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


In the center of the town, a four-story building lies on its side – its fire escapes and structure relatively intact, as too is the pavement which now points into the air. It’s a prominent reminder, as if the rubble weren’t enough, of what went on there on March 11th, 2011.

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According to CATDAT, as of June 16th, 923 people were killed or missing because of the tsunami, the sixth-highest figure for Miyagi Prefecture (following Ishinomaki, Kesennuma, Minami-Sanriku, Higashi-Matsushima and Natori). The wave reached run-up heights of around 37.4m (122.7 ft), sweeping away 2,979 homes. The earthquake generated land subsidence of around 1.20 meters (approx. 4 ft). The wave was forced into mountainous port, pushing the wavefront higher and higher, toppling reinforced concrete buildings and submerging even sloped areas. The combined destruction of the earthquake and tsunami left 1,221 people living in the 14 evacuation centers in the city.

It was the evacuation center that brought us to Onagawa. We had heard that the evacuees in the Central Gymnasium were open to visitors and still in desperate need of supplies. We visited the city at night to try to find our bearings. The rolling sea fog blanketing the port set the tone of the visit: the smell and damage were incredible. The small town center had been completely submerged not once, but several times as the waves withdrew and hit again. Then, with the lower town cleared, strong winds blew the cold sea air making life even more miserable for those who remained.

It may look like a harbor, but this was once a street

It may look like a harbor, but this was once a street

We visited a hospital on the hillside, which was now operating as a hospital once more, presumably having functioned as an evacuation center immediately after the tsunami. A man at the hospital gave us directions to the evacuation center, directions that turned out to be wrong. Luckily, however, we found an elderly couple walking through the rubble with some supplies. When we asked them where the evacuation center was, they told us that they lived there and were happy to take us there – and no doubt the lift up the rather steep hill would help too. With their introduction, we found ourselves not only with an appointment to return the next day, but also with a willing set of recipients to whom we could give our anti-mosquito supplies, which consisted of a suitcase of goods lugged to Sendai on the train – small, but neither cheap nor entirely useless.

Container Market

We came back to Onagawa the next day, unfortunately delayed by another appointment meaning that we would be interrupting the evacuees during their lunchtime. To avoid disturbing people who had more on their plate than we could ever imagine, we hunted down another project that we’d heard of before heading to Tohoku: a Container Market.

The Container Market Complex

The Container Market Complex

The shopowners there were friendly and called the project manager over for a chat – it turned out he lived right above the parking lot-like ground which now housed the ten prefabricated buildings (eight shops and two homes) that made up the trial site. Yoshihide Abe, from the Society of Commerce and Industry Young Entrepreneur Group,  had had a lot of media interest in recent days with the market opening on July 1st, just two days before we visited. He was young, charismatic and determined. As the shop owners rested in the afternoon sun, he told us about how the market was established and how he hoped it would bring energy back to the town.

The containers are Italian-made and apparently provided through the Association for Aid and Relief and cost around ¥800,000-1,000,000 a piece (including transport and installation). Apparently they were offered large Chinese-made containers at first, but they were rejected as they were simply just not homely enough by comparison. The containers in use have lighting and electrical sockets, take only an hour to put up, but are unmistakeably small – yet the project itself is ingenious.

Fruit and Vegetable store at the Container Market

Fruit and Vegetable store at the Container Market

Before the Container Market opened, residents of Onagawa would have to walk to the local (but distant) 7-11 convenience store, or make the half-hour drive into Ishinomaki to pick up their daily supplies. For those with cars, that maybe fine, but for those who must rely on the bus (and only the bus given the devastation suffered by the town’s train station), it is a welcome local stop. The stores include a flower store, greengrocer, butcher/fishmonger, snacks, electronics (whose goods include 42-inch televisions) and a kitchen producing both rice bowl meals.

It is a great testament to the strength of Onagawa’s community and will to survive that these stores can get up and running less than four months after their original buildings were destroyed by the tsunami. Abe gave the town a wonderful idea, and it wasn’t his only one: he also created the town’s post-tsunami local newsletter: Umineko Times (The Seagull Times). Entrepreneurs like him will be the people to pull the affected regions back onto their feet.

Evacuation Center

We headed up to the evacuation center in the afternoon, by which point volunteers were providing the residents with a concert as well as food. On the tennis courts next to the gymnasium which had become home to over 400 people was a Ground Self-Defense Force field bath. These baths have been a particular interest of mine, so I’ll just quickly state for the record that they are very well made, the materials used for the flooring feel excellent underfoot, and while I didn’t have a bath myself, I can assure you that they are essential to maintaining hygiene in the adverse circumstances faced by these refugees, as well as those lucky enough to still have homes.

SDF bath beside the Onagawa Central Gymnasium

SDF bath beside the Onagawa Central Gymnasium

Our first point of contact at the evacuation center was the management. We informed them about the supplies that we had carried up from Tokyo and they were happy to let us distribute them. While we had been told the night before that they would distribute them for us, on this return visit we were told to do so ourselves. It seemed strange at first, and it wasn’t what we wanted at all. We wanted the supplies to go to those who needed them the most, but instead we found ourselves with too few supplies and a captive audience.

