• Nicola Chilton

Five Weeks On - Part Two: The Aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

Part two of the story of the journey I made in April 2011 to deliver aid to some of the hardest hit areas of Japan after the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. You can read part one here.


Five weeks after the tsunami, the small city of Minami Soma, once famous for its 1000-year-old samurai horse-racing festival, was a much quieter place than it should have been. With a population of seventy-five thousand, it should have been a bustling town, with people working, shopping, going to school. But it wasn’t. A closer look revealed that the convenience stores were closed, their windows covered with newspaper to hide the empty shelves within. The few people visible in the streets were dressed in the dark green uniforms and helmets of Japan’s Self Defense Forces. This was the outer circle of the Nuclear Exclusion Zone. The centre of Minami Soma is about 25 km from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, but other parts of the town are well within the 20 km zone. Residents of the 30 km area were told to stay inside their homes. Residents of the 20 km area has already been evacuated, and at the stroke of midnight on April 22nd, a new law was introduced making it illegal for anyone to enter the 20 km exclusion zone, resident or not. Each household was given two hours to send one member inside to retrieve items from their homes, before being ordered back to the evacuation centres. As of midnight, anyone attempting to enter the zone would be fined JPY 100,000 and face possible arrest. In spite of the stern warnings, there was no information made available to let people know when they would be allowed to return to their homes. And there were still countless bodies within the exclusion zone, as well as abandoned pets and livestock.

Our journey next took us north, further up the coast. On an icy cold, wet Monday afternoon in the small town of Namiitakaigan, we met Mr. Sugimoto, the owner of a surf shop, K’s Surf, named after his son. Five weeks on, all that remained of his shop was a tangle of wires, a pile of broken wood, and a surfboard snapped in two. Everything else was lost, his business erased from the coastline that once made his living for him. Mr. Sugimoto was in his shop when the earthquake hit, and having lived by the sea all his life, he knew that a tsunami was likely to follow. He got into his car and drove up to the highest ground he could find, a small hill on the road above his shop. And as he sat in his car, he saw the waves roll in, an unimaginable volume of water, travelling at unimaginable speeds, eating up everything in its path. The waters came up higher than anyone could have expected, engulfing the first three floors of the hotel that stood next to his shop. Five weeks after the tsunami swept away his livelihood, Mr. Sugimoto wanted to show us where his shop once stood, and we walked together through the icy rain to see if anything of his business still remained. He made his way slowly over the piles of rubbish in rubber boots, eyes scouring the ground as he stepped over planks of wood, twisted metal, telegraph poles, and suddenly exclaimed “It’s my fax machine!” The fax machine had survived, along with the credit-card machine and the telephone wires. But that was all he found. A stand of pine trees separated the beach from the former site of K’s Surf. And about thirty feet above the ground, a panel of wood was clearly visible, impaled on one of the branches, clearly indicating the height that the waves reached that day.

After the quake, Mr. Sugimoto stayed in his car for two days and nights, braving freezing temperatures, with no knowledge of whether his wife, children and other family members were safe. Fortunately, they were. The waters stopped a few meters away from his house, leaving a trail of destruction and destroyed lives in their wake, but leaving the Sugimoto family home untouched.


We reached Ishinomaki, one of Japan’s major fishing ports, and stood at the top of Hikarigaoka Hill, one of the city’s most popular viewpoints, and one of the best places for cherry-blossom viewing. The sakura hadn’t quite blossomed yet, but the buds were pink on the branches, and in places the delicate petals, so pale they’re almost white, had burst through to welcome the new season. A sign of life where so may lives had just ended. Below, the scene was a charred mess of metal, wood, broken tiles, cars, iron girders, and the lonely remains of the handful of buildings that managed to withstand the waves. The pitched roof of a temple and a lush pine tree still stood, reminders of the community that once lived there. The Self Defense Forces still searched for the missing, estimated to total more than two thousand seven hundred in this town alone. A few bunches of wilting flowers paid silent witness to the scenes below. Bulldozers worked their way through the wreckage.

After the tsunami, Ishinomaki had burned. There was still a faint smell of smoke in the air. And all around, cars, tyres, cooking pots, cupboards, a plastic waste paper bin with a cartoon frog, a heater, plastic piping, a children’s story book, a blanket, vital at this time of year when snow still falls, a mirror, a crash helmet, a cracked teacup, a rice bowl, a mattress, a sweater, a child’s car seat, a tube of sunscreen, a lone slipper, a pair of skis. All the trivial items of everyday life.


We carried on south making deliveries of supplies along the way, through Miyagi prefecture, my home for three years, and the Oshika Peninsula, an area of outstanding natural beauty, dotted with small fishing villages, and the gateway to the sacred island of Kinkazan. I used to go for drives there, taking the boat to the island to feed the deer, stopping at the small villages to see what local produce was for sale and to take a moment to appreciate the beauty of this extraordinary place.

