by Stephen Phelan

All Shook Up: Japan After The Quake

May 12, 2011 | by Stephen Phelan

I felt the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, in the same way that you might get a spot of drizzle from the tip of the tail of a hurricane. At 2.46 pm on Friday, 11 March, I was walking home from the library in a small, quiet town called Daishoji, some 400 miles west of the epicentre.

The pavement shifted side to side, ever so slightly. I had been drinking the night before, and my first thought was for my lost youth, when I could handle a few beers and a couple of shots without wobbling off a footpath the following afternoon. It took a full five seconds to register that this movement was occurring outside my skull, and a little longer to recognise the sensation. Since moving to Japan in the autumn of 2008, I had noticed only three of the seismic tremors that shiver through these islands with the frequency of high-speed trains. Once while I was eating lunch on the steps of a public square in Tokyo, and the concrete swayed as if in a breeze. And twice while I was asleep in bed, where it started as a distant twinge of my inner ear, and sounded outward until the whole apartment was rattling.

These events were over so quickly that I might as well have imagined them. They caused no death or damage, and barely warranted a mention on the news, or in conversation. But they disturbed my dreams for weeks. Lying half-awake, I listened for the earth turning over like a flooded engine, deep below the mattress. Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most widely translated novelist, once described this disconcerting new awareness in After The Quake, a book of short stories that were all set in the wake of the Great Hanshin (or Kobe) earthquake of 1995: ‘We take it for granted that the ground beneath our feet is solid and stationary. But suddenly one day we see that it is not true. The earth, the boulders, that are supposed to be so solid, all of a sudden turn as mushy as liquid.’

This tremor, like the others, felt more ominous than violent. The difference was in the duration. I continued back to my apartment with the ground still shaking, and it didn’t stop until after I sat down, switched on the TV, and saw that it was much worse in Tokyo. With all of Japan’s major news networks based in the capital, the earliest footage of the earthquake came from inside their broadcasting towers. The announcers were admirably composed, strapping on white protective hoods to keep reading the latest developments, even as the studio walls bent inwards. They recommended that viewers cover their own heads with helmets, knit caps, or “zabuton” (seat cushions). They advised the public to stay away from anything that might fall on top of them, particularly vending machines. They had reports of oil fires, car wrecks, and a lot of broken glass, but it looked as if the megacity was mostly intact, and for about ten minutes it seemed comical how quickly and efficiently the media had turned to emergency service.

Then came the tsunami alerts, reaching half-way around the country’s coastal perimeter. And shortly after that, the first images from the northeast: a monstrous white wave turning black as it made landfall near Sen-dai, an oceanic whirlpool spinning like a saw blade against the Iwate seaboard, whole rows of houses torn out of Natori City and floating away in flames. A few hours later, my editors in Europe woke to these scenes, which were now streaming live around the world. They wanted to know what I could tell them, as their occasional correspondent in Japan. The answer was, not much, except to say that most Japanese were also watching this on TV and the internet, with the same dawning sense of something terrible happening, somewhere else.

On the Monday after the quake, I taught my weekly English language class as usual at the community hall in Chokushi, a cluster of rice-farming villages near my adoptive home town, between the Sea of Japan and the Hakusan mountain range. The group consists of eight regular students – seven women and one man, none of them under 60, all of them emphatically local. They were born here, and they’ll die within walking distance if they can help it. In that sense, they are fairly representative of Japan’s aging rural population, but I wouldn’t call them typical of folk who live in this area, if only because they are so well-travelled. Once or twice a year they put their considerable savings toward a short and rushed class trip to some far-flung destination, most recently Egypt, just a couple of months before the uprising that deposed Hosni Mubarak.

They study English to understand the outside world. In Japanese, there is just one word for everywhere that is not Japan.  “Gaikoku” refers to all foreign countries, making no distinction between, say, Scotland, Peru, Uzbekistan, or Sierra Leone. My students delight in specifics. They know that I am Irish, and they seem to enjoy my repeated tirades against the global spread of Ameri-can English, which I tend to play up because it makes them chortle like babies. But they also seem to regard me as an ambassador for the United Nations, and that Monday night they thanked me personally for the messages of support that had piled in from the west over the weekend. ‘Everyone is so kind,’ said Mariko, who is always the first to speak because she is seated immediately to my left.

