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Remembering 3-11

A recent strong aftershock in a wide area beyond the Fukushima epicenter, that sicking feeling of a very different kind of earthquake, was a rude late night reminder that March 11, 2011 is never far away. 3-11 as the Japanese call it was terrifying on a ground floor Tokyo building, it’s difficult to imagine what it felt like near the epicenter in Sendai and Iwate. But the terror of the quake pales in comparison with the tsunami devastation. I will never forgot the horrifying live TV coverage of a huge fiery wave engulfing Natori. The aftershocks were endless and disorienting. After a few days you couldn’t tell if the ground was shaking for real or was in your head.

There are many tsunami videos, and I have watched countless of them over the years, but there is one taken near Minami Sanriku Irizen harbor that shocks me every time. The location is slightly inland on a hill just behind a Chofu Boiler dealership. The video was taken almost on top of the tsunami as an entire town is completely obliterated in the first 4 minutes. The cacophony of destruction is particularly horrifying with headphones, but even that cannot match the quiet otherworldliness at the 8 minute mark as the tsunami silently peaks then groans back to the sea.

In 2013 I had the opportunity to visit Iwate and see the effects of tsunami devastation. I rode the Shinkansen to Morioka then a local train to Miyako. From there I had to take a local bus to Yamada Machi as the train line beyond Miyako was completely destroyed. I will never forget the disconnect as I watched the scenery looking for destruction but there was none. It looked like a pleasant countryside. Then I finally noticed endless foundations covered in weeds and grass. Everything was scraped clean, of destruction, of life. I wrote an article from the experience for the Nichiren Shu English newsletter and repost it here in memory of the warm friendly people of Yamada Machi to mark the 10 anniversary of the disaster. Their quiet positive outlook in the face of devastation and great loss was a revelation and remains a constant inspiration.


Recovering from the Tsunami Disaster

Yamada Machi in Iwate prefecture is a beautiful area on a bay in the Tohoku coast famous for oysters and scallops. From the top of a steep hill with a commanding view of the bay is Zenkei-ji temple. From there, on March 11, 2011, Reverend Eishin Miura watched the tsunami flow over the top of the sea wall, quickly wiping out the entire village below. “The first wave was was held back by the (7 meter) sea wall, so everybody thought it was safe and ran back to their houses to grab belongings,” he said. “And then the second wave hit….”

Rev. Miura’s tsunami video taken from Zenkei-ji temple was used in a broadcast news segment

The Tsunami
The second wave that crashed over the sea wall in in front of the temple hill was over 8 meters high. One kilometer down the coast it was 15 meters. Further down the highest tsunami was recorded at 25 meters.

“That first night we had over one hundred people staying in the temple,” Reverend Miura explained. “It became an evacuation center for over a week until people could make it to the official evacuation centers.” “There was no running water so we had to haul buckets up from the bottom of the hill everyday when the water truck came,” Rev. Miura’s wife added. The main hall of Zenkei-ji still has boxes of emergency supplies, covered with blue plastic tarp, which spill out into the side-hall.

“Right now the temple is just an afterthought for our temple members. Which is as it should be. The most important thing is for them to rebuild their lives and make a living,” he explained. Making a living applies to Zenkei-ji as well. At present there is not enough work to make ends meet, so Rev. Miura and his two sons all travel to different temples far away from Yamada Machi. They only gather at the temple for special ceremony days such as Setsubun, Higan and Oeshiki.

The 60 temple families of Zenkei-ji are rebuilding their lives as best as they can. Rev. Miura took us to visit and talk with some of them to see exactly how this temple and its community are reconstructing. A short drive from the temple, we visited one of the temporary housing sites where a temple member has lived after her home was swept away.

Miki Sato, 71, lived with her husband in a flat area just north of Zenkei-ji. Shortly after the earthquake hit, her husband drove an elderly neighbor to the evacuation center. “I was waiting for him to come back when all the neighbors started running and yelling for everybody to escape. I barely had enough time to get out before the tsunami came. 5 minutes later and I would not have made it,” she said. “We ran to the North Elementary school with the tsunami right behind us. It inundated everything, even the school playground (in front of the school).”

Mrs. Sato said there were 500 people crammed into the gym floor the first night. “All we had was a single rice ball per person that night. It was 3 days before we finally had hot miso.” She did not hear from her husband after the tsunami hit. The next morning people went out from the school and started searching for family and loved ones. It took 14 days to find Sato’s husband under the debris in the front school yard. 

Shortly thereafter she went to her daughter’s place in Kamaishi and stayed there until the temporary housing facility was completed in August 2011. In early February 2013, the local government was getting ready to unveil a housing plan to Yamada Machi residents. It has taken more time than anybody anticipated to purchase private land in the surrounding hills and mountains. For residents who want to rebuild their home at a designated higher elevation, the local government will buy the old land at 70% of the old value. Nobody wants to take a 30% loss but there isn’t much choice. 

Sato said she would not rebuild. “We had only just finished rebuilding our home when the tsunami swept it away and I still have to pay off the loan. Because of my age it makes more sense to move to the new public housing they plan to build in the hills.”

