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


Much of the southern Miyagi and northern Fukushima coastline is a flat plain. Before the tsunami, these plains were lines with pine trees and houses, but now they are waterlogged and desolate. While Ishinomaki, Minami-Sanriku, Onagawa and Kesennuma are covered in rubble, these towns on the plains have instead been covered in mud and water. One such town is Minami-Soma, which lies on the edge of the 30km radiation exclusion zone around Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. What future lies for these towns so utterly destroyed by the tsunami?


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Higashi-Matsushima was one of the first plains towns that we visited and it was immediately striking. JSW guest writer and friend of mine, Hisanori Hirata, wondered aloud: “Why has no-one cleared this area?” Unlike the other larger cities and towns we had visited, which were far drier by comparison, Higashi-Matsushima looked exactly like what we imagined a tsunami-hit area to look like: waterlogged areas covered in filth, with semi-intact houses torn through, and cars and boats lining the fields.

According to CATDAT, as of June 16th, 1,181 people were killed or missing because of the tsunami, the fourth-highest figure for Miyagi Prefecture (following Ishinomaki, Kesennuma and Minami-Sanriku). The wave reached heights of around 7m, sweeping away 4,791 homes. The earthquake generated land subsidence of around  0.43 m (1.41 ft). The wave poured over the sea wall and through the pine trees that give the town its name. The combined destruction of the earthquake and tsunami left 1,466 people living in the 40 evacuation centers in the city.

A ship tossed over a kilometer inland in Higashi-Matsushima

A ship tossed over a kilometer inland in Higashi-Matsushima

Higashi-Matsushima is perhaps most well-known here at JSW for being home to Matsushima Airbase, where the Air Self-Defense Force lost its entire complement of F-2B fighter trainers. We asked for permission to visit the base, but were sadly refused. Still, you can learn more about the damage suffered by the base here on JSW. The base is clearly visible to anyone who visits the town, and indeed appeared to have flung open its gates for residents (we could have just drove through the unattended entrance if we had wished). It was one of the only active areas in the town, besides some of the industrial plants (including a shipwright) on the seafront.

While Higashi-Matsushima was the first of such towns that we drove through, its condition at the time was by no means unique. It is difficult to imagine that people will rebuild here again, but if one of the lessons of previous Tohoku tsunamis holds true, it’s that people will keep coming back and rebuilding in tsunami-prone areas.


This video shows the tsunami as seen from the ASDF base, as well as the immediate aftermath:

This Al Jazeera report from an evacuation center in Higashi-Matsushima clearly shows the hardships faced in the aftermath of the tsunami:

* * * *

Sendai Coast

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We passed by Sendai Airport, which had been put back into working order by Japanese contractors with US military assistance. The area between the coast and the airport, a good kilometer or two, is barren – perhaps it was once the home to trees and some small buildings, but if there was anything there, it’s mostly been swept away. Police still direct traffic around nearby Iwanuma and the whole coastal area remains waterlogged. It is in this area, particularly Natori, that the tsunami videos showing a black mass swamping fields and traffic was filmed. It is also interesting to note just how close city life and the damage can be found, with cars amongst the trees next to the Sendai Port Interchange of the Sen-En Highway. Most of the city of Sendai, however, was not touched by the tsunami and remained relatively undamaged despite the magnitude of the earthquake felt there.

According to CATDAT, as of June 16th, 1,019 people were killed or missing in Natori compared to 181 in Iwanuma because of the tsunami, (Sendai Airport lies between the two cities) Natori’s losses are the fifth-highest figure for Miyagi Prefecture (following Ishinomaki, Kesennuma, Minami-Sanriku and Higashi-Matsushima). The wave reached heights of around 2m, sweeping away 2,745 homes in Natori and 705 in Iwanuma. The earthquake generated land subsidence of around  0.47 m (1.54 ft). Because of the affected regions of these towns being either industrial or agricultural, the combined destruction of the earthquake and tsunami left only 13 people from Natori living in the 2 evacuation centers in the city and none in Iwanuma, but it is most likely that many others are living in evacuation centers in a more central region of Sendai.


This video shows the tsunami as seen from inside Sendai airport:

This video shows the tsunami as it ran through and overflowed the rivers and swamped farmland in Natori

* * * *

Yamamoto and Shinchi

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We attempted to drive along the coastline from Yamamato down through to Minami-Soma, but we soon discovered that the lack of clearance in Higashi-Matsushima was also true on these other coastal towns: bridges were down and roads were submerged. At one point we even drove along what had once been the train track – its raised position and new coating of mud made it one of the driest roads in the area. Yamamoto, in Miyagi Prefecture, and Shinchi, in Fukushima Prefecture, were once connected by a bridge across an inlet on the coast, but that bridge was completely gone. Construction vehicles were already at work, however, on a replacement to improve access. In both towns, they had been swamped almost entirely – it is one of the first cases we saw of severe tsunami damage being visible from major thoroughfares. In Sakamoto, in Yamamoto, the footbridge connecting its two train station platforms was sheered away and was left hanging precariously over the unusable station.