As a matter of routine, each student writes a journal entry in English every week, and reads it aloud in the next class, starting with Mariko and working clockwise around the table, with me correcting their grammar and pronunciation as they go. On this occasion, each of them had recorded their own impressions of the earthquake, tsunami, and emerging radiation crisis. ‘Japan has suffered a catastrophic disaster,’ began Mariko, and I tried to explain that this statement, while accurate, was also tautological – the noun and the adjective being roughly interchangeable, one made redundant by the other. I felt a bit superfluous myself. If words become meaningless in the aftermath of catastrophic disasters, or disastrous catastrophes, then it seems absurd to insist on proper usage.

Next it was Ikuko’s turn, a gifted amateur soprano who can sing arias in German, French, and Italian, but sometimes struggles with English verb tenses and particles. ‘I was thought, “what could I doing?”’ she said, describing her sense of helplessness at the worsening news from the Tohoku region. Another student, a keen gardener named Inami, who takes pride in her ‘green thumb’, has friends in the affected area, and received a call earlier that day to say they were safe.

‘But … house … is … destroyed,’ she added, dropping her possessive pronouns as usual. Oshita, the only other man in the room, had not known about the earthquake until two hours later, when his son-in-law called him from a hotel skyscraper in downtown Tokyo. ‘He was trapped for a short while there,’ read Oshita from his journal, ‘because it was a lot of shaking on the high floors.’ I corrected him politely, and we moved on, to discuss unfamiliar words and phrases such as “unreal”, “devastation”, and “relief effort”.  The group wanted to know the English for “tsunami”, and seemed pleased to learn that we defer to the Japanese on that particular noun, given their unfortunate wealth of experience. A housewife named Michiko, who is probably my best student, read a list of essential items that the class should donate to evacuation centres in Miyagi and surrounding prefectures. ‘Flashlights, warm blankets, dry batteries, canned food, bottled water, etcetera,’ she said. ‘Excellent,’ I told her, in a mock imperious tone, ‘but “flashlight” is an American term. In proper English, we call it a “torch”.’ Everyone smiled indulgently, and duly noted this down.


The release of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was causing more panic in the western press than the towns and cities of Japan. Friends in Tokyo, where the levels were reportedly rising, said that life was going on more or less as before, though the nightclubs were a lot emptier. Across the United States, chemists had sold out of iodine capsules that were not yet even dispensed to Japanese evacuees who lived within sight of the smoking reactors.   From where I was sitting, some 200 miles outside the exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant, I could read online that Japan might soon be an irradiated slagheap, then look out my bedroom window to see school kids passing on their bikes, my neighbour walking her orange dog, the old man across the road hawking up phlegm on the pavement. I was not in a position to tell if his mucous was radioactive, but my girlfriend and I made a pact not to flee until he did.  Other foreigners were leaving in flocks, not just the disaster area but the country in general, at the urging of their families and embassies. Those of us who were staying called those who didn’t “flyjins” – a play on the Japanese word “gaijin”, their all-purpose pejorative for other nationalities.

* *

This was false bravado on our part, as none of us was entirely sure how scared we should be. My own anxiety felt child-like, a milder form of the night-sweats I suffered in my youth, when I would dwell on evening news coverage of Chernobyl, or long-range ballistic missiles being paraded through Red Square. In the course of reporting on this latest nuclear crisis, I contacted Professor Mitsuhisa Watanabe, a prominent seismologist at Toyo University.

He couldn’t tell me not to worry, but he could at least provide some perspective.
Off the top of his head, he identified several nuclear power and processing plants that were located much closer to my home than Fukushima, and much nearer to significant fault-lines. ‘The Shika plant is constructed on a very active coastal area in your prefecture, Ishikawa,’ he said. ‘In the next prefecture, Fukui, the Urazuko fault cuts right through the site of the Monju fast-breeder reactor. Actually, Fukui has more nuclear power plants than any other prefecture. They would all be affected by a major earthquake in your region, which could destroy central Japan, and possibly the world.’

