In 2007 I moved to Kamaishi, a tiny city on the northeast coast of Japan. The mountains were small but seemed huge as they crowded in from all sides, and they were beautiful. The seafood was so fresh it may as well have jumped directly into your mouth, though I never got the hang of urchin.
My social life in Kamaishi could be aptly summed up by my choice for a favorite barstool: a regular seat behind the counter of an imported-liquor store run by an elderly Japanese man. I made friends with him when we discovered a mutual love of sea shanties, of all things.
Aside from my group, a small clique of white English teachers, twenty-somethings did not hang around in Kamaishi. We knew just one, a student in our adult English class named Yurie Endo. She looked so young that it took weeks — to our great shock — to discover she was our peer. But she was from Otsuchi, the next town up and we didn't see her outside of class. Everyone else our age toughed out their long Japanese workdays and, on weekends, fled inland to more exciting cities. A couple of years after I left, Yurie moved to New Zealand.
Kamaishi was past its prime. It grew well beyond its fishing village roots when magnetite was discovered in the hills back in the 1700's, and it began producing steel. The steel operations were significant enough to warrant two World War II poundings from American battleships. And after the war, production and population both skyrocketed. The city nearly reached 100,000 people before the steel mill was shuttered, in1 988. But during my time, there were just over 40,000 people in the city. Its four high schools merged into two. They aimed for a Pittsburgh; they got a Butte.
All the ominous social threats to Japan's way of life — an aging population, inward migration, urbanization at the cost of rural communities — were on full display in Kamaishi. I left after a year. I told a few people I'd be back often, but spent a lot of that last train ride through the mountains wondering if I had lied. Two and a half years went by.
Then, at 1 a.m. on March 11, 2011, I was awake in my Brooklyn apartment when a red banner popped up on Reuters. The news: an earthquake of at least 9.0 had hit off the northeast coast of Japan. Reports were slow at first but soon there was too much to process.
I watched a stream of footage from a Japanese station. They were showing, again and again, a wave crushing a fishing trawler into an overpass. I slowly recognized the top of a building. I had been staring at the footage and ignoring the writing to the side of the screen, as I didn't know enough kanji characters to bother.
That night, I knew two — Kama and Ishi.
I watched the same two clips of the wave hitting, over and over and over, in the same way I had once watched a clip of a plane hitting a building. I kept watching until 6 a.m. Then I began trying to find some way back. I couldn't think. I had to get back. I'd take on any job, carry whatever needed carrying, and then I'd sleep on the ground. I had to go back. I didn't know why.
March 13, 2011: Residents survey the damage in Sendai. (Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
It took ten months. My train pulled into the station near midnight and I stepped onto the platform. The first thing I noticed was that Kamaishi smelled brinier. It was darker, too, than it ever had been. The cold and the quiet, taken together, made for a profound stillness.
I skipped the two taxis outside the station, mostly to prove to myself I knew where I was going. In the daylight there were a few cars, but they were all passing through. Kamaishi had been decimated. Ten months hadn't provided enough time to tear down the mutated steel frames that listed over rubble that hadn't yet been cleared.
Kamaishi has survived destruction multiple times — those battleships, other tsunamis — but always during a period of growth, always with the national government backing steel production. The plan this time was the same as ever: rebuild everything in the same place.
Yet why rebuild an aging, declining city? Why come back to the same place? I had seen the entropy for myself, and that was before everything was destroyed. What reason could anyone have to stay now?
I wanted to ask Kenji Sano, the old man at the liquor store.
Sano and I first met when someone told me about an import food and liquor store downtown. And when the proprietor, seventy-six years old at the time, saw a new white guy entering his shop, he lit up. Few foreigners make it to Kamaishi, 275 miles north of Tokyo along the coast, and we regularly caused passing drivers to do a double take.
Sano invited me behind the counter, sat me down, plied me with sake, and started talking music. By wild chance, we shared a taste in sea shanties and Irish drinking songs. Sano reached into a crate overflowing with assorted scraps of personal history and pulled out a cassette of his mother, Hana, singing, It's a Long Way to Tipperary. The melody barely peeked out from a Japanese-accented warbling.
I sat behind the counter talking and drinking with Sano more nights than I remembered to actually buy something. He proudly showed off the Shakespeare reading-practice textbook he had kept since high school.
