(July 15, 2011)
7.10.2011 – Driving northeast from Sendai, after passing through Matsushima and Ishinomaki, we arrived at Onagawa at about 3:00 in the afternoon of Sunday, July 10. A small city of about 13,000 population, Onagawa before the disasters of March 11 was known principally for two things: its flourishing fish-processing industry and its small nuclear power plant. Located at the top of the Oshika Peninsula, Onagawa sits at the end of a short fjord-like inlet, where the port occupies the head of a narrow flatland that is surrounded on three sides by sharply rising hills. Beginning at the sea, the town has pushed its way about three miles toward the hills, taking up every inch of the long flat valley. Approached by road or train from the larger cities of Sendai and Ishinomaki to the southwest, one must come over the mountains and then descend precipitously along narrow, winding roads that follow the steep hillsides down to the sea. One first encounters Onagawa in a long view over the flatland to the distant sea. As we drove over the rise and approached that long view, we were presented with a gut-wrenching shock.
Onagawa is gone. Where one formerly could gaze over a peaceful vista of hundreds of houses and small buildings sloping down the valley and a busy harbor full of fishing boats, now there is only dusty yellowish rubble . In the distance, the sea is blue and peaceful, its small wavelets gently lapping at the coastline and mockingly challenging us to recall the scene of four months earlier, when the waves rose in fury and hurled themselves at the valley with overpowering speed and force. Surging through the valley, pushing up into the hills at a height of fifty feet or more, those foul black waves had pounded at Onagawa, crushing everything that lay in their way. Large fishing boats were yanked from the harbor and hurled at the hillsides or at the highest buildings in town. People running through the streets toward the nearby hills or driving madly in their cars were swept up in the waves and yanked mercilessly out to sea. Trains at the tiny Onagawa station, which was perched in the hills about forty-five feet above the town, were tossed from the tracks and hurled down the hillside. People rushing for presumed safety on the roofs of five-story concrete office buildings were swept away as the waves knocked over entire buildings leaving them on their sides or – in the case of smaller, wooden buildings – flushing them out to sea. I was told that five or six massive waves, each towering 50-feet or more, had surged through Onagawa with crushing force. Then the sea began to recede, its waves throwing back at the valley the shattered debris and excreta of what had once been a small flourishing city.
As we began the descent into town, we passed what had been Onagawa Station but now was nothing more than a twisted knot of tracks and the remains of passenger cars that had been tossed over the hillsides like a miniature toy railroad crushed under the feet of a tremendous giant stomping past. We paused at a hospital that had been built on a plateau about fifty-feet above the town, and gazed out over the sickening view. Despite its height, the first floor of the hospital was a mess of shattered glass and rubble. Clearly the tsunami had surged through the building leaving the first floor an empty shell. Its foul black waves had not risen as high as the second floor, however, and that floor and the four above it were occupied and functioning and looked utterly normal except for large signs reading Gambare Onagawa! (“Fight back, Onagawa!) or Tsunami ni mo Makenai! (“We won’t let a tidal wave stop us!”). The second floor of this large, well constructed hospital building must have been at least sixty-feet above sea level, and yet everything under it had been destroyed and washed away. We could only imagine the terror of its patients and staff on the afternoon March 11, as they watched the fury of the sea surging higher and higher toward them.
Gazing out over what had once been Onagawa, we saw nothing but mountains of debris, gutted buildings, and a few large concrete buildings that had been flipped over onto their sides like pieces on a Monopoly board. Bulldozers and cranes were hard at work throughout the town, clearing the roads and pushing piles of debris into ever increasing mountains. Four months earlier, the town had been a sea of wreckage, debris hurled everywhere.
Now, significant progress has been made in debris removal, but it will clearly be years before all of it can be cleared away and the surviving buildings restored. The once thriving port was empty – not a single boat in sight in the water though the remains of boats could still be seen perched on the tops of buildings.
A dank, acrid smell pervaded Onagawa, forcing us away from the town rather than welcoming us to it. Except for heavy-duty machinery operated by uniformed Self-Defense Forces or construction workers, the town was deserted – totally empty, ugly, dusty, and challenging anyone to imagine that this had once been a flourishing port town.
Driving back up into the hills, we felt that we were slowly ascending out of hell, but around nearly every curve in the road, vistas of small connecting valleys revealed that the terrible waves of March 11, had surged through every part of the region bringing ruin and devastation in every direction.
Calling the Tokyo office of architect Shigeru Ban, who was designing a series of temporary housing structures made of shipping containers, we were directed to a municipal sports complex in the hills above Onagawa. The site had been transformed into an evacuation center for the hundreds of Onagawa families who had lost their homes. On a high plateau, at least one hundred feet above sea level, we found the sports complex that had once been the pride of Onagawa: its huge expanse of hundreds of acres near the regional junior high school boasted two large new stadiums, one for baseball the other for soccer, several pools, tennis courts, track fields, all surrounded by parklands that were now occupied by hundreds of trucks of the Ground Self-Defense Forces and a small city of khaki-colored tents where the soldiers lived. On a hillside further off was another city of brighter blue and white round tents that were the temporary homes for hundreds of families evacuated from the town below. Several model container-houses had been built by Ban Architects, and in the flat areas within the stadiums lines were being drawn for hundreds more of such structures that would be put up in the next few weeks. Simple in form, they were clean, white, beautifully detailed with large windows and passages for electrical circuitry and plumbing pipes.
