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Surviving the 03/11 Tsunami: Ishinomaki resurfaces

One month after Japan marked the eighth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011, The Edition explores the voyage of Ishinomaki, the worst-hit city, towards recovery.

Fathmath Shaahunaz
11 April 2019, MVT 09:24
Wreckage of a house in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, in Ishinomaki City. PHOTO: Ishinomaki City/ The Archive of the Great East Earthquake in Miyagi
Fathmath Shaahunaz
11 April 2019, MVT 09:24

It was a cool, blustery day in the city of Ishinomaki, Japan, and the veteran politician grinned as he surprised his small group of guests with a seemingly unassuming object in his hand: a single can of ‘Felivaru’ tuna, the words “a product of Maldives” written in Thaana script on the side.

“It is the last one left,” said Shu Saito as his guests gasped and laughed in disbelief, staring at the small, unexpected relic from the most devastating natural disaster to strike Japan in recent history.

Shu Saito holds up a 'Felivaru' tuna can, the last of the shipment donated by Maldives to the victims of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. PHOTO/THE EDITION

The nondescript tuna can was one of 700,000 donated by the Maldives as relief aid to the victims of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, which wreaked havoc along the northeastern coast of the Tohoku Region. Washing away the lives of 15,894 people while over 2,500 went missing, the tsunami was the costliest natural disaster in recorded history with damages amounting to 262 billion Japanese Yen.

Eight years later, as the nation honoured the memories of lost lives with a minute of silence, the country is still working to recover from the day’s catastrophic events. Among such places is Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, a port town renowned for its thriving fisheries industry, and the worst-hit area with the highest death toll and damages within a single city - and those repercussions still echo to this day.

It is why Saito, who heads the ruling party’s branch in Ishinomaki and was involved in the distribution of relief aid, holds on to the tuna can; a sincere gesture of solidarity and support hailing from an ocean away.

“It is an important memory,” he told The Edition with a melancholic smile.

Once in a millennium

At 1446 hours on March 11, 2011, the magnitude 9.0 earthquake which occurred just 130 km off the Oshika peninsula, set in motion colossal tsunami waves of unconceived proportions - even for the earthquake-savvy inhabitants of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

“It was the kind of tsunami that hits once in a thousand years”, said Hideyuki Sugawara, the Vice Mayor of Ishinomaki City, explaining why the scale of the disaster was so grossly underestimated compared to the tsunami projections based on every century.

Wreckage of a boat carried into Ishinomaki City by the tsunami, in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. PHOTO: Ishinomaki City/ The Archive of the Great East Earthquake in Miyagi

“No one imagined it would be that huge”, mused Yoshitaka Shindo, a member of Japan’s House of Representatives, who visited Ishinomaki City in the aftermath with relief supplies.

As it were, 45 minutes after the earthquake hit, the severity of this underestimation became terrifyingly clear. The residents along the Oshika peninsula, part of Ishinomaki City and closest to the earthquake’s epicentre, could only watch with indescribable horror as towering walls of ocean bore down on them. The waves along the jagged coastline of the peninsula reached heights of up to 20 metres in some areas, knocking down trees and washing away entire buildings, while even the more central affected areas experienced waves of 5-10 metres.

Even further inland, the odds were not in Ishinomaki’s favour. The city lies at the estuary of the Kitakami River, the fourth largest river in Japan; and what normally acts as an aesthetically pleasing source of nourishment from the mountains, became a massive gateway inland for the incoming wave - which subsequently flooded 73 square kilometres of Ishinomaki (13 percent of the whole city), destroying or damaging over 56,600 buildings.

Over 3,300 people lost their lives in Ishinomaki alone, while 420 are still missing and presumed dead. The tragic numbers from a single city, accounting for 33 percent of the death toll from all of Miyagi Prefecture, were a result of not only misprojecting the magnitude of the tsunami, but problems in evacuation as well.

“Some people didn’t feel the need to [evacuate], or they did it the wrong way. Or some thought they might be safe in the upper floor of their house but were washed away,” explained Richard Halberstadt, the Director of Ishinomaki Community & Info Center.