Rebuilding the Industry
Temple member Masashi Shiohara, a former boxing champ in his youth, is head of the Yamada fishing association and working hard to restore the local industry. Every morning at 2 a.m. he gets up and heads out to rebuild and tend the oyster beds. “It might look nice,” he said waving his hand towards the sea with neat rows of beds floating on the water, “but most of the beds you see out there are empty. It will be 3 years (from the tsunami) before we see income again.”

Shiohara was on his boat when the tsunami struck, and could even feel the earthquake on it. He spent the night there, avoiding and steering away from all the tsunami debris. When he finally got to shore he found his home, right next to the sea wall, had been washed into the mountainside, miraculously intact and spared from the fires that destroyed most of the village. “I found my father hiding in a closet on the 2nd floor, wrapped in a futon. I grabbed him, what dry clothes were left and headed for the evacuation center,” he said.

“Speed is the most important thing,” he said about the rebuilding effort, “the longer you wait the harder it is.” Shiohara said it took 6 months just to clear Yamada bay of tsunami debris. And then there was a year of rebuilding basic infrastructure since all the packing and processing facilities had been destroyed. “Last year was the hardest as we started with nothing. We had to do work on our ships because there was no place to work on shore,” he said. The fishermen have places to work now but they are mostly makeshift tents of blue plastic with wooden stoves for heat.

Labor is also a problem. Older fishermen are getting out rather than starting over, while other people moved away to find temporary jobs. Mr. Shiohara said they can overcome the shortage of workers but will have to consolidate. Before the tsunami, Yamada fishing association shipped 5,000 tons of oysters a year but he is not sure they can or should recover to the same level. Quality and “branding”, not quantity, will be keys to reestablishing the industry, he says, but convincing the other fisherman is not an easy job. As we were leaving Rev. Miura asked “How are you sleeping?” “I only get 2 or 3 hours a night at best,” Shiohara said. “I went to the doctor and got a prescription to help.”

Planning the Future
On the top floor of Yamada Machi Town Hall, Village Council Chairman Teruo Kon briefed us on all the tsunami disaster facts: Fires broke out 3 minutes after the earthquake, the tsunami breached the seawalls at 15:22, 35 minutes after the earthquake. Fires quickly destroyed most of what was left. There were 776 victims, 46.7% of all homes were destroyed. 50% of those will rebuild on higher ground, 30% will go into public housing, 20% are undecided what to do. 

There is 26,700 tons of tsunami debris, 60 years worth of work but concrete debris will be recycled for the new seawalls which will be 9 meters high. “A good rebuilding plan takes time,” Chairman Kon explained. “It takes 3 years to do all the necessary surveying and research, 5 years to plan and 10 years to build.”

Chairman Kon showed us old maps of damage from the 1896 Meiji-Sanriku earthquake/tsunami and the 1933 Sanriku earthquake/tsunami. The areas of damage back then, when there was no seawall, exactly matched the current ones. “When you read the journals of those times, there is so much to learn from. Unfortunately we neglected history and based all our protection plans from the 1960 Chile tsunami,” he explained. “If we had remembered our history, we would have been better prepared. My mission is to make sure our experience is recorded for future generations so that they won’t suffer what we have.”

The role of the temple
On the morning of February 3, the members of Zenkei-ji temple were busy preparing for Setsubun. A group of wives were busy in the side hall preparing a simple lunch. In the main hall, bags with Ofuda and small gifts for the temple members were lined up in front of the altar. Members squeezed in the main hall and sat talking, hand drums ready for the service to begin. The service started and was similar to any service at a small country temple with chanting, a Kito blessing performed by Rev. Miura and his son Rev. Edo Miura, and a Dharma talk.

After the Dharma talk members set up tables in the main hall for lunch. After lunch everybody cleaned up and got ready for the final event of the day: the Setsubun raffle. Prizes ranging from sake and large slabs of omochi, to clothes, candy and more were lined up in front of the altar and raffled off. Everybody got a prize. Everybody had fun and left with a smile. But something deeper was going on.

Rev. Miura explained, “The worst thing in these times is being on your own or feeling isolated. That kills. It is important to remember we are all in this together.” Whatever was going on in the lives of the Zenkei-ji temple members, they were all coming together to chant, to take part in running the temple, and to share good times.

There are still tough times ahead for the community. Zenkei-ji temple could be swept away, literally: there are huge cracks in the hill right outside the small temple kitchen window. “The town hall officials came, took a look and told us to evacuate the temple,” Rev. Miura’s wife explained cheerfully while endlessly preparing huge meals. “The hillside could give away at any time. Any construction work has to be done manually because the road is too small for a hydraulic excavator, but those guys are all booked up for the next year.”

It will a long haul to full recovery, but after after talking with Rev. Miura and the Zenkei-ji temple members, their spirit of endurance and fellowship are remarkable. In the next 10 to 15 years, Yamada Machi could well be reborn into a vibrant and beautiful community.