The Big Roundtable

After the Tsunami

February 7, 2014

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In 2007 I moved to Kamaishi, a tiny city on the northeast coast of Japan. The mountains were small but seemed huge as they crowded in from all sides, and they were beautiful. The seafood was so fresh it may as well have jumped directly into your mouth, though I never got the hang of urchin.

My social life in Kamaishi could be aptly summed up by my choice for a favorite barstool: a regular seat behind the counter of an imported-liquor store run by an elderly Japanese man. I made friends with him when we discovered a mutual love of sea shanties, of all things.

Aside from my group, a small clique of white English teachers, twenty-somethings did not hang around in Kamaishi. We knew just one, a student in our adult English class named Yurie Endo. She looked so young that it took weeks—to our great shock—to discover she was our peer. But she was from Otsuchi, the next town up and we didn’t see her outside of class. Everyone else our age toughed out their long Japanese workdays and, on weekends, fled inland to more exciting cities. A couple of years after I left, Yurie moved to New Zealand.

Kamaishi was past its prime. It grew well beyond its fishing village roots when magnetite was discovered in the hills back in the 1700’s, and it began producing steel. The steel operations were significant enough to warrant two World War II poundings from American battleships. And after the war, production and population both skyrocketed. The city nearly reached 100,000 people before the steel mill was shuttered, in1988. But during my time, there were just over 40,000 people in the city. Its four high schools merged into two. They aimed for a Pittsburg; they got a Butte.

All the ominous social threats to Japan’s way of life—an aging population, inward migration, urbanization at the cost of rural communities—were on full display in Kamaishi. I left after a year. I told a few people I’d be back often, but spent a lot of that last train ride through the mountains wondering if I had lied. Two and a half years went by.

Then, at 1 a.m. on March 11, 2011, I was awake in my Brooklyn apartment when a red banner popped up on Reuters. The news: an earthquake of at least 9.0 had hit off the northeast coast of Japan. Reports were slow at first but soon there was too much to process.

I watched a stream of footage from a Japanese station. They were showing, again and again, a wave crushing a fishing trawler into an overpass. I slowly recognized the top of a building. I had been staring at the footage and ignoring the writing to the side of the screen, as I didn’t know enough kanji characters to bother.

That night, I knew two—Kama and Ishi.

I watched the same two clips of the wave hitting, over and over and over, in the same way I had once watched a clip of a plane hitting a building. I kept watching until 6 a.m. Then I began trying to find some way back. I couldn’t think. I had to get back. I’d take on any job, carry whatever needed carrying, and then I’d sleep on the ground. I had to go back. I didn’t know why.

**

It took ten months. My train pulled into the station near midnight and I stepped onto the platform. The first thing I noticed was that Kamaishi smelled brinier. It was darker, too, than it ever had been. The cold and the quiet, taken together, made for a profound stillness.

I skipped the two taxis outside the station, mostly to prove to myself I knew where I was going. In the daylight there were a few cars, but they were all passing through. Kamaishi had been decimated. Ten months hadn’t provided enough time to tear down the mutated steel frames that listed over rubble that hadn’t yet been cleared.

Kamaishi has survived destruction multiple times—those battleships, other tsunamis—but always during a period of growth, always with the national government backing steel production. The plan this time was the same as ever: rebuild everything in the same place.

Yet why rebuild an aging, declining city? Why come back to the same place? I had seen the entropy for myself, and that was before everything was destroyed. What reason could anyone have to stay now?

I wanted to ask Kenji Sano, the old man at the liquor store.

Sano and I first met when someone told me about an import food and liquor store downtown. And when the proprietor, seventy-six years old at the time, saw a new white guy entering his shop, he lit up. Few foreigners make it to Kamaishi, 275 miles north of Tokyo along the coast, and we regularly caused passing drivers to do a double take.

Sano invited me behind the counter, sat me down, plied me with sake, and started talking music. By wild chance, we shared a taste in sea shanties and Irish drinking songs. Sano reached into a crate overflowing with assorted scraps of personal history and pulled out a cassette of his mother, Hana, singing, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. The melody barely peeked out from a Japanese-accented warbling.

I sat behind the counter talking and drinking with Sano more nights than I remembered to actually buy something. He proudly showed off the Shakespeare reading-practice textbook he had kept since high school.