“More people lost their lives than, maybe, needed to, if they had evacuated correctly”.

On the road to recovery

Eight years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, Ishinomaki is still on the road to recovery. A drive around the city central brings to attention new apartment complexes, numerous construction sites and, to the unfamiliar eye, what appears to be an elevated highway being developed not far from the outer seawall. All of these are part of Ishinomaki’s 10-year plan for reconstruction, which focuses on building ‘a disaster resilient city’, ‘revitalising the local economy’, and being reborn as a ‘vibrant and cooperative society’ - and the city is rightly proud of the headway it has made.

The apartment blocks, relatively new and in sharp contrast to the suburban houses, are permanent housing for the 2,000 people, out of over 50,000 evacuees, who had to live in temporary places post-disaster.

“We finished the construction of 4,456 public housing units on [March 10]”, revealed Vice Mayor Sugawara. While there were 520 people still in temporary places at the time of The Edition’s visit, Sugawara noted that with these finished apartments, along with 2,000 land plots provided for those who wished to build their own homes, Ishinomaki has successfully completed the permanent housing phase.

The elevated highway, serving as a second embankment against tsunami flooding, in Ishinomaki City, Japan. PHOTO/THE EDITION

As for the previously mentioned construction sites, several of them are the ongoing resurgence of Ishinomaki’s industries to revitalise the city’s economy. Meanwhile, the elevated highway, still under development, doubles as a flood wall and the city’s second form of defence against future tsunamis.

The first and most important line of defence is the outer seawall, seven metres high and built to withstand the more common tsunamis of around three metres, which are projected to strike every century. The seawall runs along the entire coastline, including the peninsular region of Ishinomaki City.

However, the outer seawall would not be enough against a maximum-level tsunami such as the 2011 disaster - and this is where the elevated highway or road embankment, the second line of defence, comes in. Less than a kilometre inland from the shore, the second embankment is designed to contain the wave if it spills over the outer seawall, acting as both a double barrier and a highway.

“In the case of another tsunami that strikes every 1,000 years, it is a certainty that such a wave would reach beyond the outer, or even inner, seawall,” stated Vice Mayor Sugawara matter-of-factly.

For this reason, the region between the two flood embankments has been officially designated a Disaster Risk Area or buffer zone and, thus, non-inhabitable. The city government moved the residential area behind the second embankment, where public and private housing, schools and evacuation centres have been developed; this includes properties for people who lost their homes originally built in the Risk Zone, as well as the Ishinomaki Municipal Hospital which was destroyed in the tsunami. As an additional precaution, the newly constructed complexes are not only reinforced, but all living areas and facilities are established in the first storey and up, to minimise potential damages from future tsunamis. Meanwhile, the peninsular region of Ishinomaki is also recovering, with the coastal villages relocating their residential areas to higher grounds.

Following the disaster, Ishinomaki further constructed embankments up to 7.2 metres high along the Kitakami River, to minimise inland flooding and protect urban areas. The city has also erected total 13 evacuation towers and buildings in strategic spots around the city.

The Kitakami River running through Ishinomaki City, as viewed from Hiyoriyama. PHOTO/THE EDITION

“I would say that 80 percent of the whole reconstruction process is now done”, stated Vice Mayor Sugawara.

In spite of the progress, there are still concerns for the people. Some are not content with relocating to strange new areas, or the towering embankments that block out the ocean or river that they call home, while others question whether the flood walls might conversely pose more danger than protection.

“It’s [due to] something that happened in Iwate [Prefecture] in 2011,” explained Director Halberstadt. “The tsunami destroyed the flood wall, and the debris caused more damage where it should have protected them”.

Ultimately, the measures are a compromise. The expenses to develop sea walls high enough to stop a colossal tsunami that may strike in another 1,000 years are too great to bear. However, the city government is confident that the reinforced embankments can contain the more common tsunamis, while any damages incurred from a maximum-level wave would be far less destructive compared to the past.

Towards a new hope

Although Ishinomaki has come a long way since the events of March 2011, the city still bears the scars; on land, in the sea, and the hearts of its people.