Oshika was the part of Honshu closest to the epicentre of the March 11th earthquake, and one of the areas hardest hit. The beauty of the peninsula was wiped out that afternoon, the one main road buckled and cracked, huge fishing boats tossed ashore, entire villages wiped away. On March 14th, three days after the quake, a thousand bodies had washed up on Oshika’s beaches. And five weeks later, the police were still discovering more. We drove along the coastal road, and as I looked out of the window, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. A line of people in white uniforms, pushing a stretcher on a trolley, with a blue body bag on it. I started seeing the debris around me differently. This wasn’t just the wreckage of houses, this was a graveyard for people who still hadn’t been found. My mind started playing tricks on me: a piece of wood sticking out of a house now looked like a broken arm, the trousers lying on the ground still had someone in them, a rock sticking out of the mud looked like a submerged back.


Electricity had been restored to parts of the peninsula, but there was no gas, and water was limited. There were numerous makeshift evacuation centres. One small garage in Kobuchihama was now home to 15 people. The fifteen inhabitants of the garage huddled around a fire in an oil drum to try and keep warm in the chilly early morning air on a sunny day that, in any other place at any other time, would have been considered beautiful. They rolled out futons on the floor at night, sleeping closely together, not only to keep warm, but also because there was not enough space for all of them. Kobuchihama was one of the main centres for oyster cultivation in the region, the harbour sheltering the twenty-four fishing boats used by the men of the village. But five weeks on, only seven remained. One of the fishermen told me that when the earthquake struck, he got in his boat and headed far out to sea. He stayed out at sea for two days and two nights, not knowing what he would find upon his return. And when he came home, after the tsunami warnings had been canceled, he found that all that remained of his village was a handful of houses just high enough to escape the devastating reach of the waters. Everything else had gone.

Amid the wreckage, there was laughter, smiles. It was astonishing to see that humour still thrived here. The survivors had survived, and continued do all they could to survive. The people of the north are strong, practical, pragmatic. On a sunny morning, five weeks after the tsunami washed away everything they had, the oyster farmers of Kobuchihama were combing the debris to find items they could still use. The tsunami had destroyed everything, but a large part of the wreckage was made up of huge rusted iron anchors, items that could be used again if salvaged. These anchors were heavy enough to need four grown men to lift them, but seemingly light enough to be tossed by the waves at will. We asked a group of fishermen, relatives of the inhabitants of the garage, if we could help them. They looked at us uncertainly, before handing us serrated metal hooks. One of them handed me his pink Hello Kitty gloves – to protect my hands.With no real idea of what the task was going to be, and with the vague instructions of “go over there, you’ll work it out”, I stepped through the wreckage and walked to where the work was going on.

The men used serrated metal hooks to cut through the tangles of rope, fishing nets and electricity cables that now tied the anchors together. One of them pointed to the electricity cables, and told me that they could make money out of them, the copper running through them being a valuable commodity. These were the anchors that the oysters were grown on, the seeds being planted on scallop shells bought from Aomori and Hokkaido, and taken out to sea to let the oysters quietly grow in the rich waters. It takes two to three years for the oysters to be ready to eat. And it will take at least five years from now for the men to be able to harvest their first oysters since the disaster. They don’t know what they’ll do in the meantime, but for now, they’re salvaging what they can to start working again. Anchors, thick ropes, buoys. And all the time, smiles, laughs. One of the oyster farmers slipped on a piece of wood and fell heavily to the ground, twisting his leg awkwardly beneath him. He was motionless for a few moments, and then let out a cry of pain. “My bum’s split in two,” he cried, and the men smiled and laughed, pulling him to his feet.


I was working alongside Mr. Kimura, one of the younger oyster farmers. A husband and father, he hadn’t seen his wife or son since the day of the tsunami. She had gone to pick him up from school in her car. But they never came home. Five weeks on, Mr. Kimura was still waiting for them, as were his daughters. And until they find her body, his daughters will always live with the belief that one day their mother and brother will come back to them. As he told me this, Mr. Kimura looked into the distance and smiled. “But I can’t sit around all day crying,” he said. “What would my daughters think?” And he carried on with his work, cutting ropes, carrying anchors, retrieving the tools that will help the town live again.

Residents of Kobuchihama, Japan

My eyes were stinging. I made it my duty to go and collect buoys from further along the harbour, away from everyone else. The weather was glorious, the sun was shining, the sky was a perfect spring blue. I turned my face upwards so as not to let my tears fall, not wanting to be weak when everyone else was being so strong. I looked back at the men working in the sunshine, and for a moment it looked like a normal scene. But of course it wasn’t.


As I walked back, carrying two salvaged buoys in my arms, and knowing that the following day I’d be on a plane flying home to the normality of my world, I made a promise to come back here. Before we left, I told Mr. Kimura that I’d return to eat the first harvest of oysters, five years from now. “Please do,” he said, “if you don’t mind the radiation.” He laughed, I smiled, we returned to our vans, and we carried on to the next village.




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