There were still over 300 evacuees living out of the center in spaces no more than 2 meters squared (although some had double due to family size). Foam, tatami and cardboard was used to keep them from the cold gymnasium flooring and a number of residents had made as homely a space as one could imagine given the circumstances, but these people were by no means in the majority.

Flies are everywhere. These homemade traps are overwhelmed.

Flies are everywhere. These homemade traps are overwhelmed.

The residents on the first floor were better supplied than the residents on the second floor, with most of the living areas equipped with mosquito netting attached to a cardboard tube-made frame. This was essential considering the horrific abundance of flies. With the standing water and general damp and death that remained after the tsunami, it is little wonder that the affected areas have an insect problem. There are home-made fly traps everywhere, and we had brought some anti-fly and mosquito materials to distribute – they were in high demand: the general consensus was that mosquito coils couldn’t be used, fly-paper couldn’t be hung up, but traps, sprays and other such free-standing materials were essential.

We visited Onagawa nearly four months after the earthquake, and with shops, convenience stores and some markets open in Onagawa and Ishinomaki (with bus services to boot), the evacuees were expected to buy clothing detergent and other daily goods for themselves – the government was no longer providing these supplies, and the evacuee center appeared to only offer meals and board. Given that the tsunami had made so many of the evacuees unemployed, they were desperate to get what they could.

At first we provided some supplies to the couple that had helped us the night before. She described the selection process for moving into prefabricated housing (many of which were still being erected when we traveling around): it was a lottery. Everyone took tickets and either ‘lost’ or ‘won’ – she said that she had already lost three times. It was heartbreaking to hear. This lucky dip selection process seems fair, but the anticipation and disappointment for those who keep drawing losing tickets is unimaginable.

After talking to the lady, we moved into the other rooms to give out aid and try to discuss their situation. Everyone complained about the flies and everyone wanted to leave. All the rooms were uninsulated and had large windows along the walls – in those early summer temperature it seemed bearable, but this was only after they received much needed electrical fans. In winter, it must have been unbearably cold.

We tried to distribute aid to people every room, but when we came to the final room, filled mostly with the elderly, people came away empty-handed and unhappy. In the evacuation center, those with the ability to negotiate and pounce on opportunities got the best deals – just distributing our own aid, it was clear that people were trying to hoard what the could, and there is little harder than telling people who lost everything that you can’t give them what they want.

The elderly were the worst off. While most of the other rooms on the second floor had far less mosquito netting than the ground floor, they all at least had waist-high cardboard partitions to provide some modicum of privacy. This final room had nothing of the sort: no netting, no partitions, just futons and boxes of belongings.

Mosquito netting and cardboard frames as seen through the first floor window of the Onagawa Central Gymnasium

Mosquito netting and cardboard frames as seen through the first floor window of the Onagawa Central Gymnasium

It seemed that all volunteer-distributed aid had been told to distribute it themselves. Given the distribution of netting and quality materials, many seemed to have worked their way from the first floor to the second floor – that final room we visited was probably the final room on everyone’s list. Why didn’t the center’s staff control the distribution of aid? Perhaps it is because they need to maintain good relations with all the residents. In that final room there was an old lady who came too late – we had nothing to give her. She was in the room the whole time, but she didn’t come over to investigate and we were cleared out by the group of residents we offered the aid to. She was unhappy, clearly. As we talked to other residents, she came up to us twice to say that she hadn’t received anything. There was nothing to give her, nothing to say… I felt heart-broken, guilty and disillusioned all at once.

While there are many good things occurring in the evacuation centers: free internet usage (hogged by the kids), grassroots publishing, volunteer work, and visiting and possibly even resident aid workers, the reality of the situation remains harsh. Everyone is looking to gain a competitive advantage. They are all hoping to get out and into pre-fabricated housing as soon as possible, and the longer they stay in such a close-quarters communal environment, the more psychological strain they face. The government is working hard to provide these people with new housing, but there are so many of them that it’s no wonder they appeared to be failing. This is the most essential part of the recovery effort and in Onagawa it was clear that it was nowhere near complete: alongside the evacuation center, in a field surrounded by trees, evacuees from another town or village didn’t even have the luxury of a proper building for shelter – they were all housed in Shelterbox tents. I’m not really sure which would be a better place to wait for that lottery win.

Oshika Peninsula

We finished our tour of the Onagawa area with a trip down the Oshika Peninsula. We initially wanted to drive by the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant, which has been shut down since March 17th, but we found that the roads were completely closed. Indeed, all the roads into the Oshika Peninsula had suffered severe earthquake damage. In some places there had been landslides, in other places the road had been torn up by the seismic activity.

Restoration work underway at a village on the Oshika Peninsula

Restoration work underway at a village on the Oshika Peninsula

The peninsula is full of small communities which were isolated by the damaged roads and tsunami inundation in the aftermath of the earthquake. The whole peninsula is divided between Onagawa town and Ishinomaki city, but we were unable to access the Onagawa side. The damage here was also horrific, much like all the small villages dotted around the Sanriku coast, but it was good to see that clearance and restoration work was getting underway, largely with the help of volunteers. If these small communities can recover, then so too can larger towns like Onagawa. They suffer from a difference of scale, but the components are the same: rescue, survive, clear and rebuild.


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Other Videos

This video shows the inundation of Onagawa from the portside:

A team of Waseda University researchers visited the area on March 25th, producing an English video:

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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