Sano’s penchant for entertaining foreigners began when he was in high school and Japan surrendered to end World War II. His father, Seitaro, expanded the sake shop to include imported liquor, for the Americans occupying the harbor. It fell to English-loving Kenji to cater to foreign customers. He still proudly shows off the photo of him meeting his first foreigner, a Dutch merchant with a long-forgotten name.

Japan’s steel industry had kicked off In 1857, when the first western-style blast furnace was built in Kamaishi. The nearby mountains were rich in ore, and in 1875 the Meiji government bought all the furnaces in town and created a single government-owned mill. The village swelled into a city around the mill as the company built schools and boats. Seitaro made a living selling lunch to steelworkers.

When the mill fell on hard times and had to cut back on labor, Seitaro’s business suffered with it. Gambling on vice, Seitaro started his sake shop in 1926. The shop was destroyed the first time by a tsunami in 1933. Sano was only two years old, but he remembers the precursory earthquake and clutching at his mother’s breast as they waited out the waves in a hillside graveyard.

The 1933 tsunami killed 164 of Kamaishi’s 31,637 people—a successful evacuation compared with 1896, when a wave had cut the population from 5,687 to 2,780. As in 1896, though, in 1933 most of the buildings in the city were made of wood. The entire wharf was leveled, downtown in shambles. Sano & Co. was gone and the family had to stay with an uncle who lived inland. When Seitaro saved enough to rebuild, he took his love of garden arrangement into account, building his shop and home in such a way that they formed a small courtyard around a forty-year-old Japanese plum tree.

On July 14, 1945, the United States attacked Japan’s main island with a naval bombardment. Kamaishi was the target of the first surface-to-surface strike, and three American battleships lobbed sixteen-inch shells at the mill. Sano was at high school—the same building where I would much later teach his grandson—when an errant shell destroyed the family shop again.

Sano told these stories cheerfully. This was a little unnerving for the war story—I only figured out later that Grampa Sheehy’s ship wasn’t involved—but the part where Kamaishi had been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times was nothing more than a historical fact to me. The kind of thing old people have seen because they are old.

Kamaishi bounced back in the post-war industrial boom. In 1936, the population was 40,388; when the steel mill reopened as Nippon Steel in the ’50s, Kamaishi peaked at around 90,000 people. Seitaro rebuilt his shop, again, in 1952. The wooden shack on a cart path was replaced with a concrete building on a paved Main Street. This was the building I would come to know, the one that I couldn’t find in late 2011. In 1988 Nippon Steel shut down and the remaining steel industry focused on manufacturing finished goods such as high-tensile cable and pachinko balls. By 2011, the population had declined to pre-war levels, at about 40,000.

I found Sano in his newly opened temporary shop, a room in a pre-fabricated dorm for businesses. He was eighty and did not look noticeably older than I remembered. He wasn’t slower, just a little more occupied, as if he were constantly pausing to check the clock.

On March 11, 2011, he told me, two Filipino sailors had just bought some brandy from Sano, toasted him, and knocked back. At the exact second the brandy hit their tongues, the earthquake started. Sano knew immediately that something was different from other earthquakes and rushed the sailors to get back to their ship. For the first time in his life, the quaking knocked bottles off the shelves.

When the glass began shattering, Sano and his son, Shigeru, stopped trying to save the wares and fled. They did not have far to go to get to a temple for shelter: the same temple Sano’s mother carried him to during the 1933 tsunami. Sano showed me the 2011 high-water mark, just a foot past the temple’s decorative wall, and just past two Buddha statues carved with the names of the 1896 tsunami’s victims.

The latest tsunami left 1,086 dead or missing. As of November 2011, Kamaishi’s population was 37,942.

**

Kamaishi is in the north, roughly at the same latitude as New York City. Colder climates historically meant thicker walls, and buildings in the north of Japan have always been more stable in an earthquake. The epic five-minute 9.0 quake in 2011 did little damage to Kamaishi, which was about fifty miles northwest of the epicenter, but the people knew the water would come.

There was time to walk to the nearest shelter as warnings honked out over the city public address system. The fearful fled from the harbor in a panic, dazed by the unprecedented shaking. The cautious followed the blaring directions. The nonchalant stayed put.

