Remembering Töhoku Five Years On

Remembering Töhoku Five Years On

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Hawai‘i Couple to Commemorate the Disaster by Returning to the Region

Jon Ishihara

Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In 2011, I was working out of a two-story temporary building at the U.S. Naval Ship Repair Facility in Yokosuka, Japan. It had been built as a modular structure for my division and another group while our permanent offices were being renovated. On that day, about six or seven of us were at work in our second-floor office. It was a Friday in March, near the end of the workday. Suddenly, the building starting shaking and swaying — we all felt it. The shaking continued for more than a few seconds. I instinctively headed for the stairs to get out of the building, even though I had been taught that during an earthquake, it is often safer to remain indoors than to go outside. I think all of us got out of the building.

We waited outside for a while. I remember thinking to myself that it was not unusual to have earthquakes in this part of Japan and that since it wasn’t shaking anymore, it was probably safe to go back in. We all went back inside and began finishing our work for the day. Then came a second round of shaking — stronger this time, with more swaying of the building. I headed straight for the stairs. Along the way, I remember our admin person standing in place, saying it was scary. One of my co-workers went over to her and helped her get out of the building. Once outside, we saw that other people had evacuated from the nearby buildings after the second quake. By then I knew that there had been a major earthquake. Still, I wasn’t overly concerned — I’m from the Big Island, where I experienced a 7.2 magnitude earthquake as a kid.

As it turned out, this quake was very different.

The date was March 11, 2011. In Yokosuka, the most immediate effect of the quake were things like cell phone communication, which was almost impossible, probably due to power issues. I called my relative’s home phone in Tökyö several times, but wasn’t able to connect. She didn’t have a cell phone, so I couldn’t even text her. The trains had shut down, so one of my co-workers had to walk home, as there was no other public transportation available. She said it took her more than five hours to reach home.

The interruption of power had a domino effect, as food and other supplies were not being delivered or prepared for consumption — all this in spite of the fact that were no great cracks in the ground and no collapsed buildings in Yokosuka.

It was a different story in the Töhoku region of Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, however, as many of us in other parts of Japan and around the world learned by watching the horrendous footage on television or on the internet. The damage and incredible suffering was unimaginable.

This year marks five years since the events of what is referred to as “The Great East Japan Earthquake.” Others simply refer to it as “3/11,” although it was March 10 here in Hawai‘i when the disaster struck. My wife Laura and I plan to be in Miyagi Prefecture on March 11, 2016, to show our support for the people of the area that experienced so much tragedy. No one asked us to come — we just feel a connection to the region, which may be similar to what is felt by those who visit Ground Zero in New York City, or New Orleans or other places that suffered great tragedy.

Last year marked 10 years since Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana coast and surrounding areas. The recovery in the affected communities provides a benchmark of sorts in looking at the recovery efforts in Töhoku. People are still living in temporary shelters in Minamisanriku and Onagawa, where we plan to visit in March. There are various reasons for this, among them bureaucracy, and the process of deciding on new locations for rebuilding the towns. Both towns lost thousands of residents. Prior to March 2011, about 17,700 lived in Minamisanriku; today, that number has dropped to 13,890. Onagawa’s pre-March 20111 population was 10,000; today, only about 6,800 live there. The internet is a good English-language source for information on recent activity in Onagawa.

From March 2011 until we left Japan in 2014 to return to Hawai‘i, Laura and I volunteered four times for recovery and rebuilding efforts. We also visited the Töhoku area three times as “tourists” when places for lodging had reopened for business. We have been to Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture; Minamisanriku, Onagawa, and Yamamoto in Miyagi Prefecture; and to Iwaki and Soma in Fukushima Prefecture. All of these towns are along the eastern coast of Japan and were directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Laura first visited Otsuchi in May 2011 — she said the people were struggling just to survive; rebuilding wasn’t even on their mind at the time.

That July, we both went to Yamamoto for a day to help clear mud and debris from storm drains. We were told that when it rained, the backed-up culverts cause flooding in the streets and homes.

By 2012 and until 2014, when we left Japan, we had begun to see the beginnings of recovery. Plans were being made to rebuild. We also noticed differences in towns that had been affected by the tsunami only, and towns like Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture, which had to contend also with the effects of the nuclear plant disaster. We won’t be visiting Fukushima on this trip, but we’ll be thinking about the people of those communities. They are dealing not only with the physical and emotional damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami, but also the anxiety, uncertainty and fear of nuclear contamination.

In a May 4, 2012, article I wrote for The Hawai‘i Herald, I urged readers to “keep the people of places like Onagawa in your heart and mind, and cheer them on on their marathon run.” Next month, we’ll be doing some cheering of our own and hope to share our experiences with you when we return. We plan to visit Minamisanriku and Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture and share some of what is going on and any changes we notice since our last visit in 2014 with you in the Herald.

We know that the places we stayed at in the past are managing to survive because they are still open for business. We’ve been following the towns’ plans for rebuilding homes, businesses and communities on the internet. Laura and I also read about the opening of the damaged train line and the rebuilding of the train station that was destroyed by the tsunami. We plan to go and see these and other places and get a sense of the recovery. Our visit is a humble one — there are many more individuals and organizations who are doing so much more to support the communities of Töhoku. We join them in saying “Gambare!/Ganbappe!” to the people of Töhoku.

Jon Ishihara is a Hawai‘i resident who lived in Yokosuka, Japan, with his wife Laura from 2009 to 2014. He has since returned to his job at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. Jon also joined the Japan-America Society of Hawaii in an effort to keep up with activities between Hawai‘i and Japan.

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