Lost and Found in Japan

January 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

While the world turned its attention to the frightening prospects of a nuclear catastrophe in post-tsunami Japan, another crisis was being dealt with, quietly, humbly, and with pragmatic determination.


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The date is April 8, 2011. I am on a bus to go into the Japanese city of Ishinomaki, a place that consisted of 162,882 souls before the March 11 tsunami struck. On the day of my journey, 2,283 of the city’s citizens are feared dead, 2,643 are missing, and some 18,000 are in shelters. Because Japan is, perhaps, the most technologically advanced nation on earth, the successes and failures of its attempts to cope with the aftermath of this disaster will doubtless be instructive to planners and governments around the world. I am here to learn whatever I can.

I’ve also come to see a miracle.

In the weeks following the Tohoku earthquake, in the midst of the Kan administration’s various failed efforts to contain the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, something remarkable took place. More than 1,500 people showed up at the Tokyo offices of Peace Boat, a small nonprofit that quickly became one of the first organizations to actively solicit volunteers. These volunteers came to go north, through Fukushima prefecture, into the tsunami-affected areas.

The mission turned out to be surprisingly dangerous. Two nights earlier, a 7.0 aftershock hit the area, causing a power disruption at the Miyagi nuclear power plant as well as an overflow of radioactive material. A tsunami warning was issued and then called down. While the situation was contained within a few hours, it served as a vivid reminder that the safety situation in Ishinomaki is still precarious. The buildings that remain standing are severely compromised.

Yet, the volunteer rolls are only growing. The first Peace Boat dispatch consisted of 50 individuals; the next was 100. The group was now preparing to bring up 250 the following week and as many as 500 in the week after that.

“We have lots of university students,” says Satoshi Nakazawa, a relief worker at Peace Boat who has also volunteered to be my interpreter during my brief stay in the north. “Lots” is an understatement. As I look at the crowd, it seems that about 90% of the volunteers who have shown up are people in their 20s or younger, and most are either students or unemployed.

The Mayor of Ishinomaki


Upon arriving at Peace Boat’s camp, I make arrangements to meet Takashi Yamamoto, project leader for this operation. He was among the first relief workers to put his boots on the ground in downtown Ishinomaki at a time when even the army (referred to in Japan as the Self-Defense Force) was limiting its activities in the area to mostly helicopter flybys. I meet Yamamoto at the makeshift headquarters the group is sharing with the other relief organizations here. In very un-Japanese fashion, he arrives 30 minutes late, reaches out, and gives a big, two-handed shake. “Call me Junior,” he says. He bids us sit on the floor so he can tell us what he’s been doing the past month.

On March 17, after a journey over stricken roads and a difficult night camping in the cold, he and the other members of the Peace Boat advance team woke and walked downtown. The devastation was Carthaginian.

“I couldn’t believe this was Japan,” he says. He likens the scene to the Tokyo firebombings: glass, smoke, ruin, a smell of dead fish, a world on its side with its contents bleeding out.

Junior happened to have a contact on the Ishinomaki Social Welfare Committee (SWC). These committees are the primary authority on what happens in any given city. Without local SWC approval there could be no Peace Boat relief operation in the area. The Ishinomaki SWC was functioning at one-third of capacity at the time, meaning two-thirds of the city council’s guiding leadership were missing and presumed dead.

The committee was reluctant at first to allow volunteers into the city. Who would coordinate them? What if they got hurt? What if they were criminals? Junior consulted with an architect who calculated that 150 volunteers, working eight hours a day, seven days a week, would have all the mud cleared out of Ishinomaki in approximately 4,000 days.

“Take every volunteer you can get,” he told them.

Junior has been in disaster situations before; he was with one of the first relief teams to show up after the Kobe quake in 1995. He was the project leader for Peace Boat’s response in Sri Lanka to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But he’s never undertaken anything like this.