The shape of the city spared most of the residential areas from tsunami damage. Mountains funnel most of Kamaishi into a snaky river valley that flattens into a head as it meets the harbor. Downtown wraps around the northern bank of the harbor like the snake’s unhinged jaw; the massive Nippon Steel factory dominates the larger southern bank. The majority of Kamaishi’s residents were safe, holed up in shelters far away from the destruction when the water arrived, thirty minutes after the earthquake.

Thirty-two year old Yoko Takahashi lived in her family’s small inn by the train station, up the river valley just about as far as the flooding reached. Yoko’s nearest shelter was a thirty-second walk away, the Kyoiku Center, a tall building where I used to teach adult classes. Around 200 people crammed into it. The evening of the tsunami, the area around the building was undamaged enough for Yoko to bring extra futons from the inn, but she could only get in through the kitchen because of damaged doors. The cluster of humanity stayed in the building for ten days without power or water. The supermarket across the street sold out in a day. Phones, both land and cell, were down for days. After four days, the national phone company, NTT, got one landline open in Kamaishi. The line for the phone was four hours long.

While I was dazed and weeping miles away in Brooklyn, Yoko was twiddling her thumbs just a kilometer away from the waves, unaware, and waiting to hear what was going on outside. Throughout the first night, she never expected the damage to be bad.

Eriko Kurisawa was a student at the Kyoiku Center, quiet but quick to smile. She worked at a pharmacy and lived with her family in Unosumai, a village near Kamaishi. When the earthquake hit, she was at the pharmacy. The stunned workers gathered outside and their boss sent them home. Along Eriko’s way, walls were collapsing and people were in a daze from the massive quake. Eriko got home, far from the ocean, and did not know there had been a tsunami. She walked her dog and went to bed, assuming her family was not home because they had been stranded on the other side of the tunnels, which close after major earthquakes.

The next day, when her brother and his children got to the house, barefoot and shaking, she realized that the earthquake was not the end of things. She walked into town to get information and see for herself and found that Unosumai had been inundated. The water had completely covered a tall tsunami wall and a steady sheet of overflow crashed down onto town. Eriko found her sister alive in Kamaishi, but it took seven days to find her father’s body in a temporary mortuary.

Sano Masashi normally worked for Kamaishi’s department of fishing and agriculture, but his job at city hall placed him in charge of one of the city’s eighty-eight shelters, which together housed 9,800 people. Masashi lived in the shelter for three days before returning home, but managing the shelter was his job for three months. He set a curfew and rations. To foster communication and community, he set up the cots in clusters and forbade solitary drinking.

Some shelters were open for four months. The temporary housing, barracks-like prefabs that sprang up in every open field in Kamaishi, was installed over time. The first openings went to families and the elderly, but as the priority system became more muddled, Masashi had to deal with disgruntled refugees.

Kamaishi High School, my old employer, opened its gym as a shelter. For three days, 400 of its 500 students lived at school, along with people from the surrounding neighborhood. Aftershocks terrorized the darkened gym. The huddled people moved out from under the swinging lights. The students made room for families, and it was the students who ran the shelter, handing out food and blankets, carrying buckets from a water station to flush the flow-less toilets. One father came to the shelter to be with his son, a student at the school. He took two days to tell the boy that his mother was dead, waiting to make sure his son was getting along all right.

After three days, most students could go home. But others had no homes, or no way to get to their homes. My old supervisor and primary co-teacher, Hideharu Sakamoto, lived at school with his students for three weeks.

Sakamoto was a homeroom teacher for a senior class. In Japan, being a homeroom teacher takes on elements of being a guardian. College admission decisions are sent to the homeroom teacher. In the rare event that a kid gets nabbed by a cop, he’ll be taken to his homeroom teacher instead of a parent for the talking-to. Sakamoto had been with his kids for all three years of high school. He went home just once—sprinting the last five kilometers—to check on his parents. His hometown, Okirai, lost more than 1,000 of its 10,000 people and was damaged so badly that Sakamoto believed rebuilding would be impossible. Yet he did not stay in Okirai, but returned to live with his homeroom students at school.

**

My first day back, I walked along the wharf. When I left, the close-set Japanese buildings, all blocky and disrespectful of each other’s personal space, always hid the geography, fencing off any view of the rest of town. After the tsunami, with structures missing like knocked-out teeth, I could see across and through town. It was smaller than I had ever imagined in my head.