(More from THE BIG ROUNDTABLE: The man who hid in an airplane bathroom)
Sano's penchant for entertaining foreigners began when he was in high school and Japan surrendered to end World War II. His father, Seitaro, expanded the sake shop to include imported liquor, for the Americans occupying the harbor. It fell to English-loving Kenji to cater to foreign customers. He still proudly shows off the photo of him meeting his first foreigner, a Dutch merchant with a long-forgotten name.
Japan's steel industry had kicked off In 1857, when the first western-style blast furnace was built in Kamaishi. The nearby mountains were rich in ore, and in 1875 the Meiji government bought all the furnaces in town and created a single government-owned mill. The village swelled into a city around the mill as the company built schools and boats. Seitaro made a living selling lunch to steelworkers.
When the mill fell on hard times and had to cut back on labor, Seitaro's business suffered with it. Gambling on vice, Seitaro started his sake shop in 1926. The shop was destroyed the first time by a tsunami in 1933. Sano was only two years old, but he remembers the precursory earthquake and clutching at his mother's breast as they waited out the waves in a hillside graveyard.
The 1933 tsunami killed 164 of Kamaishi's 31,637 people — a successful evacuation compared with 1896, when a wave had cut the population from 5,687 to 2,780. As in 1896, though, in 1933 most of the buildings in the city were made of wood. The entire wharf was leveled, downtown in shambles. Sano & Co. was gone and the family had to stay with an uncle who lived inland. When Seitaro saved enough to rebuild, he took his love of garden arrangement into account, building his shop and home in such a way that they formed a small courtyard around a forty-year-old Japanese plum tree.
On July 14, 1945, the United States attacked Japan's main island with a naval bombardment. Kamaishi was the target of the first surface-to-surface strike, and three American battleships lobbed sixteen-inch shells at the mill. Sano was at high school — the same building where I would much later teach his grandson — when an errant shell destroyed the family shop again.
Sano told these stories cheerfully. This was a little unnerving for the war story — I only figured out later that Grampa Sheehy's ship wasn't involved — but the part where Kamaishi had been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times was nothing more than a historical fact to me. The kind of thing old people have seen because they are old.
Kamaishi bounced back in the post-war industrial boom. In 1936, the population was 40,388; when the steel mill reopened as Nippon Steel in the '50s, Kamaishi peaked at around 90,000 people. Seitaro rebuilt his shop, again, in 1952. The wooden shack on a cart path was replaced with a concrete building on a paved Main Street. This was the building I would come to know, the one that I couldn't find in late 2011. In 1988 Nippon Steel shut down and the remaining steel industry focused on manufacturing finished goods such as high-tensile cable and pachinko balls. By 2011, the population had declined to pre-war levels, at about 40,000.
I found Sano in his newly opened temporary shop, a room in a pre-fabricated dorm for businesses. He was eighty and did not look noticeably older than I remembered. He wasn't slower, just a little more occupied, as if he were constantly pausing to check the clock.
(More from THE BIG ROUNDTABLE: Kill me now)
On March 11, 2011, he told me, two Filipino sailors had just bought some brandy from Sano, toasted him, and knocked back. At the exact second the brandy hit their tongues, the earthquake started. Sano knew immediately that something was different from other earthquakes and rushed the sailors to get back to their ship. For the first time in his life, the quaking knocked bottles off the shelves.
When the glass began shattering, Sano and his son, Shigeru, stopped trying to save the wares and fled. They did not have far to go to get to a temple for shelter: the same temple Sano's mother carried him to during the 1933 tsunami. Sano showed me the 2011 high-water mark, just a foot past the temple's decorative wall, and just past two Buddha statues carved with the names of the 1896 tsunami's victims.
The latest tsunami left 1,086 dead or missing. As of November 2011, Kamaishi's population was 37,942.
September 10, 2011: Destruction remains six months after the earthquake in Kamaishi. (Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images)
Kamaishi is in the north, roughly at the same latitude as New York City. Colder climates historically meant thicker walls, and buildings in the north of Japan have always been more stable in an earthquake. The epic five-minute 9.0 quake in 2011 did little damage to Kamaishi, which was about fifty miles northwest of the epicenter, but the people knew the water would come.
There was time to walk to the nearest shelter as warnings honked out over the city public address system. The fearful fled from the harbor in a panic, dazed by the unprecedented shaking. The cautious followed the blaring directions. The nonchalant stayed put.
