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


Minami-Sanriku was formed in 2005 by the merging of Utatsu and Shizugawa towns. It was an idyllic resort with hot springs, friendly seagulls and gorgeous sunsets. The four large foreshocks on March 9th prompted Mayor Jin Sato to convene a meeting of the Town Council to discuss strengthening tsunami defenses for March 11th. The meeting finished just as the large M9.0 earthquake sank the coastline by more than a foot. It was too late. On that day, the heart of Minami-Sanriku was swept away.

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Minami-Sanriku  lies on southern stretch of the Sanriku coast, which derives its name from three (san) of the five provinces formed from the Mutsu province following the 1869 Boshin War: Rikuo, Rikuchuu, and Rikuzen (the latter gives its name to Rikuzentakata, another tsunami struck town located in Iwate on the same stretch of coast). The coast line has seen tsunamis repeated throughout history, as Gregory Smits addressed in his article on the 2011 tsunami at Japan Focus: “Danger in the Lowground”.

While a lot of clearance work has taken place in Minami-Sanriku, between the major roads debris still piles high

While a lot of clearance work has taken place in Minami-Sanriku, between the major roads debris still piles high

The Mayor’s story didn’t end with the earthquake, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

The town hall tsunami warning began wailing and many townsfolk began heading towards higher ground. Others put their faith in the seawall. Mayor Sato and his colleagues figured they were safe in their large headquarters. About 30 of them climbed to their building’s roof to watch what they knew would be an incoming tsunami.

And so it was. But what came was bigger than anyone in that town of the ocean-wise could have imagined.

Sato was too busy fighting for his life to record anything. The wave that came from the bay was at least 20 metres high, beyond belief, and it tore clean over the roof of the town hall. The mayor and nine of his colleagues managed to cling to iron railings as the torrent pounded them, but 20 others were simply swept away. The water reached the fourth floor of the hospital, and only those few who reached the fifth were saved.


Inundation height and run-up height in Minami-Sanriku Town

Inundation height and run-up height in Minami-Sanriku Town (Source: Atsushi Koreyama/Asian Disaster Reduction Center)


According to CATDAT, as of June 16th, 1,205 people were killed or missing because of the tsunami, the third-highest figure for Miyagi Prefecture (following Ishinomaki and Kesennuma). The wave reached heights of around 16m (see above) sweeping away 3,167 homes. The earthquake generated land subsidence of around  0.69 m (2.26 ft), but the tsunami would have washed over and through the three-meter sea wall even if such subsidence hadn’t occurred. The town’s geography, a bay surrounded by hills with a central river focused and intensified the tsunami’s damage. In the initial onslaught, 31 of the 78 evacuation shelters in the town were washed away – it is unclear how many lost their lives having already sought shelter. The combined destruction of the earthquake and tsunami left 2,755 people living in evacuation centers in the city.

Minami-Sanriku has been at the heart of media reports on the tsunami mainly due to the force by which it was hit and the brave stories from those that live there. Take, for instance, the story of Miki Endo, a 29-year old female government employee who stayed at her post giving tsunami warnings over the loudspeaker until she was killed by the very waves she was urging people to flee from. Her body was apparently recovered 700 metres from the coast in Shizugawa Bay.

Mayor Jin Sato clings onto the antenna atop the Disaster Prevention Center in Minami-Sanriku on March 11th

Mayor Jin Sato clings onto the antenna atop the Disaster Prevention Center in Minami-Sanriku on March 11th (Source: digital_devil0611)

The Disaster Prevention Center is now a rusted skeleton. The height of the wave is clear from the damage at the bent handrails on the fire escape at the rear of the building: handrails on the third floor are bent over. Once the tsunami struck, there was to be no hide. The mayor’s meeting was in this very building, he survived by climbing to the top of the antenna, as did nine other people. A further twenty people lost their lives, including Miki Endo, who stayed at her station on the second floor.

The devastation at Minami-Sanriku is breathtaking. The spectacle is reminiscent of a panorama at the Peace Museum in Hiroshima depicting the aftermath of the atomic bombing there. Rubble is everywhere, the sea wall has broken away, and debris is strewn everywhere. Matsubara Park, once a green relaxation spot, is now home to a growing mountain of rubble collected from the clearance work – a steam locomotive on display at the park, now lies toppled over at the bottom of the rubble.

The clearance work has been exceptional. The roads are perfectly clear, temporary water pipes provide water to homes neighboring the damaged areas, and a British-supplied SDF-erected medium-girder bridge (MGB) provides access to the town. Showing the determination to continue living their lives, an Eneos gas station is up and running, barely 200 meters from the sea. It’s buildings have been damaged and one of its trucks remains wedged between the pillars at the entrance of the hospital opposite, but it is providing a necessary service for the post-disaster increased traffic along the coastal road.

Minami-Sanriku as seen from Shizugawa Junior High School before and after the tsunami

Minami-Sanriku as seen from Shizugawa Junior High School before and after the tsunami (Source (top): Shizugawa JHS)

On the other side of the thin urban strip built along the Shizugawa River, atop a large hill is a junior high school providing safety and an incredible view of the town. One of the many signs of progress is the masses of pre-fabricated housing erected on the school grounds. The school was an evacuation center following the tsunami, but it seems to be operating mostly as a school again. Those children whose houses remain walk through the flatten town everyday. One cannot begin to wonder what sort of effect this might have on them in the long-term.

The Sanriku railroad that passes through the town and continues up the coast has been utterly destroyed. In Minami-Sanriku, the track has been flung aside. The tunnels that allow the trains to work their way up the Sanriku coast open onto bridges that no longer exist. Their supports remain, but the track and the foundations they lay on are completely gone.

In the town of Utatsu (Shizugawa became the center of Minami-Sanriku after the merger), the junior high school there was also an evacuation center, and now home to multitudes of pre-fabricated housing. The people there seemed more content and better supplied in comparison to what I would later see in Onagawa. We heard that Chinese volunteers were going to provide enough food for 2000 people the next day (July 3rd).

Minami-Sanriku was badly hit, but it has benefited from media interest. Being more accessible than other areas to the north (such as Kesennuma and Onagawa), it has been given most of what it needs. Like Ishinomaki, it has made significant headway on moving people into pre-fabricated housing, and as the survivors pick through the rubble, they have the future in mind. The only hope is that they will rebuild far above the lowlands that caused so many to be swept away.



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Panorama of Minami-Sanriku, July 2nd 2011 on CleVR.com

Other Videos

This video of the tsunami was considered one of the most shocking when it was released. I didn’t realise until now that it was filmed in Minami-Sanriku:

Channel 4 News (UK) reports on the immediate aftermath of the tsunami on March 13th:

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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