When his alarm clock went off in the wee hours of March 11, 2011, 33-year-old salaryman Takuya Ueno had no inkling that this would be the last time he would wake with both parents alive in the family home. He quickly got dressed, downed breakfast, and started the one-hour commute along the picturesque Tohoku coast north from Otsuchi to Miyako.
That afternoon at 2:46 p.m. the earth began to violently shake. Being on the Ring of Fire where 10% of all volcanic activity takes place under their island nation, Ueno and his fellow countrymen and women are no strangers to earthquakes. This one, however, felt different.
Instead of hitting a peak after a few powerful jolts it kept going and growing, reaching a magnitude 9.0 and unleashing enough seismic force to slightly shorten the length of Earth’s days and knock the entire world off its axis by more than six inches. Instinctively, Ueno headed for the hills above Miyako, not waiting for the official tsunami warning to tell him what to do. He assumed his parents would do the same though with cell service down he had no way of knowing for sure. Then the waves came. It would be three days and much worry before Ueno could navigate the debris-clogged roads back to Otsuchi.
Upon reaching his hometown he found that the family house near the ocean had disappeared. He immediately went to the elementary school, a designated evacuation center, the place his parents would have escaped to if they had survived.
He found his mother Hiro had survived the tsunami by escaping to the roof of a local hospital where she happened to be for an appointment. From that perch she had witnessed the horrors of huge waves and the ensuing fire destroy their town.
But Ueno’s father Tokushi, who had dropped her off at the hospital that morning was missing. A month later, the patriarch’s body was found in his car outside a local tire store. Why he was there will never be known. He might have been heading back to the hospital to pick up his wife or attempting to get to higher ground when the tsunami warnings went off and was stuck in a traffic jam behind so many like-minded people. Either way, he was gone.
The Great East Japan Earthquake, as it’s now known, lasted six terrifying minutes with the first tsunami waves hitting the country’s northeastern coastline less than an hour later. A deadly tidal surge 128 feet high rolled over the city of Miyako, traveling inland as far as six miles in Sendai, and triggered a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima power plant, the worst radioactive disaster since Chernobyl.
By the time the water receded, more than 15,000 people had died, most by drowning. Now a decade later, several thousand more are still officially listed as missing. In Ueno’s hometown of Otsuchi — with a pre-March 11, 2011, population of roughly 16,000 — approximately 1 in 10 people lost their lives.
The residents of Otsuchi were left with one of the most surreal and iconic sights of the disaster, a large ship, the Hamayuri, resting on top of a building after being stranded there by the receding tsunami waters. The owner of the two-floor structure resisted having it demolished though the ship had been removed years earlier. The impasse caused a delay in the reconstruction in the area where extensive ground elevation work was being done. Finally, in January of this year, the wrecking ball has been called in to do its job.
The shell of the destroyed city hall where the mayor, Kohki Kato, and most of his emergency staff perished also stood for years as a reminder of what the Japanese often call 3.11. Pitched battles took place over what to do with the building-turned-unofficial memorial. It is now an empty space.
But many rays of hope have shown out of the devastation. Mio Kamitani, a Nagoya native and former nurse, was watching the waves coming in toward Sendai on live TV while working for a Japanese NGO in Vietnam. Within a few weeks, she was on the ground in Otsuchi as part of a relief team distributing supplies and providing psychological care.
She met Takuya Ueno, the two fell in love, got married and established a home in a temporary prefab housing complex for those who had lost their homes. Ueno’s widowed mother became their neighbor. The simple decorations in the newlywed’s home included a memorial to the senior Ueno who was lost to the waves. The family has since had a boy named Sou, now age 5, and the multigenerational family moved into their own house four years ago.
Kamitani’s NGO Oraga-Otsuchi Yume Hiroba (Our Field of Dreams) focuses on the rebuilding of her adopted home including the management of a new state-of-the-art community center. She and her team are now lobbying the local government on behalf of the town’s 13,000 remaining residents for a large playground. For now the children of Otsuchi are limited to their school’s facilities. Mio and Takuya’s son Sou seems content for now at home with his dinosaurs and Legos.
One of Sou’s former teachers at daycare, Tomoko, is the daughter of Masahiko Haga, a retired mechanic who had searched for bodies from sunrise to sunset in the days following 3.11. They were too successful in their efforts, finding countless victims, some as he described, “completely cut in half,” leaving him with recurring nightmares.
After the recovery efforts he joined the forestry division of Iwate Prefecture cutting down seawater-ruined trees to make way for a new forest. Some of the seedlings will take years to reveal themselves. At age 73 he will be a distant memory when trees such as hinoki (cypress) reach maturity. These, as he points out, are for future generations.
For now, he and his daughter, the Uenos, Kamitani and the other residents of Otsuchi are more excited about the coming of the cherry blossoms next month in Tohoku, the ultimate symbol of the cycle of life.