Kamaishi’s main street had been pockmarked with boarded-up storefronts even before the waves did their work. Now the vacant stores had become empty shells filled with debris. In other places, empty lots marked where the buildings had already been torn down. A few places seemed functional, and there were even two or three stores that had been rebuilt, though not yet occupied. Steel security gates still hung askew here and there, bulging inward, as if they had been hit by trucks.

In the sunlight, that haunting stench of brine had a twinge of rot. Tsunamis come in multiple waves, and the water does not simply drain back into the ocean right away. The brackish harbor seeped into wood and sank into dirt while it was on land, making downtown smell like the nethers of a pier. The earthquake, in its nigh-omnipotence, dropped the entire coast by about a meter. So high tide rose now to the lip of the wharf, as flush as the edge of an infinity pool. The ocean borders of the city were turned into tide pools, with barnacles and slippery ocean slime.

Tsunamis are an application of force that is too much for the senses alone to comprehend. The ultra-kinetic liquid surges forward as fast as a jet in the open sea, and while it slows in the shallows, it still has power. Everyone I spoke to in English referred to the tsunami as the “tsunami attack,” not a thing that happened, but a thing that did something terrible.

The first wave of the tsunami dismantled Kamaishi’s brand new seawall, which had only recently been confirmed by Guinness as the deepest in the world. When the water reached land, it was less wave, more surge. It peeked over harbor walls as if it were overflowing out of a tub. In the first seconds, the flooding was slow. The water burbled around buildings, following the streets. One intersection on Oodori, the main street, found itself inundated from three different directions. The destruction increased exponentially when the water was high enough to float cars like lethal bath toys.

The ocean continued to swell, the floodwater gained speed, and buildings began to fail. Footage of the tsunami is invariably from a top-down perspective, with the water rising. Survivors who fled the oncoming ocean saw things the other way around. The water came over walls, from above. It knocked things down and trampled them.

I found Party’s, one of my favorite bars, up closer to the harbor. I only recognized it because of the bend in the street in front of it. When I lived there, I was friendly enough with the bartender—Mr. Party, we called him, to explain the odd grammar of the bar’s name—that on one drunken night, when he came back from the bathroom to find me behind the bar, he laughed it off and let me finish making the next round. After the tsunami, the bar itself was uprooted, broken, and stranded in the middle of the room, surrounded by more debris than could have possibly originated inside the building.

The water rose two stories in Kamaishi. As ruins, the second floors were as bad as the firsts, layered with flotsam. On the wharf I found a hotel where I had once attended a work party. The second-floor event room, where we had eaten sushi straight from the fish, was chaos. A buoy was tangled in the second-floor flower terrace outside. The third floor and above were untouched. I found one room full of survival rations, and sampled some that weren’t expired. They were bland.

Shin Hiramatsu, who came to work at Kamaishi High School after I had left, showed me the escape routes in the hills, narrow paths on top of the concrete latticing that reinforces the steep slopes. We discussed the future of the city. Shin told stories of how people died. Many were elderly and simply did not bother to flee, thinking they would be safe on a second floor. Even some of those on third floors died from exposure after being trapped without power or heat.

I recognized the spot where someone had stood with a camera to capture the scenes I once watched so many times on YouTube. Where the water had been worst, the northern section of downtown, the buildings were beyond salvage, though most remained in some state of dilapidation. Some were missing first floors, balancing on naked steel frames. Much of the steel was twisted, bent by force or bowed from weight. Recovery crews had cleared the flotsam and removed the houses that had uprooted and lumbered down the streets, but the buildings that stayed in place during the flooding remained ten months later. Red and yellow flags were stabbed into the ground in front of the buildings—red to indicate that the owner wanted the building torn down, yellow to preserve. I know these things take time, but one of those giant bulldozers from an open pit mine could have taken care of things in a few days. The buildings still standing, desecrated and left to rot, appalled me.

The Kasshi River is shallow where the bridge crosses it, and walking to interviews I would stop to watch the fish. They scrape the bottom as they fight the current. Sometimes they rest. Sometimes they die resting, held in position by the rocks. The white ones are the dead ones. You can’t really tell them apart from the resting ones otherwise, as their tails still seem to sway in the current. “Keep going, dammit!” I wanted to yell at the resting ones. I think they won’t know when they’re about to die. They’ll just fade out.