Watanabe has dedicated much of his career to tectonic risk assessments of nuclear facilities in the most seismically volatile country on Earth. In his opinion, all of them are “dangerous”, although the Fukushima plant was comparatively low on his list until  11 March. Those reactors are some distance from the undersea trench where the earthquake began, but the “mega-thrusting” in that fault, and the force of the resulting tsunami, were enough to cause their fatal malfunctions.

‘We knew that something like this could happen,’ Watanabe continued, ‘because of what happened before.’ Based on their studies of the so-called “Joghan event”, when a quake of up to nine points, and a wave of over ten metres, wrecked the same corner of Japan in the year 879, Watanabe and his peers had repeatedly warned the government that no existing power plant could withstand an occurrence of that magnitude. Industry-approved scientific advisors did not concur. ‘I am sorry,’ said Watanabe, ‘but the nuclear safety authority is to blame. They relied on official researchers who were favoured by the government, and who offered their opinions without a due sense of responsibility.’

Speaking from the Sanriku coast, where he was already conducting field research on the sediment deposits of the March tsunami, Watanabe sounded despondent to be proved  so overwhelmingly right. The ‘Armageddon earthquake’ he predicted had been even bigger than his projections. Where the Professor was now standing, among the remains of a seaside town called Taro, he estimated the height of the wave at almost 25 metres. ‘This earthquake and tsunami were super-large in scale,’ he said, ‘and far above what we might have assumed. At the same time, I’m afraid that such events are never beyond expectation.’ Watanabe asked me to forgive him if he seemed “emotionally unstable”. ‘I am overcome by so many terrible sights.’

* *

It was one month and three days before I saw anything of the disaster with my own eyes. On the morning of 14 April, I arrived in central Sendai thinking that it didn’t look so bad. There were a few deep cracks in the elevated walkways leading in and out of the train station, but commuters stepped around them without paying much attention. I had come by bus, because most of the rail lines through Miyagi Prefecture had been buckled by the quake, and a number of trains were washed away by the tsunami. But the tallest buildings in the Tohoku region were still standing, and its biggest city seemed to be functioning normally. From there I took another bus to Ishinomaki, a short journey made longer by slow-moving trucks and military vehicles moving into the disaster zone. The windows dusted over, the air smelled of burnt plastic, and a razed plain extended out from the suburbs to the beaches, but it was hard to distinguish the damage from the usual industrial desolation.

Ishinomaki also appeared pretty much unscathed, apart from a few older wooden houses that were now broken down and bagged up in two-story piles of refuse sacks. A friend of a friend picked me up at the bus stop with a friend of his own, and we drove across town. They pointed out the pale black line where the tsunami had reached as far as a corner restaurant on 11 March, at a busy junction about four miles from the shoreline. Past that point, everything was warped.

We crossed over a bridge to the north side of the Kitagame river, which had erupted from its banks, to send ships crashing through streets far beyond the waterfront. Rows of houses had exploded into the road. We navigated around their burst walls and looked inside the cross-sectioned rooms. A mangled traffic light rose out of debris that was heaped to the height of a pedestrian overpass. A 16-wheeler cab and container balanced on an upturned car like a see-saw. A fishing boat nosed its prow into the upper floor of an exposed apartment block. It was lunchtime, and we passed long lines of families collecting rice-balls from volunteer catering stations, and filling plastic bottles at water tankers operated by Japan’s Self-Defence Force (SDF).

Itoh Fujinaka, sitting in the passenger seat, told me that supplies were still a problem in Ishinomaki, which was too big to keep all its evacuees adequately nourished. He said that food and water weren’t such an issue where we were going, a smaller neighbouring town called Onagawa, which had much fewer mouths to feed. From the back seat I asked Fujinaka how many people lived there. ‘Before the tsunami,’ he said, ‘about 10,000.’ And after? He looked over at the driver, a younger man named Yoshiaki Nakamoto. They conferred over the figures. ‘More than 400 bodies have been found. More than  1000 are still missing.’ In the space of a few minutes, just over a month earlier, Onagawa had lost fifteen per cent of its population. Fujinaka told me later that Nakamoto’s wife was among those confirmed dead.

