In memory of 311: The town of Yamamotocho

Last year, just before the pandemic became a thing, I had an opportunity to visit the city of Kakuda for a homestay program organized by my university. Kakuda is a small town in Miyagi prefecture, notable for being home to one of JAXA’s aerospace research and development facilities (JAXA is the Japanese NASA, Japan Aerospace eXploration Agency). Miyagi prefecture belongs to the greater region of Tohoku, along with Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate and Yamagata prefectures. This northern part of Japan is generally underdeveloped, with an agricultural economy, rapid depletion of rural population and high suicide rates. Unfortunately, the east part of Tohoku, was the hardest hit from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Let’s see how one of the seaside towns in Miyagi looks like a decade later.

We headed to Miyagi by bus, taking the seaside expressway and passing through Ibaraki and Fukushima prefectures. In normal times, Fukushima is famous for the horse tradition and specifically the annual Mounted Samurai Festival of the city of Minami-Soma “Soma Nomaoi”. Horses are even referenced in the name of the city itself as the characters for Soma “相馬” mean “mutual horses”. Supposedly, the festivities have been taking place since the 14th century, the legacy of legendary warrior Taira no Masakado. On the fateful day of March 11th, 2011, the collective memory of the planet registered the default association of Fukushima as the prefecture where a nuclear power plant meltdown took place after an M9.0 earthquake-generated tsunami hit the shore. In Japan, the widespread destruction of not only Fukushima, but also Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, with lingering effects on Japanese economy and trust as a whole, is often referred to as Higashi nihon daishinsai or the Great East Japan Earthquake.

A decade later, en route to the north, there is little that reminds what happened. A hint would be that the plains appear empty. Another hint would be that large areas are occupied by solar farms, in order to make use of what was rendered unusable for agriculture due to radiation leakage. On the sides of the expressway, there are large black sacks full of dirt. All of this is decontaminated dirt from other locations, that is buried under the highway for safety, since no one stays there for a long time. There are sensors at regular intervals showing the local radiation levels. The highest value I saw on the highway was at 2.5mSv/h close to the city of Tomioka. Rest assured that these levels are quite low, considering that this amount is less than the dose for a mouth X-ray examination. There are other sings that are covered with blue plastic, because they head to roads that are currently out of the accessible zone.

While we did a lot of interesting things in Kakuda, among which visiting the JAXA facility and learning about local folk customs, we also visited the seaside town of Yamamotocho (山元町). This town was one of the many that suffered greatly from the tsunami, rather than the earthquake itself. On the day of my visit the weather was rainy, the color palette of the landscape appearing even gloomier. The old Yamashita train station is shown in the picture below, do you see it?

I guess you couldn’t. And why would you, considering that Yamashita station was involuntarily demolished from the force of the tsunami. Basically, the tsunami washed away the entire Joban line of JR trains. The only thing that remains now is the gap between the platforms, some textured yellow tiles indicating the end of the platform and a white frame that used to hold the timetable. The name stays, as the nearby post office is still called “Post Office in front of Yamashita station” (山下駅前簡易郵便局), despite the lack of a station there.

Although the town is small, more than 600 people could not survive the great wave. The city built a memorial next to the old train station with a statue called Daichi no to (大地の塔) or ‘tower of the vast land’. The tower, while initially looks like a wave peak, is actually a bamboo spouting from the earth, expressing feelings of “memory”, “reconstruction” and “wish”. The statue stands 3.11cm tall, the same as 3/11 the day of the devastating quake. It is designed so that its shade falls on an inscription at 14:46 on the 11th of March each year. Lastly but most importantly, it is surrounded by a circular marble wall that holds the names and ages of all the people that lost their lives as a result of the quake. Hearing the descriptions of a volunteer guide and reading the names of all these people, in many cases students and babies, as well as entire families, made me feel emotional. It makes me feel emotional even now, just thinking about it.

