Minami Sanriku Town

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source : www.mirror.co.uk

We return to the Japanese town wiped off the face of the Earth by the tsunami
Richard Jones

IT is the town that was ­literally washed away by the Japanese ­tsunami.

Flattened in a matter of minutes, the port of Minamisanriku came to ­symbolise the Biblical devastation wreaked on Japan on March 11.

And for each of the 72 long, cold nights since that hellish day, the town’s mayor Jin Sato has slept in what remains of his office on a makeshift bed – refusing to leave his post.

Hour by hour, day by day and inch by inch, Jin is rebuilding the town, where two-thirds of the population – 10,000 people – lost their lives.

Recalling the day his town was wiped off the face of the Earth, Jin says calmly: “We felt the horrific force of the ­earthquake then when the tsunami came I clung to the first thing I could find, a rail outside my office. Water, debris, entire houses floated past me. The only thing I could do was hold on.”

As the 60ft wave surged towards him, he climbed on to the roof and clung to a radio aerial. Thirty of his colleagues were washed away. Their bodies have never been recovered.

Jin – his hands covered in scars from ­clearing the wreckage left behind – says: “I thought I was going to die. I saw the town washed away in front of my eyes and nothing looked real. It was like a scene from Hell.”

By savage irony, he was holding a meeting to review emergency procedures when the quake and tsunami struck. Today he surveys the scene of utter devastation still before him with awe, disbelief... and defiance.

“We are fighting,” he says stoically, driven by a typically Japanese sense of duty. “I will not stop until we put pride back in this place.”

Unlike other devastated parts of the country, where the clear-up happened with impressive efficiency, ­Minamisanriku still looks like the Apocalypse.

Twisted, unrecognisable possessions lie scattered along a valley that leads to the ocean. Thousands of mangled cars are piled next to boats and the splinters of houses – their contents strewn around, caked in sand and mud.

A photograph of a smiling teenager in a sailor’s uniform stares from a school year book floating in the water. A smashed rice cooker sits next to a ­bikini and a cassette labelled “day time ­moments” pokes out of the mud.

The Shizagawa Old ­People’s Home, 30m above sea level, where just a few people survived by hanging on to the curtain rails, is full of seaweed.

As night falls, the ­darkness is infused with the stench of rotting fish blown in off the ocean.

Despite Jin’s heroic ­efforts, electricity has not been fully restored and there is no running water. The ­Japanese government is providing evacuation ­centres but people who remain in their homes have to fend for themselves.

Unemployment in the town is at 90 per cent and young people have left to look for work in the cities.

But one young girl told how she ­travelled for two hours to Sanuma city and earned 2,000 yen – about £16 – sweeping the streets for four hours. It did not even cover her transport cost.

She, like hundreds of others, now plans to leave permanently. All across the town there are stories of heartbreak from the people who remain.

“The government just talk but do nothing,” said one man sitting in a cardboard box – the home he shares with his wife. “Almost three months after the earthquake there’s still not enough water. They promised us ­emergency money but we have received nothing. All I had was my driving licence and the clothes I was wearing. We need more help.”

Everyone in Minamisanriku lost a loved-one. One young ­mother told how she lost her husband and young children. An elderly woman who lost her husband rocks back and forth weeping. Most grieve in silence.

The desk clerk at the ­Kanyo hotel – ­now an evacuation shelter – searched the ­ragged ­coastline looking for the body of his mother every day for a month. She was never found. He has not yet been able to bring himself to hold a ­funeral.

Mitsuyuki Sasaki, 49, was ­working when a neighbour banged on his door screaming: “Tsunami coming, get out now”.

As he ran, the wave crashed through his ­neighbourhood throwing up dust and spray.

The neighbour whose warning saved him was killed. ­Mitsuyuki’s house was ripped from its foundations and he watched it get swept away.

He says: “It all happened so quickly but it seems so long ago, like another lifetime. I lost a very important lady friend, a teacher.

“Only one person ­survived at the school. Ten teachers died.”

Mitsuyuki, a calligrapher, had a large house with a garden filled with herbs and ­wisteria trees.

“This is all I have left,” he says, ­clutching a single potted wisteria. “It is my only memory. We all have to look to the future now. I want a new page in life for Minamisanriku.”

The people trying to provide a new start for the people living here is a group called OGA for Aid. The volunteer group has been distributing food and aid ­supplies from nine agencies in ­Minamisanriku, which is in the Miyagi Prefecture on the east coast of Japan.

The Sunday Mirror joined OGA for Aid’s convoy of two trucks delivering two tonnes of bottled water, donated by the US military.

Within minutes of our arrival, dozens of residents of the Ishihama district flocked to a hilltop home set up as a distribution centre and soup kitchen for 78 ­families.

They brought wheelbarrels which they filled with bottled water and food parcels. Government food parcels are allocated only to those who register as victims. The parcels are tiny – often consisting of a Pot Noodle, a few ­bananas, some bread rolls and a couple of cans of tuna.

“How are a family of four supposed to divide up and share a Pot Noodle?” asks Kei Watabe, operations manger for OGA for Aid.

“The Government are just feeding people to keep them alive.

“They seem to think that if you don’t die from ­starvation then you are getting enough to eat. But it’s not living.”

There are some glimmers of hope in this valley of death, which accounts for nearly 1 in 3 of the 28,000 victims across Japan – but those glimmers are few and far between. A telecommunications firm is trying to restore phone land lines. And local water companies are trying to get piped water into some areas using temporary overland pipes. But because of the damage to water sources caused by the quake, it is not safe to drink.

Portable ­toilets have been placed across the town and ­electricity is slowly being restored to areas near main roads.

Mangled cars have been stacked in neat piles and the iron girders of factories are being piled up.

A few areas of houses have been cleared up – heaps of splintered wood arranged gathered together in stacks.

A convenience store opened three weeks ago next to a temporary Esso petrol pump.

Local businessman Katsu Kura – who cleared debris to build it – says: “I want to give people a place they can find peace.

“I want it to inspire others that we can begin again.” New housing is being built next to Shizagawa High School and the Junior High School.

But the town is still ­thousands of homes short of the number needed to put a roof over the heads of all the people living there.

People who are homeless are given housing using a lottery system.

Takeo Sasaki and his wife Tsukako, who are both 63, were one couple lucky enough to “win” a place to live.

The new homes only have one ­bedroom but are kitted out with a flatscreen TV, a microwave, a cooker, air-conditioning and a fitted bathroom.

Takeo says: “The best thing is we have some privacy here. Money is short and no one has had the ­emergency money the government promised us months ago.”

One family have built a ­temporary home on the hillside overlooking the pacific from wood and metal boarding.

A deep freezer has been ­converted into a bath.

The family refused to live in the cramped quarters of an evacuation centre and depend on hand-outs from aid groups.

The people trying to rebuild their shattered lives say the only visitors in the past two months have been these lifeline volunteers.

One of the most haunting views of the area can be seen as you drive up the steep roads out of the town and look back down on the devastation.

But as you climb out of the valley, the destruction is soon left behind replaced by pristine rice paddies.

Nearby towns with fast-food restaurants and supermarkets compete for business and the car parks are full.

The people living on the doorstep of this town – changed for ever by the wave – are unaware of the horror which lives on in Minamisanriku.

南三陸 : 佐藤仁


May 22, 2011


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