Fujinaka is a private teacher, specialising in science and mathematics. He was born in Tokyo, and attended Sendai’s Tohoku University in the late 1960s, a time when Japanese students were, in his words, ‘protesting everything’. A lifelong hiker and nature lover, he objected most strongly to the country’s developing nuclear industry, and first came to Onagawa to campaign against the building of a power plant just outside the town. The opposition failed, but it forced the Tohoku Electric Company to shift their planned site back from the beach at Koyadori Bay, and reinforce the walls around its reactors. If those changes had not been made, the earthquake and tsunami might have caused a worse breach at the Onagawa plant than Fukushima, 100 miles south and that much further from the epicentre. ‘I think so, definitely,’ said Fujinaka.

After graduating, he stayed behind in Onagawa to keep the pressure on the power company, and made a home there for the next 40 years. ‘It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen,’ said Fujinaka, as we drove through a high pass and down into the town, between thick green coastal mountains and a particularly blue ocean.

‘The tsunami came up to here,’ he said, when we were still at least 15 metres above sea level. Nakamoto parked the car and we commenced a walking tour from there. The road had been cleared by the SDF, with both sides banked by rolling hills of wreckage. They led into a wider landscape of crushed auto parts and disassembled building materials. Personal items stood out in the near distance – a piano, a gossip magazine, a plaster model of a bear with a fish in its mouth. A water-damaged wedding album had been set aside on the curb, open at a picture of the couple. ‘That’s Daiichi Izumi,’ said Fujinaka, recognising the groom. ‘He was a student of mine.’

In the middle of town, near the seafront, a few buildings remained upright, though stripped down to red metal frames and loose hanging wires. One was lying on its side, the exterior fire escape parallel to the ground. Another had a silver car teetering upside-down at the edge of its roof. Fujinaka stopped at a vacant space where he said a bookshop used to be, and bowed his head for a moment, crying very quietly. The owner’s wife had been found in the rubble the day before, the first body recovered in almost a week. Fujinaka said he had known her well. He pointed up and across to the tower of the old fire station, almost 18 metres tall, and said that the tsunami had swamped it. There was not just one wave, but three or four, the second being the highest. They had followed about 20 minutes after the earthquake. Fujinaka was in his house at the time, a few hundred metres along the shore road.

Standing on a patch of flat, grey wasteland, he showed me where his kitchen had been, his bedroom, the office where he was sitting when the quake hit. ‘All the books fell off the shelves on top of me,’ he said. ‘When it stopped, I went out and saw the slates from my roof all smashed in the street. So I started picking them up, then I heard the tsunami  alarm.’ An emergency public address warned that the tide-markers had suddenly dropped by three metres, and everyone within earshot knew what that could mean. Fujinaka and his neighbour ran to the nearest high ground, at the Dai-Ni elementary school. They looked back to see their homes disappear under successive surges of dark water, which kept rising almost to the school gates. When the waves withdrew, they pulled the town centre into the sea.

Japanese custom is to cremate the dead, and inter the ashes at a family grave. This was not possible for most of those killed by the tsunami in Onagawa. The 430 bodies recovered by the time of my visit were enough to far exceed capacity at the remaining local crematoriums. Over 100 of these bodies had not yet been identified. Another 1000 or more had not even been found. For these reasons, a temporary burial site was established on a hill above the town, in a formerly popular picnic spot at Washinomaki Park. Until they can each be given a traditional Buddhist funeral service, the majority of named and confirmed victims had gone into  the ground here, under white wooden posts inscribed with black calligraphy. Yoshiaki Nakamoto’s wife, Junko, was among them. Her body was found with her colleagues, three days after the quake, on the second floor of the Kamaboko fish processing plant where they worked. Standard emergency procedure, as per local tsunami drills, was to move to the top of any multi-storey building in the hope – the assumption – that it would be high enough. Again, I learned most of this from Fujinaka, as we left Nakamoto to stand over his wife’s grave.

Nakamoto himself had been a smiling, avuncular presence all day, offering snacks, pointing out the most dramatic photo opportunities, and making occasional jokes about his bad English. ‘He looks like he is fine,’ said Fujinaka, appearing much more visibly upset than his friend, who used to be one of his students. ‘But he is in a bad condition. He has a hard time, every day.’ He went on to explain that Nakamoto had also lost his house, and was now living in a local evacuation centre with the youngest of his three children – a boy of ten – and his elderly mother, who was suffering from dementia. His older daughters were relatively safe in Sendai and Tokyo, as were Fujinaka’s own three girls.

