3/11. It may not be as famous as 9/11, but at least here in Japan, it’s a day that will never be forgotten. The triple disaster of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the tsunami that followed, and the explosion at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant are all events that still resonate in Japan today. It’s only been 8 years since the disaster, and while the effects are still be felt, especially in the Tohoku region, a lot has been done since then to help the people and the region get back on their feet.

Japan is home to many islands, but the four big ones are Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. Honshu is the main island that most people visit, and generally speaking they stick to the area between Tokyo and Hiroshima. A few might venture a bit north of Tokyo to visit Nikko or possibly Sendai, but that’s about it. Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures are known as the Kanto area, the region north of that is Tohoku. This area has never been on the tourist trail for anyone really, Japanese or foreign. It’s not known for any big sites, has limited transportation issues, and is very rural. But it was thrust into the world’s spotlight on March 11, 2011, when the very large tsunami hit the coast, all the way from Fukushima in the south to Aomori in the North. The hardest hit area, in terms of damage and lives lost, was the in the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi-ken’s second largest city (after Sendai).

Ishinomaki is really a collection of towns that forms the municipality, and a lot of them were based further inland from the sea, with only the rivers connecting them to that larger waterway. That said, this area has a long history of experiencing tsunamis, and most people know what to do. After an earthquake, head to higher ground until the tsunami alert has passed. This usually was the right thing to do, but what about an earthquake that happened half a world away? In 1960, the largest earthquake ever recorded (9.4-9.6) hit Valdivia, Chile. 22 hours later, the tsunami (5.5 metres) hit the coast of Japan, killing 138 people. This was something they couldn’t have prepared for, as they didn’t know it was coming. Older people in the area still remember this event, and there are “tsunami” high water markers in this region, but, like so many things in life, it is easy to become blasé about recurring events. Earthquakes, tsunamis, and typhoons are all a regular part of Japanese life, you can’t stop for every single warning. Unfortunately, in this case, even if you were prepared, nothing could have helped when a 10-to 20-to 40-metre (depending on location) high tsunami hits you. The odds of something like that happening are so remote, it’s almost inconceivable.

So early March is time when most schools are finishing up for the year (the new school year starts April 1st), and a lot of them were finishing up for the day and/or having graduation ceremonies when the earthquake hit at 14:46. As a result, either students were already on their way home, or waiting to go home at that time. This was a really big earthquake, going on for 4-6 minutes (most last less than 30 seconds), and there was considerable damage. But, schools have policies in place, and most of them sent remaining students, teachers, and staff to higher ground. However, one school did not. The teachers argued for most of the 45 minutes they had before the tsunami hit about what to do, and when they finally decided to move, it was to go downhill. They were on their way to a “safe” location when virtually everyone got swept away by the incoming wave. Only 4 students who were there made it out alive (two because they disobeyed their teachers and ran to higher ground instead). (If you are interested in reading more about this, please read Richard Lloyd Parry’s excellent “Ghosts of the Tsunami“).

Another group of people who knew what to do were fishemen. Once the earthquake was over, they ran to unmoor their boats and get out to sea. It’s much easier to ride a wave on the open water, rather than one that crests as it approaches land. Unfortunately for most other people, there wasn’t much they could do. The earthquake had caused a lot of damage, and power and communications were out, which meant they didn’t know much (no tv, no internet). Local emergency officials did warn of a “o-tsunami” (a very large tsunami) coming, but when you are used to 10 or 20 cm tsunamis, what does very large mean to you? A metre? Two? In this case, it was a 10-metre high tsunami that travelled up to 5km inland (remember those rivers I talked about? Yeah.) Those images you saw on TV of boats on top of buildings, of houses floating inland? That was probably Ishinomaki. Nearly 6000 people died that day, and thousands more lost their homes.

On my way to visiting the city, it was clear that so many communities had been affected. On the train ride up to Ishinomaki, smaller communities were all completely brand new. New houses, new streets, new everything. It was a little disconcerting, as, having lived in the Japanese countryside myself for many years, I know it’s the place to see old school Japan. The loss of so many homes and other buildings was really telling. Once in Ishinomaki too, you could see the results of the reconstruction that’s been going on since then. Houses and other buildings are being rebuilt, new seawalls (higher than before, at around 7 metres high) are being built up, and life goes on. That doesn’t mean you can’t see some of the negative impacts of the tsunami/earthquake though. There are plenty of abandoned lots and empty buildings that probably will stay that way for a long time. The coastal area of the city, right at the mouth of the river/estuary, is also undergoing construction, but not for human habitation. It will be transformed into a large park, with a former elementary school standing in as a memorial to those lost. Near the school I came across a small cemetery that had lots of broken gravestones, headless statues, and other bits of detritus. The one thing I did notice however, was that there was some attempt to piece back some of the memorials, and to at least group the statues together. I’ve never seen so many statues in a Japanese cemetery before. Most of them were small jizo statues, but they were everywhere.

I spent most of my morning talking to Richard, the director of the Ishinomaki Community and Info Center, who was a wealth of information concerning the tsunami and the after-effects it had on the community. He’s a long-term resident of the area, and it was interesting to hear of his experiences there. The center itself is in a pre-fab building and has photos and dioramas of the area both pre- and post-tsunami.

Other than the centre, and a few markers around town (and obviously the reconstruction), if you didn’t know that this place had been hit by one of the worst disasters to hit have hit Japan, you might not know about it. It looks just like a regular Japanese city going about its business today, and I wonder what it will be like in the years going forward – will it be a pilgrimmage site, much like Hiroshima and the Peace Park is today, or will it fade back into obscurity? Only time will tell.


Site: Ishinomaki city

Getting here: It takes about 60-90 minutes by rapid or local train from Sendai station.

Notes: As reconstruction is still going on, “memorial” sites as such are still being considered and reconstructed, so there isn’t a whole lot to see. If you want to visit the hardest hit areas, it’s best to do so by car, as public transportation is limited/non-existant in many of the smaller communities.