**

Yurie Endo never planned on moving home, but left her new life in New Zealand to move into a trailer-sized temporary shelter with her mom, whom she had managed to reach on the phone ten days after the waves.

If the hollowed walls of Kamaishi were like a body left to rot in the surf, Yurie Endo’s town of Otsuchi, a half-hour drive north, was nothing but a pile of bleached bones.

Unlike Kamaishi in its river valley, Otsuchi was flat and wide. It didn’t have a seawall to make the tsunami stutter, and the unimpeded ocean churned through the town. Then the gas from the obliterated gas stations floated to the top of the water and caught on fire. Ten months later, the entire town looked like ancient ruins, nothing but broken foundations peeking out from the dirt. The rest had been cleared away. It was just a plain patch of dirt trailing off into the ocean and unsheltered from a sharp, lonely wind.

Yurie picked me up to see her non-existent hometown. She still looked far younger than her age, even if no one could mistake her for a child anymore. The drive was one I used to make, through the mountain tunnels once a week to teach at my second school before they merged. Nothing was familiar; an overpass that had been under construction the whole year I was there was finished, but the villages it was supposed to connect to were gone.

Yurie didn’t think they’d even bother rebuilding there. Maybe the town would be rebuilt up in the mountains, but when the people and place are different, can it really be called rebuilding? Could a New Otsuchi really be called a continuation? Would it really be Otsuchi? Otsuchi Jr.? She didn’t have an answer.

On the way back, we stopped at a restaurant in a tent, set up to feed the cleanup crews. They were still tearing down the buildings on the edge of town, which had not been plowed over by the water but still effectively destroyed. Yurie wandered down the side of the road and bowed in front of a small makeshift shrine to Kannon. A buddha usually depicted as female, Kannon is treated as a goddess of compassion and mercy. Guanyin, her Chinese counterpart, is often compared to the Virgin Mary.

Religions are not mutually exclusive in Japan. A saying goes that Japanese people are born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist. Different religions are different ways of going about different parts of life. Faith is not a matter of interpreting the gods and attempting to keep them happy. The massive statue of Kannon that guards Kamaishi harbor failed to protect anyone, which did not stop someone from crafting the small shrine in Otsuchi. Yurie bowed to the shrine because it was the thing to do; someone had built it. It was the same reason the cleanup crews were working so hard to clear a field, the same reason Sakamoto didn’t even conceive of spending a night away from his students. It’s what you do.

Japan has a strong sense of social harmony, and the people readily accept their roles. When I would ask my students what they wanted to be when they grew up, I was always amused to hear responses like convenience store worker or gas station attendant. Where an American child might dream of being an astronaut or NFL MVP, there is no such everyone-can-be-the-best attitude in Japan. But everyone can be the best at what they do, if they dedicate their lives to it. Job and existence are one and the same; a teacher is not a teacher if he does not stay by his students, and if he’s not a teacher then he’s nothing.

Society, as a result, returns the favor. The thousands of people still living in temporary housing aren’t paying a single yen, even for the appliances and TVs they got. Looting after the tsunami was almost unheard of. People paid for their food at the supermarkets, waited patiently in outdoor lines next to unguarded piles of dry goods, and didn’t steal money from the wide-open boxes of cash that stood in for the inoperable electronic registers.

The towns will be rebuilt and people will return, to some degree. It’s what you do.

**

Chiba Atsushi was playing table tennis at a senior center when the earthquake struck. Despite his seventy-one years and a barrel-like belly, decades in the making, Chiba was one of the first people to return to work. As a coroner, he volunteered to search for bodies. He likes to think that his long career has given him the ability to read the last moments of a life in a fresh body. The crushed and trapped corpses he found seemed to be reaching upward.

As the water receded and search and rescue started, a car horn brayed incessantly because a fire engine had crushed the car’s hood in exactly the wrong way. The forced-air bawling only stopped when the horn blew itself dead. There were more pressing matters than to separate two totaled vehicles. In the end, 886 people were killed. Twenty-eight bodies remained unidentified and 172 people missing. The missing were most likely swept out to sea. One girl’s body, bloated and unidentifiable except for her high school uniform, washed up in Fukushima, more than 100 miles away.