Opposite to the post office, there is a shed-like building that functions as a temporary museum recording the events of the earthquake, supported by the town’s volunteers. There are a lot of before and after photos, as well as reports indicating the extent of the damage. The red-shades in the maps below show how far the wave reached in the mainland. There is a ruler showing the height of the tsunami at that location as well as a hanging clock with time stuck at the time the tsunami reached it. According to the town’s data, 613 people lost their lives and 5 remain missing to this day. More than 2000 houses were completely destroyed, with over a half being entirely swept away. The wave entered the shore up until the national expressway and almost all buildings around the Nakahama elementary school were demolished. These numbers are huge, but you have to keep in mind that they still refer only to the town of Yamamotocho. The nationwide casualties were 22,199 dead and missing people, making it the second deadliest earthquake recorded in Japan, after the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. You can find a log of the days in Yamamotocho during and after the earthquake here (in Japanese). The earthquake was so strong that a recent M6 earthquake two weeks ago, in February 2021, was considered an after-shock of the 2011 earthquake and caused understandable panic all around Japan.

Indeed, if you look towards the side of the sea, you can only see flat land. No buildings, no structures, no people, only cleaned and flat land. Below is the location where a driving school used to be, a place were 25 students lost their lives. A small memorial with flowers and sake was there to keep the memory alive. Although a megaphone system repeating the evacuation order was set up, a lot of poles were out of order as a result of the sudden power cut due to the crippled Fukushima power plant. It was still winter and many people had their windows closed, so the sound of the evacuation message from surrounding megaphones could not penetrate the thick walls, not allowing them to evacuate on time.

While there are many stories of people who were lost, there are many of those who were saved. Let’s have a look at the Nakahama Elementary school and how it is today. Although no buildings remain at its vicinity, the town decided to not demolish the school. The residents had discussed thorough tsunami preservation methods in the ’80s and built the school so that the roof can be used for evacuation through an external staircase. Thanks to the careful planning of the local education board and the quick thinking of the teachers, 90 students were saved by evacuating to the rooftop. Next to the school used to be a cemetery, traces of which are visible on the ground, with regular stones mixed with black marble from tombstones. Now, a tall pole with hanging yellow handkerchiefs stands there. The yellow color symbolizes hope and shows that the residents of Yamamotocho remain healthy and vibrant.

People inside and outside Japan are still bitter towards TEPCO’s mismanagement of the Fukushima power plant that caused a large area to be uninhabitable. But we must not forget how large was the immediate effect of the earthquake itself and especially the tsunami. This experience has made people aware of the importance of taking thorough prevention measures, accompanied by an increasing distrust against nuclear energy as a whole. The political and social landscape in Japan changed immensely and the heavy criticism towards the government was voiced in the 2016 film Shin Godzilla, as a friend from Miyagi’s capital Sendai explained to me. The recovery of Tohoku moves gradually, although not according to the official fiscal plan. Some recent news mentioned a kindergarten reopening in one of the abandoned towns. Decontamination work around the power plant is also progressing, with the management implementing innovative solutions as a shortage of shielded storage containers causes delays. Last year, a friend visited the town of Tomioka, now inhabited mostly by decontamination workers, and entered the 2nd nuclear reactor in the Fukushima plant as a member of an overview project organized by the University of Tokyo (you really can’t visit there without a special permit). Through him and lectures from the University of Tokyo I found out about the great advances in technology of nuclear power generation, involving modular reactors, with enhanced safety protocols and limited exposure in cases of a failure. If we truly want to aim towards a future free of carbon emissions and sustainable power generation, we cannot discard the advances of nuclear technology.

I want to end this post on a happy note, and our guides from Yamamotocho probably thought the same about how to finish our visit to the town. So, they took us for strawberry picking at a local farm. You pay a small fee, enter the greenhouse and start picking and eating the juiciest strawberries you can find. The trick is to bite the strawberry from the base of the branch, starting from the white, sour part and to eat the sweet red part last. If you want, you can dip your strawberries in condensed milk, complimentary to the entrance fee.

If you ever visit the area, be on the lookout for KitKat with Zunda beans flavor and try to taste a glass of locally brewed Fukushima socchu. Also, if you live in an earthquake-prone country, today is a good day to make sure your earthquake evacuation kit is prepared correctly. Stay safe!

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