meter (196-feet) fishing vessel, No. 18 Kyotokumaru, lies stranded among debris almost a year after the March 11, 2011 tsunami which ravaged the eastern coast of Japan in the portal city of Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture. The boat has not been cleared away to stand as monument to the victims of the 9.0 magnitude and aftermaths of the disaster, and the city plans to build a memorial forest in the area. By Kim Hyun-ki


On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, one of the largest in recent memory, created a massive 10-meter (32 feet) tsunami that swept the northeast coast of Japan, devastating the nation. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant failed the following day as a result of the quake, sending the country into panic from the nuclear meltdown.

On Feb. 16 and 17, reporters from the JoongAng Ilbo traveled 100 kilometers (62 miles) along Japan’s eastern coast through Minamisanriku and Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture and Rikuzentakata and Ofunato in Iwate Prefecture to see how the country had changed in the year since the disaster.

But signs of recovery are slim, as the northeastern coast that was struck by the tsunami is still desolate and littered with trash.

Minamisanriku, a fishing town on the east coast, was mostly destroyed in the tsunami last year. Of its 18,000 residents, 875 people, or 5 percent of their population, died or were listed as missing. The view of the town from Shisugawa High School in Miyagi, located on a hill 300 meters high, is like looking out onto an empty soccer field. Though a few lone trucks can be spotted in the streets, almost no people walk the streets.

Occasionally, steel frames of buildings jut out from the otherwise flattened town. It is hard to find any residential houses or shops. A banner stating, “Revive our hometown, endure,” hangs from a broken-down building.

One resident of the town, 24-year-old Miki Endo, called out on the day of the catastrophe from the second-floor broadcasting room of a three-story Disaster Management Center to evacuate people from the coast, “Hurry, hurry, evacuate to a high place. A large tsunami is on its way.”

She held a microphone till her last moments when a 15-meter high wave swept her away. She had a fiancee and was to be married in six months. Only the skeletal structure of the building now remains. But her sacrifice is remembered.

Three people from Osaka came to pray in front of the building, which has become a shrine of sorts to pay respects to those who perished in the disaster.

Yoko Kimura, 26, said, “Seeing the remaining steel frames and the frail emergency staircase, I can imagine the desolation of that moment. I just want to say, ‘Thank you Miki.’”

A 52-year-old man named Yoshihiko Segawa, who runs a convenience store next to a junkyard, stated, “I thought things would get better after several months passed, but it’s been almost one year and there is nowhere for the garbage to go, and I don’t see any indications of restoration.”

Takehisa Iwabuchi, a town hall official at Minamisanriku, stated, “After March 11, 15.69 million tons of garbage accumulated in just Miyagi prefecture alone, an amount equivalent to 19 years’ worth, but in one year only 5 percent has been taken care of.”

The reason is other places are afraid to accept the trash because of “fear of radioactive contamination from the garbage.”

A ten-minute drive to the north is “Heisei no Mori,” a temporary community for 561 people living in 216 houses.

The reporter visited the “house” of the head of the community Fumio Hatakeyama, 63. Their makeshift temporary dwelling is the size of a small room. At the entrance is a poster of his 61-year-old wife’s Hallyu celebrity crush, “Yon-sama” or Korean actor Bae Yong-jun. Hatakeyama said, “Even though our belongings drifted away, our hearts did not.”

North of Minamisanriku is Kesennuma, a port town largely destroyed by a widespread fire that burned for four days ignited by spilled fuel from the tsunami, and 1,368 died or were reported missing.

A boat that washed into the middle of the city, next to a small hill, has been left there as a memorial. The boat stands as a monument to the victims of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The city plans to build a memorial park in the area.

Kayoko Nakayama, 39, from Yokohama, brought her second-grade son to the scene. “I wanted to teach him how scary a tsunami can be.”

Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture was another 30-minute drive up north. The whole city is also like a large junkyard, with over 1,800 dead or missing after the tsunami.

The mayor of the town, Futoshi Toba, was both lauded and criticized for the decision he made when his wife went missing during the tsunami. He placed a higher priority on evacuating the citizens of the town.

Toba admitted, “Truthfully, after the earthquake I called my wife but couldn’t reach her. Because the distance from City Hall to our house was a two-minute drive, I was tempted to stop by the house and evacuate my wife to a high place. But I was not in a situation where I could do that. These days, I constantly think of my wife’s face.”

“After the accident, many people in the refugee centers at night went to a corner to quietly sob. But when it was day, they would show a smiling face and help with rescue efforts, so I could not say, ‘I’m going to find my wife, so I’ll leave you guys in charge of the rescue site,’” the mayor said.

But whenever he stares at his cellphone, he is filled with sadness. “Including my wife, 200 people in my contact list have died. Though it might be the right thing to do to erase the numbers, I can’t face the idea of doing it. I don’t have the courage.”

The city’s pine tree forest on the coast, which prevented sand and salt from getting into the city, was obliterated. Now, one lone pine tree out of 70,000 stands as a beacon of hope, though its roots are rotting from seawater. A signpost states, “The wish of a pine tree: I will rest a little. But even if I rot, please do not cut me down. Someday, in a changed form, I will definitely revive.”

By Kim Hyun-ki [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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