Chiba spent forty days preparing 300 bodies. Normally, he might see twenty in a month. Chiba worked from 6 a.m. to nightfall, as he had no electricity. The bodies were preserved on dry ice shipped in from cities to the south. As he cleaned them and dressed them, he spoke to the bodies, telling them that their families were on the way. He lied to some of them. After Chiba took DNA samples for later identification, the John Does were cremated, the ashes stacked in numbered boxes in local temples.

Finding bodies in the mortuary was the hardest on families, Chiba said. The lingering hope that a loved one might be stuck somewhere in a shelter invariably made the discovery of the body so much more harsh and sudden. One mother and father visited their infant’s corpse every day while it was in the mortuary, the mother apologizing over and over that when the wave hit she didn’t have the physical strength to hold on to her child.

The stories of survival seem to all be luck: a man trapped under a car that saved him from being crushed by a building; an old woman grabbing a tree on the third time the tsunami had washed her out and in from sea; a family reunited after surviving in eerily similar and unlikely ways after the people around them didn’t make it. The “Kamaishi Miracle,” as it was labeled in town, was a parade of Unosumai grade school students who hadn’t heard the warnings because the earthquake knocked out the school’s announcement system, but, after having evacuation procedures drilled into them at school safety presentations, took off to the hills on instinct and snowballed everyone in their path to come along.

Every story I heard that involved a sentient decision ended in death. Running back to get something after the first wave, putting faith in the seawall, rejecting the warnings as a boy’s cry of wolf: bam. Natured. The only people who lived either gave into fear or instinct and ran or were just dumb-lucky.

The favorite restaurant of we gaijin was a tiny three-tabled shop called Hiroshima. The owner and cook, who only ever referred to himself as Mastaa, made us his signature tomato ramen every week. He would give us free wine and free appetizers. Our welcomes and farewells to foreigners were at Mastaa’s every time, without fail. Mastaa fled the first wave of the tsunami but returned to get something from his shop when the second attack hit. Mastaa was the only friend of mine to die. I had spent weeks thinking that everyone could be dead. It was hard to mourn Mastaa when the news of his death came with so much relief that it was the only one.

There is no sense to be taken from it, no lesson we don’t already know. Perhaps cell-phone cameras and YouTube will burn the threat of natural disasters into our collective memories in a more effective way than just throwing some names on a memorial and vowing to never forget. But bringing technology into the equation just highlights how technology didn’t do anything against thirty feet of water deciding to take a stroll downtown. Nothing we have, except for knowledge, is effective against that. Which is kind of a cop-out, like saying the best armor against a bullet is to not be in its path.

**

Takemi Wada worked at the Kyoiku Center as a translator, taught Japanese lessons, and thoroughly enjoyed helping and hanging out with Kamaishi’s small troupe of foreigners. She accompanied us to banks, doctors, and cell-phone stores. She saved my ass multiple times as my speed dial for emergency translations. A middle-aged mother of three, her middle daughter a student of mine, Takemi was still spry and funny. She embodied being genki, a word that translates as a combination of happy, energetic, upbeat, and excitable. Takemi would come to karaoke with us, walking down the street with her escort of three young American “boyfriends” like the queen of Kamaishi.

I heard Takemi’s story over dinner. Wrapped in a shawl, Takemi was slightly more measured and patient than she was when I lived in town. She was still disposed to be genki, but unlike before, it seemed to cost her. Still, she got the waiter talking, too. He pulled out his cell phone to show photos of the restaurant; it had been spared the worst of the damage when the sidewalk’s arcade collapsed and folded down over the windows to make unintentional armor.

A couple of years after I left Japan, Takemi had moved a bit south to her hometown of Rikuzentakata to be with her parents. She was in Kamaishi for the day when the earthquake hit, taking a foreign friend for a yearly physical. After the shaking stopped, Takemi immediately made for Rikuzentakata. The main coastal road was closed, so she went the long route over the mountain roads. She had no radio and no cell reception, so she did not even know that there had been a tsunami. She came to a traffic jam by nightfall, and asked the police officer if there had been a traffic accident.

You weren’t listening to the radio?

No.

There was a tsunami.

Then why are you stopping cars here?