The coastal towns of Yamamoto are now just flattened rubble or stacks of debris

The coastal towns of Yamamoto are now just flattened rubble or stacks of debris

According to CATDAT, as of June 16th, 714 people were killed or missing in Yamamoto, and 113 in Shinchi, which is much smaller in size. The wave reached run-up heights of around 8m in some parts, 2m in many others, sweeping away 2134 homes in Yamamoto and 548 in Shinchi. The combined destruction of the earthquake and tsunami left 398 people from Yamamoto living in the 5 evacuation centers in the town and 548 people from Shinchi living in its 5 evacuation centers.


This video shows NHK footage of an aerial survey of the damage running up from Shinchi to Yamamoto:

* * * *


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Minami-Soma was an obvious place to end our expedition: the city has been at the center of concerns over the effects of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant accident, and it too suffered from the impact of the tsunami. The tsunami damage in Minami-Soma was much like that we had seen along the coast on our run down, although clearance work seemed to have progressed more than in places such as Higashi-Matsushima. According to CATDAT, as of June 16th, 693 people were killed or missing because of the tsunami, the highest figure for Fukushima Prefecture. The wave reached heights of around 4m, sweeping away 4,682 homes. The combined destruction of the earthquake and tsunami left 2,627 people living in 87 evacuation centers in the city.

We visited the city hall, where a display had been fitted to show the radiation readings in the area… it was out of order that day. At the city hall’s Showa-era basement cafeteria, we were told that only one of us could have a rice-based dish – there simply wasn’t enough to give to everyone. The building was abuzz: people came to check the casualty list, but many more seemed to be there to request a change of residence – i.e. notification that they were moving away from the city.

We had been told that after many people fled in the immediate drama at the nearby nuclear power plant, many had come back, but perhaps that was only so they could retrieve their belongings and officially change their residence to a ‘safer’ town or city. With supplies a concern, not to mention the safety of their families, it is no surprise that many moved away – the stigma of being from Minami-Soma will continue to follow them, however. There was little reason for rice shortages at the city hall – the city is still accessible by road, but maybe we can take this of confirmation of the stories of truck drivers and companies being unwilling to put themselves at ‘risk’.

It should be noted that radiation levels in Minami-Soma (around 1.5 μSv/hr, April 30th) are far lower than nearby Iitate (around 7 μSv/hr, April 30th). According to the Ministry of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, at that rate, Minami-Soma residents are receiving a yearly exposure that is comparable to living in Guarapari in Brazil (a strange reference point), if assuming constant exposure for a full year, which is far more appealing than the 60,000 μSv/year that would be received by Iitate residents – which the government chart compares to the “upper limit of radiation dose permitted for radiation workers, police, and firefighters who engage in disaster prevention.” This is the difference 25 km makes… and perhaps a benefit from living in a low-lying area as opposed to the mountains.

A police checkpoint at the border of the 30km exclusion zone in Minami-Soma

A police checkpoint at the border of the 30km exclusion zone in Minami-Soma

Minami-Soma lies right on the edge of the enforced 30km exclusion zone around Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station. Although we expected to find the border splitting the town in half, what we found was that the border encompassed mostly agricultural land in the town – there were no visible cases of one home being forced to evacuate while their neighbors chose to stay. Indeed, it seemed like much of the houses around the border were now abandoned.At each of the roads into the evacuation zone, we came across police checkpoints. The coastal road was blocked by a barrier, although the nearby businesses were still running, but the main thoroughfares were manned by several policemen, a big step up from the initial exclusion procedures that were unenforced. All the policemen wore surgical masks, but no other special clothing. The license plates on the vehicles are registered to Naniwa, Osaka Prefecture – it was unclear if that mean that these policemen were also from Osaka, but it seems likely.

While much of Minami-Soma was undamaged by the tsunami, unlike the other towns and cities above, the nuclear crisis has compounded the problems faced in its recovery. It is hard to imagine that people will choose to rebuild their damaged homes in a city where many seem to be fleeing. While much of the city appeared to be going about its business, farming and working, Fukushima’s agricultural livelihood is being hit very hard by government bans and public fear. Of all the towns we visited on our tour of the affected areas, all of them seemed to be looking towards the future, towards recovery and strength. It is hard to imagine that Minami-Soma will have such a bright future while concerns over radiation override ties to the land.


This is a video of the tsunami at Minami-Soma as seen from the road:

Here is the mayor of Minami-Soma’s plea for help discussing the lack of supplies faced by the city on March 24th:

Finally, here is a series of movies showing a film crew as they explore the future of Minami-Soma (the next part will play automatically):

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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