All were grown, and none of them was in Onagawa on the day of the tsunami. Fujinaka had lost at least five friends, but no family members. His ex-wife was unharmed in Ishinomaki, and his mother had been in a nearby care home, up a hill and above the destruction. The hill we were now standing on would also have been safe. The sun had just set behind it, and the grave posts cast shadows as long as felled trees. We walked between the rows in silence.   Fujinaka stopped at a name he knew. Risa Chiba, the best friend of one of his daughters. ‘She was 22-years old,’ he said. The entire Chiba family – Risa, her brother, and her parents – had been found dead in their overturned car. ‘I guess they were trying to escape,’ said Fujinaka. ‘But the tsunami came too fast.’

* *

For the next few nights I was a guest at Shogen-ji, a local Zen temple at the top of a sloping residential road. More than 30 people had run up here just before the houses at the bottom were destroyed by the tsunami. One month on, only one family remained, along with a few lone evacuees, making Sho-gen-ji the smallest and homeliest of the ad hoc shelters now in place around Onagawa. They welcomed me into the prayer room that was now their communal living space, and invited me to share their supplies, which had been donated by other Zen temples from across Japan, and in some cases by the nearest undamaged fast-food outlets. Our first dinner together came from KFC and Pizza Hut.

The men freely offered their stories and theories. Toshihiko Sato had taken cover in this temple with his wife Naoko, his daughter Emi, and his young son Yuuga, as soon as they heard the alert. ‘I knew it would be safe up here,’ said Sato, ‘but I never thought the water could come so high. Nobody did, and I think that’s why so many lost their lives. We had a big tsunami about 30 years ago, which maybe gave a lot of people the idea that this one would be about the same size. By the time they saw that it was so much bigger, it  was too late for them to move.’

Isamu Ito, a middle-aged bachelor from just down the street, told me that he had been driving home from Ishinomaki immediately after the quake. ‘A young guy in a truck was driving in the opposite direction, and he shouted “No!” but I couldn’t understand him. When I went a bit further I saw the tsunami coming. The water was the same height as the telephone lines. It was knocking down all the poles. Without thinking I turned left, instead of right, towards my house. If I had gone the other way, I would have been off to heaven 10 seconds later. It was fate, or maybe pure chance. A lot of people had similar experiences.’

Others had stories to break your heart, and I heard more of these at subsequent mealtimes, kneeling on the tatami mats around the same low dining table. Ito also told me about a neighbour of his, a grandfather, who was trying to pull his grandson through waist-deep water when the boy was dragged away by the receding wave. ‘It’s not that he let go,’ he said. ‘The water was just so powerful that he couldn’t keep his grip, and the child was lost. Many people watched their loved ones sucked into that wave.’ Tetsuya Miyake, the head priest of Shogen-ji, had heard many more of these brutal anecdotes, from young people whose elderly parents stayed behind so as not to slow them down, and old people whose children drowned trying to save them. Almost half of this temple’s local believers were killed in the tsunami, and Miyake had since performed at least 10 funerals per day.

I asked him what Zen Buddhism has to say about what Christians might call an Act of God. ‘Nothing, in itself,’ answered the priest. ‘For myself, I can only listen, and sometimes give advice. So many grieving people come to this temple and say that they wish they had died with their relatives. I tell them that they must live for those who cannot. My duty is to encourage them, so I try to smile and stay calm. At night, in private, I can cry all I want into my futon.’ Laughing at himself, the priest mimed this sobbing action on the sleeve of his robe.

Demographically speaking, Onagawa was and is no different to most rural towns and coastal villages in Japan. The ongoing decline of farming and fishing have sent men  and women of working age to find employment in bigger cities, which accounts for the high proportion of retirees among both victims and survivors of the tsunami. The needs of the old had taken precedence at most evacuation centres, where the lights were turned out as early as 7.30 every night. This included my own shared room at Shogen-ji, Fujinaka’s shelter at the Kinro Seishonen building (a kind of dormitory for the young staff of the few local factories), and the civic hall where Nakamoto was staying with his son and mother. ‘Mostly oji-sans and oba-sans in there,’ said Nakamoto, using semi-polite terms for “grannies and granddads”.

Not nearly ready for bed, we met instead at a nearby car park, where an old university friend of Fujinaka’s was camping for a week. Itoh Kenichi, or “Ken” as he wanted me to call him, had driven over from Kanagawa to volunteer as a relief worker. ‘Me and Fujinaka-san had many good times walking in these mountains when were students together,’ he said. ‘So I thought I should support Onagawa after this tragedy.’ Ken came well stocked and equipped, and the four of us sat around his folding table on canvas chairs, drinking beer from his cooler.

Nakamoto placed down an assortment of dirty bottles that he had pulled out of the rubble – a decent South African Malbec, a cheap blended Japanese whisky, a half-full plastic flagon of someone’s home-brewed umeshu (plum wine).   ‘Thanks to you, tsunami!’ toasted Nakamoto, in a frankly heroic display of defiant good cheer from a man it had made a widower. He insisted that we finish every bottle, and I felt that I could neither blame nor refuse him in the circumstances. As we got drunker, he talked modestly about his years of competing in regional karate tournaments. He laughed off Fujinaka’s suggestion that they pool whatever compensation they got from the government, and build a new house to live in together. ‘No no no,’ said Nakamoto. (The rumour, yet to be confirmed, was that all those who had lost homes and/or relatives would receive a middling sum of three million yen each, or just over £20,000, in lieu of the fact that the vast majority of those homes were not insured against earthquakes or tsunamis, as is generally the case in Japan.) He mentioned only in passing that his ten-year-old boy did not seem to believe his mother was dead, and spent his days at the shelter playing on a trampoline. Then we moved on, to talk about movies.

Except for a barking dog, the ruined town below us was now entirely hushed, and blacked out under a dusty yellow moon. In Japanese cosmology, the moon is said to be blue, and the sun red, but the others agreed with me on the colour that night. Between them, they told the old folk tale about the rabbit who lives on its surface, grinding rice-paste with a pestle. Ken asked if Ireland has an equivalent legend. I couldn’t think of one, so I paraphrased my favourite story from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, about a couple left behind after an expedition to collect moon-milk. The guy loves the girl, but she loves someone else, and faces back towards the Earth, pining away and playing her harp.

* *

In the morning, I signed up to join a volunteer clean-up crew at the Dai-Ni elementary school, which was now serving as a headquarters for the town government, and a base for relief operations. Some of the workers were locals, but most had come from across Japan. Daisuke Ikebe was a young video technician from Oita, on the island of Kyushu, at the far side of Japan. ‘I wanted to help,’ said Ikebe, ‘but also, I needed to see this. On TV, it’s like a movie. I had to see it for myself.’

A volunteer centre in Ishinomaki dispatched him to Onagawa, and he had been here for two weeks, clearing out houses, distributing food to shelters, and on one assignment, washing the few dishes that had not been broken at an otherwise obliterated waterfront restaurant. ‘I was surprised we had to do that, but I don’t ask questions,’ said Ikebe. I just go where they tell me. Volunteers mostly do the easy stuff.’ Soldiers of the SDF had been searching for bodies, and pulling down buildings. ‘When I first arrived, there was still some houses and factories standing there,’ he said, gesturing down to the scoured field of erasure that was once the Shimizu-Cho district. ‘Now it’s just nothing.’

That day my crew was assigned to clean out a school supply warehouse, so the SDF could tear the unsound structure down. The task was simple, and the work was satisfying. With gloved hands and wheelbarrows, we steadily gutted the interior, hauling out sodden boxes of notebooks and ring-binders, Mickey Mouse satchels, a cache of brightly-coloured water-pistols, old computers, filing cabinets filled with black and stinking seawater. We wore protective facemasks, but a strong, cold mountain wind kept blowing fine detritus through the absent walls and into our eyes. Our team leader, Kuzuo Mat-suoka, seemed so competent that I assumed he did this kind of thing for a living, but he told me that he was CEO of a company trading in construction machinery. ‘We can’t do all of this by hand,’ said Matsuoka, surveying the destruction when we stood outside for a break. ‘This place needs many machines.’ ‘Why don’t you donate some?’ I suggested. He laughed, and said it wasn’t that simple.

The next day, we were sent to an address in Kamigoku, a residential area at the high-water mark of the tsunami. This particular street showed the caprice of the wave – houses had been spared or invaded at random, sometimes right next door to each other. A roving squad of army engineers had posted green notices outside homes they judged to be inhabitable. Those that couldn’t be salvaged got red bills.

The house we were to work on had a yellow bill, which meant that the exterior might be okay, but the inside was so damaged as to constitute a hazard. We waited for the soldiers to hoist a battered car from the driveway with a mechanical claw, water pouring out through the windshield. Then we moved in to help the owner and her family throw their possessions out into the front garden – wardrobes, paintings, broken figurines, stacks of wet books, flooded electrical appliances. For the first few hours I was often touched by the poignancy of particular items. A mobile phone, a single shoe, a cooking pot that still held enough of the tsunami to boil potatoes in. But the repetitive and strangely addictive nature of this labour wore away my ability to consider each thing as I tossed it. One of my co-workers, a student from Tokyo named Keisuke Uehara, retrieved a framed picture of a boy in school uniform from the rubbish pile I had made in the kitchen, and reminded me of the first rule for volunteers on removal duty: no matter how water-damaged, we were not  supposed to throw out photographs.

Uehara was a Scientologist, one of many that the church had sent on aid missions to the Tohoku region from its ministries across Japan, Asia, and the US. Most of them were easily identifiable by their yellow t-shirts and baseball caps, emblazoned with the quasi-Masonic logo of their organisation, but Uehara wore a more practical jumpsuit. He said he didn’t know much about Scientology, which reminded me of that old Sam Cooke song, and made me like him instantly. He had only joined the church a week earlier, in order to secure transport into the disaster zone, and accommodation when he got here. He and dozens of others were staying at what they called ‘the yellow camp’, within the grounds of Onagawa’s main evacuation centre at the Sogotai Kukan sports complex.

I had seen that camp earlier, the turrets of their marquee poking up from behind a tall hedge around a disused soccer pitch. It looked like a bouncy castle. Uehara had been playing football there with local kids from the shelter every night, but he doubted that I would be allowed in. He was reluctant to talk about the church itself, in part because he said they wouldn’t like it, but also because didn’t feel qualified. (At his request, I have changed his name in this account.) ‘The ideas of Scientology are a little strange to me,’ said Uehara. ‘I don’t really understand them. But the ministry people are very friendly, very kind, always offering more food, more drinks, asking if I need anything.’

I asked him if there was a proselytising element to their presence here, if volunteers were required to distribute pamphlets, or recruit new members, as certain Christian groups had been doing in the Tohoku region. ‘Not that I know about,’ said Uehara, looking honestly puzzled.

When we finished for the day, and her house was emptied and shuttered, the owner thanked us with a deep bow and cartons of cold tea. We rested on a wall across the street with two other Scientologists from our crew, shy young men from Taiwan who didn’t speak much Japanese or English, but enough to confirm what Uehara had been saying. ‘We are only here to make life more comfortable,’ said one of them. His name-tag read Lin Fong-Yuan, but he asked me to call him Edward. ‘Nothing else. We only do things like clean this lady’s house.’ I’d seen Edward working hard all day. His yellow t-shirt was dark with sweat and grime. It would have been unbrotherly to bash his religion, or question his reasons for being there. We sat in the sun and drank our tea through plastic straws.

Our job the following morning was to scrub out the second floor of Onagawa hospital. The ground floor had been wrecked by the tsunami, which came up the hill, through the car park, and into the reception area. That car park had since become a viewing point for TV cameras and visiting politicians, with its vista of the devastation at the seafront. What remained of the interior was now a health centre for elderly evacuees, rather than a working hospital, as much of the equipment and all the medical records had been washed away (Japan’s infrastructure is not as futuristic as the rest of the world likes to imagine, and those records were not stored to an external database). We moved the old people to a separate wing, rolled their beds out into the corridor, and sanitised the walls and floors, wearing surgical gowns and working on our hands and knees. When the patients were assisted back in again, they showed so little gratitude that we had to admire them.

I asked the head nurse, Yoshiko Suzuki, if her charges had been traumatised by their recent experience. ‘You must be joking,’ she said. ‘These people are the toughest. They lived through the Second World War, and they don’t flinch when there is an aftershock. They think that we youngsters are weak. But of course, many older people were lost in the tsunami. I am sorry to say that my mother-in-law did not survive.’

Suzuki’s house was also destroyed. She was living with her husband and daughter in a shelter at the Dai-Ichi pre-school, and could not say if or when they would leave. ‘I can’t really think of the future, because of my duties here. My own needs are secondary at the moment.’

There were aftershocks every day, sometimes four or five, each of them stronger than the tremors I had felt before, but progressively weaker than Onagawans were now used to. At breakfast or dinner in Shogen-ji, the whole temple would suddenly jolt as if struck from beneath. To me, this seemed as unnatural as a knock on the underside of a coffin lid. My housemates paused and listened for a moment, then continued with whatever they had been saying or doing, assuring me that everything was “daijobu”, meaning fine, okay, no problem, cool. The talk of the evacuees always turned to the question of how soon the reconstruction could begin, and what form it would take. They had no faith in their mayor, Nobutaka Azumi, who had barely been seen in public since the tsunami, and no patience for the town government’s promise to deliver a comprehensive plan for the new Onagawa on 11 May, two months to the day after the quake.

They no longer trusted the nuclear power plant either, especially since the aftershock on 7 April, which had spilled water from a pool of spent fuel rods, and caused a brief spike in local radiation levels. ‘I never liked the plant,’ said Toshihiko Sato, ‘but I always believed it was safe. Not any more I don’t.’ Sato’s eldest son works at the plant, and he said this had become a subject of some bitter rows between them.

‘I ask him, if these places are so safe, then why don’t they build them in Tokyo? All the power they generate is going there anyway. But he doesn’t want to hear it.’ Sato and Isamu Ito had also heard a rumour that Japan’s top construction companies were reluctant to get involved in the rebuilding of Onagawa, as they already had in other towns such as Kesennuma, specifically because of their concerns about the plant.

Up at the emergency headquarters, city planner Toshiaki Yaginuma had no answer to this, though he pointed out that the plant remained a vital source of local employment, and safe enough to serve as a shelter for over 100 people. A survivor himself, he was in the town hall when the tsunami rose as high as the third floor windows.

‘Since then I have been trying to coordinate services at the shelters, and help people find temporary accommodations,’ said Yaginuma. ‘We have only just started to make plans for rebuilding the town. Obviously we need to relocate residential areas to a higher elevation, and make stronger, taller sea walls to protect us in the future, but none of us knows how long this will take. After the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, it took three years to restore the city of Kobe. I think this will take longer.’ Asked if he would  stay in the meantime, he gave more or less the same answer as everyone else I put the question to. ‘I love Onagawa. I will always live here.’

* *

I left Onagawa on a Monday morning. Nakamoto was driving to Tokyo to see his eldest daughter, and he offered me a lift as far as Sendai. His son wasn’t coming – he had just started back to school with his friends. We passed a line of kids in uniform on the way out of town. A woman was walking her dog. A man was jogging past a demolished supermarket in a track-suit and a dust mask.

I was thinking that in five years or less, a new town would be growing around them. The only sign of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011will be the same kind of stone marker that has stood along this coastline for centuries, commemorating past tsunamis and warning of future ones. Nakamoto tried to make conversation as he drove, launching casual inquires as to my tastes in music and women. I wanted to ask about his wife, but I couldn’t do it. I wished, on his behalf, that none of this had happened, and I imagined that he was wishing the same thing, constantly, even while we were chatting.

Magical thinking may be a universal symptom of bereavement, but the cosmic proportions of this particular event suggested that some kind of appeal might be possible, some exception made, just this once, to the physical laws that had allowed for it. If one earthquake can make the whole planet shudder on its axis, shift the position of an island chain, and shorten the length of an Earth day by a few nanoseconds, then why can’t it cause time to run in reverse, push a tsunami back to the horizon, force a mighty tectonic plate to repair itself, and set everything the way it was before?

* *

Miyuki Muraya and Yoko Feinman acted as translators for Stephen Phelan

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