The tsunami reached here.

You’re kidding! Anyway, I need to go home; my elderly parents are there.

Listen, ma’am, please don’t panic. The city of Rikuzentakata is gone. Devastated.

Takemi instinctively didn’t believe him. She was rushing home to help her parents right some upturned furniture, maybe fix a window. It finally hit her when she got out of the car to walk and see for herself.

Rikuzentakata was indeed devastated, one of the most savagely hit towns along the entire coast. No images could ever do it justice; the frame of a photo or piece of footage necessarily must leave something out. Everything was ruined.

Takemi’s mother had been immobile from a stroke and Takemi is sure that her father chose to stay and die with her. Takemi’s seventeen-year-old son, Shu, survived (her two older children lived away from home). He had been at school, near the edge of town away from the ocean, making up for poor work. Sixteen of his friends died because they were hanging out downtown. Shu helped four old people up a hill to safety; the fifth was pulled from his grasp by the tsunami. He still wakes up screaming from night terrors.

Takemi found her father’s body. Part of his head was missing and the body was so badly damaged that Takemi was the only one in her family to recognize it. One bag’s description sounded like Takemi’s mother. A policeman opened the bag, but the body was too bloated to be recognized. Takemi asked to see the arm to check for some surgical scars her mother had. As the policeman lifted the arm, it fell off. It was not Takemi’s mother. She never found her mother. Bodies were found washed up and under rubble for months. After two months Takemi could no longer look at corpses every day and gave a DNA sample to be tested against the unidentified.

Takemi showed me Rikuzentakata ten months after. The drive took us along the Sanriku coast, swooping around and through jagged mountains that plunge into the surf. Some of the pocket villages were safe, others completely destroyed when their small harbor channeled, trapped, and churned the waves. Less of Rikuzentakata remained than Otsuchi. More than 6,500 of 8,000 houses were gone. Wide and flatly open to the ocean, the town was little more than fallow dirt, almost as if someone were ready to build.

Takemi cried when she showed me where her house used to be, picking out the spot despite there being no traces of any property boundaries. About 200 meters away, the gym I once sat in to watch a taiko drum festival still stood, though alone. The wall was blown out where there was once a stage. The gym was serving as a shelter for hundreds when the water came. There were three survivors. They survived by grabbing the beams of the ceiling and watching as people, debris, and cars swirled around beneath them and the tsunami covered the roof above them, trapping them in a pocket of air. Takemi pointed out where a cake shop used to stand; in the months after the tsunami, it was used as a temporary mortuary for dogs and cats. It was where Takemi found her dog.

Farther south, in the city of Kesennuma, she showed me the hollowed-out shells of warehouses and factories. There were just fields of broken buildings and hideously out-of-place boats.

My tour was on Coming of Age Day, the holiday where all the kids who will turn twenty throughout the year celebrate their newfound ability to get wasted. The new men wear slick suits, the new women outrageously colorful—but still basically traditional—kimonos. They wear every gaudy style of hair and makeup. When we stopped at a mall in Kesennuma for lunch, the new adults were everywhere. They were happy and thrilled to come of age. Giddy, even. They had made it to adulthood, to the first coming of age since the tsunami.

Takemi, along with many others in town, was invited to the Netherlands by a community exchange program to speak about the tsunami. She encountered there a non-Japanese idea, that trauma and depression are ailments and can be treated. Silent, withdrawn acceptance, the usual Japanese way, she learned, is not the only option.

One friend of Takemi’s lost his children, wife, family, home, and business, and stopped speaking. Another woman lost her daughter and begged a police officer to kill her. Stories like this in mind, Takemi decided to go back to school and become a trauma counselor.

**

Walking to the train station on the last day of my visit, I made a point to definitively find the old plot of Sano & Co. It was an easy task because Sano had staked a sign into the ground where it once stood, pointing visitors to the temporary shop. I stared a while at the gravel space that used to be my favorite place in town. When Sano’s daughter first returned after the tsunami attack, she didn’t cry to see the destroyed building. She did cry when she saw that her grandfather’s plum tree, the one that had lived 120 years—through five tsunamis and two shellings—did not survive.