The volunteer camp is a tent city outside of Ishinomaki University, which, Junior acknowledges, will not suffice as a durable solution. He wants to build a permanent housing facility for the kids who keep showing up. “You can’t have your people sleeping here in tents in November,” he says. He’s also trying to get money into the hands of the downtown area residents. He wears his new, unofficial role of “mayor of Ishinomaki” well. The life he led before March 11 is becoming a distant memory.


The Peace Boat volunteers are divided into 30 teams of five members each, and each team sticks to one mission. For some, this means a full week dealing with people in the areas hardest-hit by the tsunami—people who easily meet the clinical definition of the term traumatized.“When talking to victims, give no information that is not certain. You will start rumors,” the volunteers are told. “This will be very hard work. Be sure to keep your energy level up.”

For the others, it’s seven days of hefting boxes in a warehouse. All the jobs are vital, says Peace Boat, but for the kids who have come here searching for something—some formative experience related to the most significant event in Japan’s history since World War II—the warehouse assignment must be a bit of a disappointment.

The Earthquake Generation

The young Peace Boat volunteers who felt the immediate need to help their fellow Japanese offer an unexpected view of the country’s social reality—and its future.


Maiko Sugano, age 27, Googled volunteer opportunities and contacted several organizations. Peace Boat was the only one to write back. “They seem to take everyone. No experience necessary,” says Sugano. She’s unemployed right now, which, in contemporary Japan, carries a certain degree of shame. She’s clearly bright. Her English is flawless. Her 10-year goal is a simple one: She wants to feel more capable. She was worried about the radiation from Fukushima, but not enough to let it stop her. She wants nothing but to hold on to this experience, to absorb it into her. “What happened here will be forgotten so easily. People will stop donating. Next month, who knows, something else might happen. If I see it with my eyes, I will take it seriously at least. I will remember it.”

Sugano and many of the young and underemployed volunteers might be referred to as a “lost generation.” Originally an expression that referred to men and women who came of age during World War I in the United States, the term first came into usage in Japan after the bursting of the real-estate bubble in the 1990s, and the moniker “lost generation” has latched itself to various successive graduating classes ever since.

For 20 years now, the story has been the same: The biggest and most stable companies—the ones still offering a clear path to reliable middle-class income—only recruit fresh out of university and only pick the top students. The young people who aren’t snapped up, who willingly diverge from the white-collar career course or don’t seem to match the corporate ideal because they are socially awkward, different, or just of the wrong gender, often spend decades bouncing from start-up to start-up, from one small company job to the next.

“Those hired as contract workers usually have no hope of full employee status in the Japanese corporate world,” says Michael Dziesinski, a sociology fellow at the University of Tokyo. “The employment issue for Japanese youth is a broken postwar school-to-work system for young adults, and as a result, some less-resilient youth fall through the cracks,” says Dziesinski. The result: Nonstandard employment—referring to part-time, freelance, or just dead-end work—has doubled since the 1980s and today comprises one-third of the Japanese labor force.

After World War II, Japan forged a reputation for social cohesiveness, egalitarianism, and strong middle-class job growth. As Japan’s ties to the United States grew stronger through the 1990s, the Japanese economy has come more and more to resemble that of the United States in its most unenviable aspects. Japan’s income inequality is higher than that of many other wealthy countries, such as Norway, Sweden, and even India. The 2008 recession only exacerbated this trend, as many thousands of temporary and contract workers lost employment, bringing the poverty rate up to 15%. A few years ago, this disparity inspired the coinage of the term kakusa sakai, which might be interpreted to mean “disparate society,” or “society without evenness.” Another new expression to describe economic stratification is kachigumi soshite makegumi: society of winners and losers.

“The attainable Japanese dream began to disappear 30 years ago, in the eighties. We don’t know where the next Japanese dream lies,” says Tokyo University demographics expert Yuji Genda.


Peace Boat volunteer Issey Tamaku, age 20, is a politics student at Keio University. He lost his aunt and uncle to the tsunami. When he learned that his school had canceled classes because of the earthquake, he, too, Googled volunteer opportunities and found Peace Boat. He went to high school in South Korea and credits this for his perfect English. He says that, compared to Korea, Japan “doesn’t get out enough. We’re too content to stay here. We need better English instruction. These kids are learning English but they can’t speak it.” Still, he’s optimistic about the future of Japan. “I have to be,” he says.

Kenji Yasuda, a student from Yokahama, age 22, is wonderfully frank about his motivation. He was captivated by the scenes on his television and now he wants to know how existence here compares to his comfortable life back home. He says he needed to contribute something and so he will be shoveling mud for the week. “People in Tokyo are getting back to ordinary life,” he says. “Already, pachinko parlors are full. They’re losing memory.”

Koike Shinya, age 20, works as a house painter. He doesn’t know what he wants to do in life except, one day, go to Boston. He’s volunteering now because he wanted to play a role in the most significant event to take place in Japan in the last 50 years. “We are a country of very nice people, but some of that is only on the surface. When a crisis like this happens, you can see people for what they really are,” he says.

Another 20-year-old, Takumi Thomas, is a university student in politics and media, with aspirations toward being an announcer. He was motivated by a mixture of curiosity and its separate, murkier, altruistic cousin, “a desire to help.” Like almost every volunteer here, he began searching online for volunteer opportunities immediately after the disaster. Peace Boat was the first to write back and accept the offer.

Tsubabasa Shinoda, age 20, is from Kanagawa Yokohama. He’s a law student and works an unpaid internship in an advertising agency. Like many of the volunteers in the tent city, he says he got on the bus because he was “afraid of being indifferent.” It seems he’s struggling to do the right thing, groping for the proper response to an event far larger than anything he’s experienced in his lifetime, an event to which he feels intimately bound.

Besides Peace Boat, there are several other nongovernmental organizations operating in the area. A group called AP Bank sent up 100 volunteers for the weekend. The Red Cross was running a hospital. But Peace Boat appeared to be winning the contest to send as many volunteers as possible, which enabled them to cover the gaps left open by other, well-funded relief groups. Herein lies the first lesson of the tsunami: Expect a flood of volunteers and respond rapidly to marshal their energy.

The natural human response to a terrible news event like the Tohoku tragedy is complex. Groups like the Red Cross work to convert that reaction into a financial contribution as quickly as possible through televised appeals and banner ads.

Peace Boat put out a solicitation within weeks of the disaster, when the interest level was still high. It campaigned through its own network, through Facebook, mixi, and even the Tokyo blogger community. The message went viral because it connected with what the broader public actually wanted to do in response to the scene playing out on their televisions: shovel, repair, comfort, change the situation in a visible and tangible way—in a word, act. Clicking a banner ad does not have the same effect and never will.

On April 9, no other private organization in the affected area was taking as big a risk, either financially or in terms of safety, as was Peace Boat. Even the Japanese army began the relief process by carefully assessing the situation and writing a manual before distributing food and supplies. Peace Boat did the reverse: It started sending volunteers and then writing their safety manual based on the feedback they received.

Peace Boat was also spending far more than it was taking in. In normal years, it’s an educational tour outfit, ferrying kids around the world for high-priced educational excursions on chartered boats (Peace Boats). After the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the organization raised money and collected supplies, but it has never attempted an operation of this size or scope. Financially, the organization may not survive this, its grandest moment.

This character of impulsive selflessness reflects the attitudes of the young volunteers who have signed up for this excursion. I found it repeated in the survivors.

Resilience by Necessity


Yoshie Haga, age 66, and her daughter Mitsuko, age 40, ran a beauty parlor on the corner of what was one of the busier streets in downtown Ishinomaki before the quake. They had two houses in a family compound. One was insured. One house was not. They are in a good mood when I meet them and are eager to tell me their earthquake story.

The tsunami warning sounded and they attempted to drive to higher ground. They hit traffic and their car was swept up in the wave. They broke out and swam to a nearby rooftop, then went from building to building, all while Haga the elder carried her small dog in the front of her blouse. Finally they found a roof that seemed out the flood’s way and stayed the night there. In the morning, they hiked through knee-deep water to the local evacuation center.

They’re animated as they recite this tale. The part about the dog seems embellished, but I’m disinclined to press them on this. Of course it’s natural and fitting that they should want to make this story shine a bit after what they went through.

They say that their clients have been asking them when they would reopen their beauty shop. They are hoping to get the electricity back on by the end of the April, and if they can do that, they aren’t going to charge for haircuts for the first couple of weeks.

This willingness to plan ahead for a brighter tomorrow is encouraging, but rare. For many Japanese, the future has become yet another touchy subject. In a poll conducted by Japan’s largest labor organization before the earthquake, 93% of respondents said they were worried about what lay ahead for the nation and for themselves. Even after March 11 pushed the country back into recession, people like Yoshie and Mitsuko Haga defy this fatalism.

I ask them how they’re able to remain so optimistic in spite of everything they’ve lost. “Women are stronger in these situations,” they tell me.

Since the quake, the Hagas have become devoted stewards of the community. They spend their days moving among their neighbors’ houses, checking up on the elderly. One of the roles of the Peace Boat volunteers is to find people stuck or squatting in uninhabitable houses, which on April 10 number 30,000 people, according to reports. But community members like the Hagas are critical to the effort, because they are much better at finding their neighbors than cadres of strange volunteers would be.


A few minutes later, I am standing in a shell of a building in downtown Ishinomaki. A single security camera dangles from the ceiling on a loose wire. The south wall of the place is gone, knocked out during the flood by a runaway Toyota station wagon, which now sits outside in the mud.

This is the residence and former convenience store of Sho Nitta, age 74. When the tsunami hit, he and his wife barricaded themselves upstairs and watched helplessly as people tried to break free from their cars. They saw a woman struggling nearby in the current, so they thrust out a pole, caught her, and pulled her inside their house. The Nittas don’t know her first name, but her family name was Takahashi. They haven’t seen her since that night.

They continue to live upstairs in a gutted apartment. Like almost 85% of Japanese people, they have no earthquake insurance and aren’t covered for the damages they’ve suffered. Sho says he wants to rebuild, but I can’t imagine him or his wife pulling the lumber and drywall they will need to fix their home and store. His wife wants to move in with their son in the south. The aftershocks rattle her.

Now, Sho Nitta helps organize neighborhood association meetings every day at 8 a.m. About 50 people show up regularly to receive relief items and to strategize. He, too, wants to get the electricity back in his place, but he needs his neighbor’s permission to run a new line through a shared wall. This neighbor was a music teacher and left at the first opportunity. Now, he’s in Sendai. All that is left of him is his broken piano keyboard covered in mud, which sits outside in a trash heap.

(Now former) Prime Minister Naoto Kan is touring the city of Ishinomaki today, his first visit since the earthquake. I ask Sho Nitta what he would ask Japan’s prime minister if given the chance. Nitta says his concern is the long-term future. He doesn’t believe that Ishinomaki will ever recover economically. “The shops will try to rebuild,” he says, “but the customers won’t come.” He has food and water, for now, but what happens in a year or two? Will the government be able to support him if he and his wife choose to stay? How will they rebuild?


Five Peace Boat volunteers spend the day pulling mud out of the Nittas’ backyard. After several hours of hard work, they are able to leave the couple with a few square feet to erect scaffolding to repair their back wall. Nitta’s wife says she probably won’t replant what was in the garden, but she’s grateful. Extremely grateful. An orange crocus has sprung up beneath the Toyota that came through her wall. She picks the flower and holds it up so all the volunteers can see. We all make too much of it.

We have to.

The Reinvention of Community

The Nittas have been lucky, you might say. They haven’t lost anyone and aren’t technically homeless. They also exemplify the challenges Japan will face as the country tries to put this place back together. The nation’s population is the second oldest in the world. In the tsunami-affected prefectures of Iwate, Fukushima, and Miyagi, an average of one in four people is over the age of 65.

This fact becomes very apparent at Ishinomaki’s relief centers. Residents are allocated to rooms according to neighborhood, not name. In the initial days after the disaster, American television reporters made a point to mention how “orderly” the refugees were keeping the relief quarters. Many journalists were quick to credit the inherent goodness of the Japanese people, as though the inhabitants of this island nation possess a rare dignity gene absent from the common DNA. While flattering, these explanations also traffic in cultural stereotypes of the Japanese as rigid and obsessed with discipline—caricatures that have not always served the Japanese well.

The simple decision to house evacuees alongside their most immediate neighbors—recreating little villages block by block—likely contributed to the safe and calm atmosphere in the relief centers. Members of a community are the most likely to know who lives where, who might be suffering from diabetes or Parkinson’s, and how to reach them.

Almost all of the tsunami survivors I encountered felt personally responsible for reconstruction. The job of fixing damaged structures will fall upon the local community and the social welfare councils. They will appeal to the government for financial support, but all the important decisions will be made at the local level. This, in part, explains why so many residents chose to stay in damaged housing despite the lack of water, heat, or electricity. When the community is broken up and people are shipped to emergency housing situations miles away, reconstruction is impeded for everyone.

This fact seems obvious. Yet, authorities rarely consider community cohesion a priority when determining how to house disaster victims, as evinced by the U.S. government’s relocation of New Orleans residents, first to FEMA trailers and then across the country, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

I journey to Minato Elementary School, one of Ishinomaki’s relief centers. Exactly one month before my arrival, the tsunami’s wave—here reaching 16 feet high and thick with flotsam—trampled through the school’s first floor. When I climb the stairs I see that several cars still litter the temple cemetery behind the school, an indication of how high, forceful, and dangerous was the wave that crashed through here.

The refugees housed in the school’s upper stories have been separated into rooms on the basis of neighborhood. They have daily meetings, also at 8 a.m., to distribute food items and discuss the whereabouts of friends and neighbors.

A board displays requests for information about people who have not been found, and application forms for government housing assistance sit beneath an open window. These are necessary to score a spot on the waiting list for a government-subsidized hotel room or a temporary house, of which the Ishinomaki authorities have plans to build 150. Some 8,000 families have applied for temporary housing, a number expected to reach 10,000.


Sachie Tominaga is one such applicant. She was at a friend’s place when the tsunami warning sounded. She sprinted home, found her mother and her son, got them into a nearby cab, and rushed them to the elementary school. Tominaga’s son is now sitting against a wall, staring at his feet. He appears to be about 20. He is becoming visibly disturbed by our presence. His breathing is accelerating, and he is clenching his fists. Tominaga describes him as easily agitated. After she dropped him off at Minato on the day of the earthquake, she took the cab back home, turned off the gas, grabbed a few possessions, got back in the cab, and headed up the hill to the elementary school. A moment later, she and the driver found themselves stuck in traffic.

In the 30 minutes between the initial quake and the tsunami, tens of thousands of people in low-lying areas struck out to find higher ground. The traffic jam that resulted from too many people trying to take too few roads at once was enormous. Tominaga saw the choice in front of her clearly; she could stay in the cab and hope the jam cleared or make an attempt to leave on foot. She chose the latter. The cab driver, a man who arguably saved her life and the life of her son and mother, chose the former. She hasn’t seen or heard from him since.

I want to ask her about what her life has been like and what she expects next, but these sorts of questions aren’t likely to yield anything more candid than “Muzukashii desu”: It is difficult. The people of Minato do not indulge in complaint or expressions of unhappiness in front of me or the other reporter who is with me today. This is for our benefit. We are guests here, and there is a right and a wrong way to extend hospitality. And then there is the matter of pride. Sadness, like nakedness, is not for the eyes of the world. I ask her instead what life she would like to be living 10 years from now.

“Just a normal life,” she says. “Nothing elaborate.”

It is not the scope of Sachie Tominaga’s hardship that compels sympathy, for the world is populated by the poor and the homeless. Rather, it is the abruptness of her loss. In her quiet, respectful humility, she is a living testament to the fact that the destitute do not usually earn their misery through lack of discipline and poor exercise of choice.

Tomorrow, classes at Minato Elementary are scheduled to resume. Four of this room’s new residents have arrived. A group of boys, ages 7 to 10 or so, stand by the door beside their parents. They are shyly staring at a bank of cubby holes.

Tominaga and her neighbors will have to leave this room to make way for incoming students. She’s not sure where she’ll be sent, and she still has to put her things in order. “I have to go,” she says. She bows low and apologizes. We bow low in return and thank her. She leaves to comfort her son, pack away her few possessions, and prepare herself for another cab ride to a place that is not home.

Beyond Survival

Events like the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan illustrate just how little control we have over the future, despite our actions. Contrary to common hubris, you cannot plan for the unthinkable. You can only pay attention, listen, and learn in order to build stronger, react smarter, survive better when the unforeseeable occurs. The tsunami is already helping researchers, inventors, and designers to do just that.

Whenever the next tsunami hits a populated nation, it will again bring with it death, destruction, and despair. But each of these can be lessened through the intelligent application of technologies already in existence and readily deployable.

Think back to the Hagas on the afternoon of the earthquake. The tsunami warning has just sounded. Like thousands of others in Ishinomaki, they head out by car only to meet traffic, the inevitable result of too many people seeking to use the same outlet at once. They’re swept up by a wave and barely survive. According to anecdotal accounts, fatalities on March 11 were particularly heavy among people stuck in motor vehicles.

Gordon Jones, CEO of Guardian Watch, knows that, while a warning bell does give enough information to spur action, it doesn’t provide enough data to make a real decision. He’s developed a mobile app that allows anyone with a smartphone or video streaming device to get a visual read on a disaster playing out in their area in real time.

The app makes use of the fact that people rely on social networks even—and perhaps especially—during disasters, when the speed of Twitter makes mainstream news look glacial in comparison. There are already more than 200 million cell phones with either photo or movie capability. It’s a function we use for leisure, shooting video of our pets or our friends’ stupid skateboard tricks. But, in a disaster, combined with the right social network and pointed in the right direction, this enormous global web of cameras takes on considerable value. Such an app would have allowed the Hagas to pinpoint the location of the wave behind them and the traffic in front of them before they got into their car.

Combine that small breakthrough with a recent finding from the University of Illinois: Researcher Jonathan Makela used the March 11 tsunami to show that huge wave events create color patterns, detectable at high altitude using special lenses. These patterns can forecast the direction and scope of the tsunami wave. The finding could give emergency workers in tsunami-vulnerable areas an extra hour to prepare.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the March 11 disaster is that we need to change the way we respond to disaster victims immediately following destructive events. Too often, the initial response of those in government charged with managing the suddenly displaced population is to relocate them many miles away.

The short-term need to take citizens out of harm’s way undermines the long-term goal of restoring their lives and communities. The thousands of displaced Ishinomaki residents needed to be physically close to their neighborhoods, and to one another, in order to rebuild.

Now meet David Lopez, a Baltimore architect who’s pushing a new approach to emergency housing. His focus: shelter solutions that allow communities to stay together, as close to their original dwellings as possible, after disasters. It’s a mission he pursued in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.


Lopez teaches a class on emergency housing at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Last May, part of the course work for his students was to design a transitional housing response to an earthquake. The winning project transformed various bits of debris from fallen structures into a cluster of houses where the old ones once stood, thus solving simultaneously (though not entirely) the twin problems of handling the debris and quickly acquiring cheap materials. At a cost of less than $3,100 per house, the winning scheme would cost less than what the Japanese government was spending to build emergency housing units offsite.

This small improvement over the current status quo could make a dramatic difference in the lives of the people of Ishinomaki. Given the choice between abandoning their neighborhood and staying—perhaps uncomfortably—in a broken house with no water or heat, most of the men and women I came across chose the latter. If there is anything to be learned from the events that played out in Japan after the tsunami, it is that our public response to disaster must accommodate and encourage this vital urge to keep community physically intact.

Guardians of the Now

I become viscerally aware of this need for connectedness on the day I journey with other Peace Boat volunteers to Ogatsu on the outskirts of Ishinomaki.

Ogatsu was once a town: a collection of homes, offices, and stores laid out on a navigable grid; a place where people rode bicycles to the market, children walked to school while playing handheld video games; where old women swept the dust from their front steps. These are the typical characteristics of a Japanese community, but they do not describe this place. Not anymore.


Ogatsu, as I encounter it, has become a white Shinto wedding dress webbed across tree branches. It is a house with its interior—couch, chair, wallpaper—exposed like a diorama. Ogatsu is splinters and metal and cotton and silk chaotically meeting and diverging in a manner that is almost beautiful but that cannot serve a single human need. The town of Ogatsu is field upon field strewn with bits and pieces of its inhabitants’ former lives.

The town of Ogatsu is no more.

On March 11, the tsunami here was at its mightiest, at more than 100 feet high. It descended on this place and chewed through everything in its path. The volunteers with me are encountering Ogatsu for the first time, and they are silent. The van driver, a tough looking fellow with long hair done up in a ponytail, is trying in vain to hide the fact that he is weeping. We pass an upside-down roof stuck on a sandbar, like an overturned turtle, and a bus parked where city hall once stood.

Among the few structures still standing is the three-story hospital. Every window is broken. It looks like a casualty of economic depression, a factory abandoned 50 years ago, not a first-rate medical facility that was housing patients just a month earlier. The remains of once neighboring houses are piled up against its walls.

We have come to serve miso soup, boiled vegetables, and rice to the handful of Ogatsu employees who have elected to stay here and clean debris. Many have been sleeping in improvised houses or beneath the tin roof of the local recycling center, which we use as our kitchen. The place is not much more than a truck hangar that had been transformed into a living room. Mismatched bits of office and home furniture stand around coffee tables. Everything is damp with mildew and rain.


There were 40 town employees who lived in Ogatsu before the earthquake. I am told that two-thirds have vanished and are presumed dead. We prepare soup for 60, not knowing who else is in the area and may show up.

One of the survivors is Hiroshi Yamashita. In the minutes after the earthquake, he went to help evacuate the hospital, but then fled to the roof when the waters rose up through the first, then the second, then the third floors. He stayed there for three days, waiting for the ocean to recede. His only company was the sound of the waves lapping against the sides of the building. Night brought with it a darkness he had never before seen and the certain knowledge that many people in the hospital beneath him had perished. Finally, on the third night, the sound of moving water softened and disappeared. He was able to climb down the next morning, find construction equipment, and set to work cleaning the street.

He lost several friends that day, but his family—two daughters, his wife, and his mother—survived and are staying with relatives. He has been living in a windowless cargo truck so he can better assist in the clean-up and management of relief items.

With some cajoling, Yamashita admits that the government seemed slow in its response to the disaster, particularly in its handling of food. The Self-Defense Force didn’t begin distributing rice and bread in Ishinomaki until the first week of April, nearly three weeks after the tsunami.

Yamashita is reluctant to offer a more critical assessment of the Kan administration’s response to the event, or the government’s focus on the nuclear power plant. In situations like these, he says, the burden of both relief and repair lies first “with the town leadership, then the prefecture government, then the national government.”

It’s this self-imposed role of guardian that has kept him in Ogatsu, attached to a town that isn’t, cleaning away the remnants of what had been. I ask him what he would like to see this place become in 10 years. This is a softball question that I pitch to a lot of people—an open invitation to be optimistic, to recreate Ogatsu from whole cloth. He looks to the tin roof above his head.

“One thing is for certain,” he says. “I will still be here.”❑

About the Author

Patrick Tucker is the deputy editor of THE FUTURIST magazine and director of communications for the World Future Society. He spent five months in Japan researching trends and reporting for THE FUTURIST (“Solar Power from the Moon,” May-June 2011; “My First Meltdown: Lessons from Fukushima,” July-August 2011; and “Thank You Very Much, Mr. Roboto,” September-October 2011). Email ptucker@wfs.org.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, November-December 2011


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