The shape of the city spared most of the residential areas from tsunami damage. Mountains funnel most of Kamaishi into a snaky river valley that flattens into a head as it meets the harbor. Downtown wraps around the northern bank of the harbor like the snake's unhinged jaw; the massive Nippon Steel factory dominates the larger southern bank. The majority of Kamaishi's residents were safe, holed up in shelters far away from the destruction when the water arrived, thirty minutes after the earthquake.
Thirty-two year old Yoko Takahashi lived in her family's small inn by the train station, up the river valley just about as far as the flooding reached. Yoko's nearest shelter was a thirty-second walk away, the Kyoiku Center, a tall building where I used to teach adult classes. Around 200 people crammed into it. The evening of the tsunami, the area around the building was undamaged enough for Yoko to bring extra futons from the inn, but she could only get in through the kitchen because of damaged doors. The cluster of humanity stayed in the building for ten days without power or water. The supermarket across the street sold out in a day. Phones, both land and cell, were down for days. After four days, the national phone company, NTT, got one landline open in Kamaishi. The line for the phone was four hours long.
While I was dazed and weeping miles away in Brooklyn, Yoko was twiddling her thumbs just a kilometer away from the waves, unaware, and waiting to hear what was going on outside. Throughout the first night, she never expected the damage to be bad.
Eriko Kurisawa was a student at the Kyoiku Center, quiet but quick to smile. She worked at a pharmacy and lived with her family in Unosumai, a village near Kamaishi. When the earthquake hit, she was at the pharmacy. The stunned workers gathered outside and their boss sent them home. Along Eriko's way, walls were collapsing and people were in a daze from the massive quake. Eriko got home, far from the ocean, and did not know there had been a tsunami. She walked her dog and went to bed, assuming her family was not home because they had been stranded on the other side of the tunnels, which close after major earthquakes.
The next day, when her brother and his children got to the house, barefoot and shaking, she realized that the earthquake was not the end of things. She walked into town to get information and see for herself and found that Unosumai had been inundated. The water had completely covered a tall tsunami wall and a steady sheet of overflow crashed down onto town. Eriko found her sister alive in Kamaishi, but it took seven days to find her father's body in a temporary mortuary.
Sano Masashi normally worked for Kamaishi's department of fishing and agriculture, but his job at city hall placed him in charge of one of the city's eighty-eight shelters, which together housed 9,800 people. Masashi lived in the shelter for three days before returning home, but managing the shelter was his job for three months. He set a curfew and rations. To foster communication and community, he set up the cots in clusters and forbade solitary drinking.
Some shelters were open for four months. The temporary housing, barracks-like prefabs that sprang up in every open field in Kamaishi, was installed over time. The first openings went to families and the elderly, but as the priority system became more muddled, Masashi had to deal with disgruntled refugees.
(More from THE BIG ROUNDTABLE: The hotel of enlightenment)
Kamaishi High School, my old employer, opened its gym as a shelter. For three days, 400 of its 500 students lived at school, along with people from the surrounding neighborhood. Aftershocks terrorized the darkened gym. The huddled people moved out from under the swinging lights. The students made room for families, and it was the students who ran the shelter, handing out food and blankets, carrying buckets from a water station to flush the flow-less toilets. One father came to the shelter to be with his son, a student at the school. He took two days to tell the boy that his mother was dead, waiting to make sure his son was getting along all right.
After three days, most students could go home. But others had no homes, or no way to get to their homes. My old supervisor and primary co-teacher, Hideharu Sakamoto, lived at school with his students for three weeks.
Sakamoto was a homeroom teacher for a senior class. In Japan, being a homeroom teacher takes on elements of being a guardian. College admission decisions are sent to the homeroom teacher. In the rare event that a kid gets nabbed by a cop, he'll be taken to his homeroom teacher instead of a parent for the talking-to. Sakamoto had been with his kids for all three years of high school. He went home just once — sprinting the last five kilometers — to check on his parents. His hometown, Okirai, lost more than 1,000 of its 10,000 people and was damaged so badly that Sakamoto believed rebuilding would be impossible. Yet he did not stay in Okirai, but returned to live with his homeroom students at school.
This story originally appeared at The Big Roundtable. Writers at The Big Roundtable depend on your generosity. All donations, minus a 10 percent commission to The Big Roundtable and PayPal's nominal fee, go to the author. Please donate.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Mike Huckabee's head-scratching advice to Christian voters
- How Scotland's independence movement lost the vote and still won everything
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- The American middle class is no longer safe from poverty — and that might be a good thing
- The Tea Party has its own immigration problem: Cuba
- Adrian Peterson and our misguided debate about spanking
Subscribe to the Week