For instance, the economy of the port city famed for its fish market, took a direct hit in the 2011 disaster, and Ishinomaki is still working to overcome the scale of its impact.

“Before the earthquake, [the loading roof of] our fish market was 660 metres in length,” revealed Vice Mayor Sugawara. “We rebuilt it to 880 metres, with the most modern facilities … but despite all that, the amount of fish [in the area] declined after the tsunami, and so the number of fish production factories has dropped by 60 percent…”

However, the deepest - and the least visible - scars are carried by the people of Ishinomaki. Bricks and cement can rebuild homes, offices and schools; the “hardware” of the city. However, no amount of money or material could bring back lost loved ones, and many of the bereaved are still trying to cope and come to terms with loss; the “software”, so to speak.

During the Memorial Service held in Ishinomaki City to mark 8 years since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. PHOTO/THE EDITION

Every year, as the people of Japan everywhere reflect on March 11, relatives of the deceased share their sentiments during the Memorial Service. A deeply cathartic experience, it gives a voice to the harrowing experiences that still haunt them whilst honouring the precious lives that were lost to the waves.

Meanwhile, many survivors arose to become ‘kataribe’; storytellers who pass on their stories to the next generation.

“Because the death from disaster goes beyond what one can only imagine,'' said Rie Tokumizu, a resident of Ishinomaki as she addressed the gathering during the Ishinomaki Memorial Service.

Tokumizu, who lost her mother on 03/11, spoke of the regret she carries with her to this day, and her reason to become a kataribe: “I hope that this way, more people can be prepared for this kind of disaster in the future … I don’t want to see such a thing happen again”.

This form of reminiscence is also echoed in the Ishinomaki Minamihama Tsunami Memorial Park, set to open in 2021. Being developed in the coastal area of Ishinomaki where homes had once proudly stood, the memorial park will commemorate the victims of the tsunami and preserve the experiences and lessons learned from the disaster to be passed onto future generations, as the city makes it way “towards a new hope”.


In the words of MP Yoshitaka Shindo, that snowy day of 03/11 was an “unspeakable tragedy”, but eight years later, the country as a whole is better prepared and still progressing.

The greatest lesson learned from that day, according to Shu Saito and Vice Mayor Sugawara, was the uncompromising importance of proper evacuation. In their words, as humans are unable to prevent natural disasters, what lies under control is the crucial step of taking precautions and fleeing to higher ground when warnings are issued.

In addition to raising awareness on evacuation procedures and localised reconstruction such as in Ishinomaki City, MP Shindo also revealed that Japan is aiming to establish a state-of-the-art system to digitise the country, and accurately predict the magnitude of earthquakes and resulting tsunamis.

“It would simulate where the wave would be generated, its height, and its prospective impact once it reaches land”, he explained.

“We’re already monitoring the waves of the ocean centimetre-by-centimetre via GPS and satellite”.

Meanwhile, the land of the rising sun still remember all the assistance extended, from different corners of the world. As of September 2011, over 160 countries and 40 international organisations offered disaster relief, and the government and people of Japan express the deepest appreciation for each and every one - even a shipment of tuna cans from a tiny island nation.

The estuary of Kitakami River in Ishinomaki City, as viewed from Hiyoriyama. PHOTO/THE EDITION

The then-Ambassador of Maldives to Japan, and current State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmed Khaleel had visited Ishinomaki with MP Shindo in the aftermath, to personally deliver and distribute the relief supplies.

“When the aid from Maldives came, we were still eating only cup noodles, onigiri (rice balls) or preserved food”, recalled Osamu Kitamura, who at the time was vice principal of Ohkaido School in Ishinomaki, which served as a shelter for victims, for eight months.

“And so the people really appreciated the tuna”, he chuckled. “I still remember the taste…”

“We really appreciated Maldives’ donation, it truly meant a lot”, said a smiling Saito. “Which is why I keep the last tuna can, unopened, as a memory”.

Vice Mayor Sugawara also echoed the gratitude, describing the generous support Japan received as an embodiment of ‘otagaisama’ - the spirit of helping each other in times of need.

“This idea of ‘otagaisama’, of supporting each other, is something we must keep up in the future”.