JSW Tohoku Research Trip Contents:

1. Visiting the Disaster Zone – Introduction
2. Ishinomaki
3. Minami-Sanriku
4. Kesennuma
5. Onagawa

6. On the Plains – From Higashi-Matsushima to Minami-Soma
7. Appendices


6 months ago, Ishinomaki was a vibrant fishing port. It’s long history, beautiful scenery extending onto the Oshika Peninsula, and great food saw tourists visiting from across Japan. But on March 11th, 2011, its seafront and all the small communities along the Oshika Peninsula were swept away by the incredible tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake.

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According to CATDAT, as of June 16th, 5,867 people were killed or missing because of the tsunami – the highest number of fatalities among those towns and cities affected by the tsunami. The wave exceeded 7.6m, sweeping away 28,000 homes. This destruction was no doubt aided by the 76 cm (2.55 ft) subsidence generated by the earthquake. The combined destruction of the earthquake and tsunami left 6030 people living in evacuation centers in the city.

Ishinomaki is approximately 90 minutes from Sendai along the Sanriku Expressway. When you enter the city from the highway, it is difficult to spot anything wrong, but the clues are there: dirty, dusty streets, military generator trailers powering the combined City Hall and supermarket, missing curbstones… The signs are there, but they do nothing to prepare you for the moment that you turn the block to find that the building next to you has no front wall.

The gap between the destruction and life as usual is barely a block-thick in Ishinomaki. On one road you see children and shoppers, on the next one over, only construction vehicles and wreckage.

A seafront warehouse left isolated and tattered in Ishinomaki

A seafront warehouse left isolated and tattered in Ishinomaki


Most of the destruction in the city is along the port district. The damaged industrial warehouses and equipment lay largely abandoned. The convenience stores, franchise restaurants, schools and housing behind the port are now closed, frequently left with gaping holes in their walls and the pungent smell of rotting fish.

I had imagined that the smell would be worse, thankfully it wasn’t. It was tolerable, but I imagine that is only because people have worked so hard to clear the area ahead of the stiflingly hot, humid summer.

Just past the interchange leaving for the city proper is the Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital, which became a major relief center in the aftermath of the tsunami, and a little further out is the Ishinomaki Sports Park, where the Ground Self-Defense Forces have set up a temporary motor pool and camp. The work of the SDF is in its third phase, following the initial search and rescue mission, and the expansive body recovery mission that saw a surge in forces from April through to around the beginning of June.

Apartments and housing left damaged and caked in by from the tsunami

Apartments and housing left damaged and caked in mud by the tsunami


As the symbolic heart of the disaster, Ishinomaki represents the way forward for disaster struck regions: memorial halls are filled with visitors, the supermarkets are thriving, pre-fabricated housing is being erected for the homeless, and slowly but surely, people are picking their way through the rubble hoping to restore the normality they all so quickly back in March.

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Here are my photographs from the day, taken mostly from a moving car, but with the occasional stop to take in the unbelievable extent of the damage.

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Other Videos

One of the images in the slideshow shows piles of rubble by a Commercial High School, this video of the tsunami comes from the same part of town and demonstrates both the speed and power of the inundation.


You might want to contrast these shots with this initial report from British videographer James Reynolds on March 15th, just 4 days after the tsunami. Notice the flooding of the main street, which has now dried up leaving behind muddy residue, as well as the long queues at the stores, which have also passed.


And finally, the aftermath is also well-covered by this bilingual documentary by Mike Rogers:

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch