20.3.11

Notes from a Volunteer in Miyagi

Thanks to Graham Nelson for this insightful post. Warning: Content below may be distressing to some.

--------------------------

I am a former Miyagi JET now working for the UK government in China. I was dispatched to Japan last week to assist with the crisis response. I got back into Tokyo from Sendai at 2am last night - will still be working on things from here for a few more days, though it will be strange to do so from the relative safety of the Embassy. It's good to have proper food and some modern comforts again, but I was very sad to leave Miyagi and would have stayed longer if I possibly could. While some food and fuel was starting to trickle into Sendai as I left, the situation got progressively more grim the further out you went along the coast. In many areas there is no water, electricity, communications or food. Even if those services are slowly restored it will be a long time before those communities recover.

For those concerned about Miyagi but a long way away, I thought I'd write a very quick note about my trip up the coast, with some specifics at the end on places people might know if they've lived in or visited Miyagi. I unfortunately couldn't visit areas south of Sendai after the nuclear exclusion zone was extended to 80km from the Fukushima plant (apologies - I know some are very concerned for loved ones there) and we didn't have enough fuel to travel north of Ishinomaki. It's not nice, but thought you'd appreciate a reflection of the reality given the continuing relative lack of information elsewhere.

The first thing that struck me when we entered the tsunami zone is the arbitrary way it had inflicted (appalling) damage in some areas while leaving others pristine. Shichigahama was a case in point. Driving along the coastal road, we suddenly entered coves where the tsunami had washed whole communities away, lodged cars sideways into top floor windows of precariously standing building shells, littered the beach with furniture, shipping containers and road signs. In one place a large ship was perched improbably on top of a gutted house. But we would turn a corner, where the line of the coast had borne the brunt of the wave, or climb a metre or two uphill, and suddenly homes were pristine, little Japanese gardens and alcoves intact - the ordered, idyllic Japan I remembered when I would drive here to the coast a few years ago.

But to be clear, it was appalling – if the tsunami could crush homes and boats into splinters, the people who couldn’t get to higher ground would have stood no chance – many must still lie somewhere among the wreckage and the mud we trudged through. By comparison, the earthquake – had it struck on its own – would have had a far smaller impact. Only the occasional tear in roads, fallen tiles and power lines gave any indication that a 9.0 earthquake had torn through this area. A testament to Japanese construction – homes and tower blocks that had been spared the tsunami looked for the most part completely unscathed.

More incredible still (though unsurprising to anyone who has lived here) was the way the few Japanese people out on the streets were getting on calmly, stoically and with incredible warmth and politeness with the impossible task of cleaning up their shattered communities. Little old men and women with brushes and spades cleaned streets and gardens. Elsewhere, volunteers cheerily stirred big vats of miso soup as people from neighbouring streets queued patiently for a scarce meal.

That is not to say there was not terrible suffering. At the evacuation centres that was on display most painfully. Tearful relatives clasped tissues to their mouths as they scanned walls covered with hundreds of improvised notes declaring loved ones missing. Children skipped around blissfully ignorant of the gravity of what had happened, while their parents sat resigned, gazing into the middle distance. Long lines of people queued somberly to read records of those found alive and those confirmed dead. Without electricity, communications or fuel there was little practical alternative for finding loved ones.

On the first day I arrived in relatively unscathed Tokyo, the first real sign that something was wrong was when I went for a coffee at a caf√© near the Embassy. At the next table a beautiful young lady in a perfectly pressed business suit sat silent, motionless, broken – I don’t think she saw me for the 30 minutes I sit next to her. Up in Miyagi, we drove through my old hometown of Shiogama and stopped the car for a moment. I ran to the home of an old man who had taken me under his wing when I just arrived a decade ago. He and his even more elderly mother were remarkably preserved; his daughter chatted excitedly to me on the phone he handed me, as if no time had passed. But her husband had been away for days, searching the coastal villages for the body of his father.

This is all incredibly sad, and will probably be more so as I reflect on it. But my overwhelming feelings now and then were of pride in these amazing, courageous, kindly people who are coping with such adversity incredibly well, and of love for these communities and places which are still very close to my part. The images of Miyagi I treasured from my time here will probably be changed forever, but the feeling that this place is home is stronger than ever.

Shichigahama

Very badly hit along the coast. The centre of the town up the hill is largely untouched. Several hundred confirmed/feared dead.

Shiogama

Area around the port badly flooded, but amazingly no confirmed casualties at the time I visited. The area around the main station (on the Tohoku line) was unaffected and looked almost exactly as I remembered, but Hime noodles is now sadly a Hyaku-en shop and the big York-Benimaru supermarket sign had all collapsed during the earthquake

Tagajo

We skirted around the largely undamaged north as the main road was impassable. But apparently hit very badly. Very long lines of people queuing for food, fuel (including kerosene for heating) and water everywhere we went. For those who worked at Tagajo high school, it completely escaped the damage.

Matsushima

Tsunami mud everywhere, and the tourist stretch along the coast particularly badly hit. The islands look exactly as they ever did – beautiful. The outlying villages apparently worse affected than the main town with many dead or missing.

Higashi Matsushima (Yamato and Naruse)

Significantly worse destruction. Cars piled up two or three high, heavy lorries crumpled. Mud again everywhere. The town hall, where rudimentary electricity is running from a generator, was full of people looking for relatives and sheltering – there were scores of other shelters scattered over the area.

Ishinomaki

And worse again. Whole low lying areas have been washed away. In the area around the paper mill (one of the main industries) lumber lorries and their contents have been flung far and wide, and the factory badly damaged. The main town streets are caked in thick mud. There are more than 31,000 people still in evacuation centres around the city – many hundreds dead. No water, electricity, minimal phone reception and food. Given the city’s slow economic decline, it’s hard to see how it will recover from such destruction.

For those still looking for loved ones - online list (in Japanese) of identified bodies at various prefectural mortuaries:http://www.police.pref.miyagi.jp/hp/jishin/itai/hanmei/itai_hanmei.html