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


Kesennuma will forever stick in the minds of those glued to their TV screens in the aftermath of the March 11th Great Tohoku Earthquake. As the tsunami rushed into the bay and along the port harbor, ships collided with each other, fuel leaking out onto the water. The fires that raged over the submerged port city light the skies that first night: an inferno on the water, a living nightmare that lasted 4 days.

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According to CATDAT, as of June 16th, 1,467 people were killed or missing because of the tsunami, the second-highest figure for Miyagi Prefecture (following Ishinomaki). The wave reached run-up heights of around 16m, sweeping away 8,383 homes. The earthquake generated land subsidence of around 0.74 m (2.42 ft). The wave was funneled through the channel of the Kesennuma Bay, leaving nearby Oshima Island isolated until ferries could be brought back up and running. The combined destruction of the earthquake and tsunami left 2,812 people living in the 51 evacuation centers in the city.


The tsunami stripped the walls from buildings and left a flooded areas that have not yet dried out

The tsunami stripped the walls from buildings and left a flooded areas that have not yet dried out

In terms of types of cities they are, Kesennuma is quite similar to Ishinomaki and the pattern of devastation on the ride in are quite similar too. A rather normal-looking town gives way to damaged high street buildings, and a tsunami-ravaged port. However, what was most striking about Kesennuma is how wet the area is. Much of the portside is waterlogged with raised, newly laid gravel tracks providing access to the damaged fisheries. Among the foam, steel, forklifts and cars, some companies have been reopened for business, although one can only imagine that they are operating at a significantly reduced capacity.

The damage seems just so much rawer than what we saw in Ishinomaki, much fresher, and the smell much stronger. It seems likely that Kesennuma’s much more isolated position has held back clearance work by comparison. Just like Ishinomaki, too, some tsunami-damaged schools were now dumping sites for cleared rubble.  There was also still a visible Self-Defense Force presence in the city, with SDF jeeps parked up outside the city hall, but unlike in other areas, the SDF still seemed to be involved in clearing rubble. In other towns, this job was entirely the preserve of civilian agencies and contractors.

After finishing up in Kesennuma, we attempted to follow the coastal road even further up toward Rikuzentakata. The road all the way up to the Kesengawa in Iwate Prefecture were clear, but our path was blocked by a downed bridge. The only alternative route was a long detour back through Kesennuma. This case shows just how difficult the initial relief effort must have been, as well as the continuing obstacles faced even three months later. Luckily for the people in the region, it looks like the bridge was reopened recently, as reported by Daisuke Wakabayashi in the WSJ Japan Realtime last weekend.


MSDF Chihaya (ASR-403) in Hirota Bay off the coast of Rikuzentakata

And finally, on the way south, back towards Kesennuma, we passed the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s ASR Chihaya out in Hirota Bay. While the MSDF and the USS Essex and other US Navy relief vessels have returned to their duties elsewhere around Japan and the world, the Chihaya stood out. A deep sea submarine rescue vehicle was still visible in the scaffolding of the deck, but perhaps it was being used to examine the seafloor.


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Other Videos

This video shows the tsunami sweeping across the portside. The large brown building in the video is visible in the background of the photo of the blue crate in the slideshow above. The whole area was swamped by several meters of water.


This report from Channel 4 News (UK) sums up the day of devastation quite well:


And this video from NHK on the fires that engulfed the city make a fitting reminder of the extent of the destruction that occurred on March 11th – the two audio tracks are the commentary and the foreign language tsunami warnings that were played all night through the country:

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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