Each apartment unit consisted of two containers, offering a total space of about 400 square feet, efficiently connected by hallways and balconies, and each would clearly be a light, airy dwelling space large enough for a family of four to six members. Of the various types of temporary pre-fab housing structures we had seen elsewhere in Tohoku, these were by far the most attractive, and seemed the most livable. Ban had determined that he could safely construct container complexes rising four stories in height, but more conservative bureaucrats in the local offices of the national Ministry of Construction had restricted him to only two stories. “With so little flat land available and the need for housing so enormous, why limit the options so stupidly? The people desperately needed homes immediately, and they want to stay near their old town. I can provide twice the capacity, but instead they restrict me to only two stories and force the families to move miles inland, far from where they want to be. Where’s the sense in that?” Ban had challenged when we talked about this on the telephone.
Members of Ban’s team introduced us to Eiichi Hiratsuka, a member of the Onagawa Education Committee, responsible for managing the huge sports complex atop the hill, which had taken on a new identity as the central refugee center for the district. As the complex went through this transformation from sports facility (featuring stadiums for soccer and baseball, tennis courts, swimming pools, track and field facilities, parkland, and much more) Hiratsuka himself was transformed from a sports director to coordinator of all refugee facilities. He attacked this new role with the fervor of a totally dedicated social worker. He got to know by name most of the homeless refugees, as well as the leaders of the Self Defense Forces whose trucks and tents occupied nearly one-third of the hilltop. He organized meal lines and medical facilities; he provided amusements for the children; he made sure that there was enough hot water in the bathing tents, etc. etc. In another context, he would easily be elected mayor of a small town. At Onagawa, he was giving every ounce of his energy to the welfare of the helpless citizens. Sensitive to their feelings, he quietly told us when not to take a picture, and when we could photograph freely. He spoke with desperation about the rising number of suicides among young and middle-aged men – family breadwinners who had no jobs, and little hope of finding work for years. Not working is a social sin in Japan, even when the cause is natural disaster. While most members of this enforced community acted remarkably cheerful about their plight – the children even acting as though it were an extended camping expedition – it was the men who seemed withdrawn, their faces dark with frustration or bright red from too much alcohol. This enforced unemployment will be an ongoing problem, we were told elsewhere as well, and as living conditions continue to improve the suicide rate among employable men is expected to rise sharply.
A sweet little girl of ten or eleven, Aya Kobayashi, dashed up to us with several of her friends from the tent city, begging us to join her group in watching senko-hanabi sparklers. A group of mothers joined in this simple amusement. The fathers refused to join, sulking off in sullen groups of their own. While the children laughed gleefully at the colored sparklers, deep lines of tension seemed etched on the faces of their parents.
Onagawa had been spared the nuclear ordeal of the towns in Fukushima prefecture near the Tepco Nuclear Power Plant. Onagawa’s smaller nuclear plant, operated by Tohoku Electric Company, had suffered minor damage from the earthquakes of March 11, but no tsunami damage since it was sited high in the hills. A fire in the plant had quickly been doused, and the plant had been shut down immediately after the earthquakes and taken off the regional power grid. This quick action had cut short any possibility of radiation leaks, and during the weeks following March 11 the plant had even been used as a shelter for more than 500 evacuees from the town below. By March 19, less than a week after the disasters, American military helicopters – working in coordination with the Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces – were landing at the nuclear plant and other nearby sites with shipments of water, food, heating oil, and other essential supplies for the thousands of homeless refugees of Onagawa.
Thanks to the efforts of dedicated community workers like Hiratsuka and others like him, Onagawa was perhaps the best organized refugee community of the many we visited in Tohoku. The homeless evacuees, living in tents and schoolrooms on their plateau above the devastated town, never seemed to look down or back at their former homes while they spoke about the future. They were determined to survive their present hardships and recover some form of normalcy. But how, they wondered. What would the future bring? Some would soon be moved to temporary housing far inland, and they feared the inevitable separation from their friends. Some said they would refuse to move because they could not leave behind the spirits of their ancestors, even though their butsudan or family altars and ancestral memorial plaques had been destroyed. Older people had no appetite for building new lives in unfamiliar settings. Younger families said they would move only if they could be assured of jobs. All would prefer to stay and rebuild near Onagawa. For that they would need external help, and they had heard that the Self Defense Forces would be leaving Onagawa in two or three weeks? What then? In less than four months, many had become institutionalized to the extent that they preferred the reliable food and hot water of the shelter to the lack of jobs or income in new settings. What would happen to them if they left Onagawa? Though it might be in ruins, Onagawa was still home. And all but a few would prefer to stay.