At 37,020 in November of 2013, the population of Kamaishi had dropped around 900 people since the November 2011 census. While this loss is relatively staunched compared to the months immediately after the disaster, the city needs growth. If it does not grow, it will be impossible to say whether it was the tsunami or the economics that were ultimately responsible for a city diminishing and dwindling into a village.

Part of that strong Japanese sense of society is the faith that others will do their job without interference or encouragement. As a result, many in Kamaishi simply trust that something will get done. Eventually. Over half a billion dollars in national funds were quickly allocated to rebuilding the titanic seawall. The wall, went the logic, will assuage the fears of residents and shipping companies, keeping the population close to the coast and renewing the push to make Kamaishi a significant international port. This decision is baffling when fully considered. The first wall, hailed for the records it set, provided no noticeable protection, and may have even redirected some water to smaller, less protected harbors. Even considering the more general purpose of the seawall, to create a larger and calmer harbor to accommodate container ships, the first wall was a failure. In the two years the wall was functional before the waves, the port saw no container ships.

The debate to arise from these sorts of rebuilding expenditures was if the country should even focus on rebuilding shrinking, aging cities. When does throwing billions of dollars at Kamaishi’s port infrastructure start to feel like cracking open the ribcage of a ninety-eight-year-old to massage a stopped heart? Who gets to sign that DNR, the government or the people of Kamaishi?

Kamaishi’s 2014 budget is $1.06 billion, and calls for $4.2 million to demolish buildings that still stand, decrepit, as the third anniversary approaches. Meanwhile, new buildings are beginning to sprout downtown. The new and the ruined stand side by side, a dissonance indicative of the city’s rebuilding process. The temporary housing and stores were supposed to exist for two years, but then what? Shin and Sano both joked that everyone would just get an extension. They did.

At the city government level, the process of rebuilding relies on attracting new businesses to downtown. Fishing would be the preferred industry to grow, with $6.3 million to port disaster relief and $43.6 million for reviving and maintaining fisheries, but Kamaishi is just over a hundred miles up the coast from Fukushima, the wrecked nuclear plant. As news of the ongoing containment issues steadily leak out, the rest of the country is still wary about any food, particularly fish, from the region. Distributors and canneries in Kamaishi bought Geiger counters to try and assuage fears, but a stigma remains. City Hall, meanwhile, is banking on city history to lure in new steel business. Yet while much of the infrastructure—namely, the port—is in place, a half-destroyed downtown, a fully destroyed seawall, and the abandoned mill loom over perspective companies.

A new mall opened in downtown Kamaishi, and will undoubtedly be a shot in the city’s consumer arm. If nothing else, it will be a place for all that through-traffic to stop. The mall, however, is a blow to small business owners who have yet to reopen. Sano is still trying to get his shop rebuilt, and fears it just won’t happen. City Hall wants new businesses started by young people. As a strategy it makes perfect sense to fuel new growth with new blood, but in the context of a city that was hemorrhaging its youth population, where are these kids with big ideas going to come from?

Before the tsunami, Sano’s son, Shigeru, came back to take over the store. Yoko Takahashi returned to the family inn after ten years away. Part of the culture is to return home and take over the family business. This element of tradition has been at odds with modernization. People are moving further from home, geographically and culturally. But the tradition still exists, and the Japanese ethos is not one to shy from obligation.

Yurie Endo left a job at an industrial support and training center in New Zealand to come back to a world of sadness that was barely recognizable as her home. In May of 2012, she teamed up with some friends to start a non-profit dedicated to the reconstruction. Using her professional experience, Yurie consults with small businesses looking to rebuild. She was out the door and off the island, an extreme example of coastal Japan’s demographic disaster. Now she is not only one of those young people City Hall so desperately needs, but she is bringing her energy and ideas to old businesses.

Why stay in a city like Kamaishi? Because a city isn’t a body that eventually ages to a point where saving it for a few more months is a waste. There is always room for a city to come back; a city can be rebuilt. Kamaishi will be different, whatever it turns into, and right now has the advantage of a clean slate. There are old people who have rebuilt before, young people with new things to build, and 39,000 people who want to stay. All this in a culture where, if you’ve got a job you don’t ask questions.

Kamaishi was home, to me, for a short time. But I was there long enough for the city to rub off a bit. I went back without really understanding why, other than it was just what I had to do.

Why rebuild? That’s what Kamaishi does.

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