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RIKUZENTAKATA – The town of 23,000 is accustomed to quakes and tsunamis, so when the twin natural disasters hit the community hugging Japan’s jagged northeast coast, everyone knew what to do.
“We know we have 30 minutes to move after an earthquake,” said volunteer fireman Akio Kin, 51.
“People who left immediately made it. And those who were late didn’t.”
Indeed, not everyone made it – so mighty were the waves that eight of the 11 emergency evacuation points in the city were taken out by the tsunami.
Here, where the 23m-high waves crashing 8km inland gutted everything in their path, at least 800 people have been confirmed dead and 1,646 are missing.
Of the 8,000 or so households here, 3,600 have been destroyed, leaving 8,500 people in emergency shelters.
Kin, for example, is still looking for his grandmother – she might be in a shelter, or she might have been washed away.
And Tomouki Murakami, a city planner whose mother is confirmed to be among the dead, is hoping his son is alive. Working at the disaster response centre, he said he was but one among many who had suffered such a loss.
Among the ruins
In fact, in looking at what is left of the town’s once expansive and developed waterfront, that sense of loss is what dominates the wasted landscape for as far as the eye can see.
Now and again, masked figures, either cleanup crews or surviving residents, are seen scrambling over a heap of mangled things, the flotsome and jetsome of industry and domesticity, looking for what they miss.
Takeshi Osaka, 33, was looking for his grandmother, Noriko. He did not find her on that bitingly cold Wednesday. Nor did he find the childhood photos he was looking for. But then, he knew his chances were slim.
“My house was close to the beach,” he said, pointing in a general direction somewhere in the field of debris. “Everything was washed completely away.”
Osaka did not find what he was looking for, but then, it is not clear that he even knew where to look, because the tableau of destruction makes images of war zones seem tidy by comparison.
Now and again, the wind carries what seems to be the worrying smell of decaying flesh, making one almost grateful for the unseasonably cold weather which sporadically dusts the coast with snow.
Given the number of those missing, it is not a stretch to assume that the receding waves did not wash everyone away and that many remain obscured by the rubble of their town.
As it stands, there is a waiting list for funerals as each body must first be cremated – in accordance with Buddhist and Shinto traditions.
With electricity short and generators in heavy demand, we were told that there is a limit of eight ceremonies each day.
Nothing has been spared. Not the houses and cars, factories and parking lots, kindergartens and temples. Not the living, nor the dead, whose headstones have been disrupted.
If on an individual level the thought of rebuilding seems far from people’s mind, it is a top priority for the government, because high atop the hills of Rikuzentakata, rows of pre-fabricated temporary housing are already being built.
Small town, small memory
That Japan is earthquake country is well known, understandably by the Japanese themselves, who have been not only surviving, but studying their seismic foe for years.
In fact, they are well aware of when they have fallen short in learning from earthquakes, with entities like the Japan Science and Technology Agency publishing papers such as the pointedly named “Failure Knowledge Database/100 Selected Cases” highlighting those shortcomings.
But some communities do not fail to learn.
Keiko Kashawazaki, 61, hangs her laundry on the deck in front of her house, which overlooks the rice paddies washed out in the tsunami.
The low-lying area is where houses were washed away in a tsunami in 1896 after the Meiji-Sanriku earthquake, in which the town lost 204 of its 1,059 residents, and 40 per cent of its homes. Nationwide, that magnitude 8.5 tsunami killed around 22,000 people and destroyed nearly 9,000 homes.
Kashawazaki points to a small grove of trees she can see from her deck.
“That’s where my family’s house used to be,” she said. “After that, we built on high ground.”
This small community of 1,500, in which so far one person has been reported missing and three homes were damaged has a lot to teach fellow coastal communities.
Yoshinori Yokoishi, 62, tells us that not every small town has a long memory, and that the lessons Yoshihama leaned over a century ago take a while to learn.
“Of course in the short term, the lesson is to build on high ground,” said Yokoishi, pointing out that not every town has the same sense of history.
Many of the families living in Yoshihama now have been there for over a century. Yokoishi’s own great grandmother was killed in the 1896 tsunami, as were three of her children.
“But in the long term, maybe 10 or 20 years, people will forget and … they will build by the sea.”
His observations are echoed by Kimiaki Toda, the mayor of Ofunato, just 20 minutes southwest of Yoshihama. Both communities are just a stone’s throw away from Rikuzentakata.
Toda, who told Al Jazeera that Ofunato, the heavily-hit port town, where 245 people have been confirmed dead so far, would rebuild on the waterfront (this time, using reinforced concrete) said that lessons were learned from the Chilean earthquake that triggered a tsunami in Japan in 1960.
Clearly, he said, houses and buildings built on “flat planes at sea level … is very dangerous”.
“However,” said Toda, “such case happens, let’s say, once every 100 years, so probably, it will be easy for people to forget or to put aside such a historical learning – it’s a problem.”
An individual can remember, he said, but subsequent generations tend to forget. Then, quoting a Japanese novelist, Toda said: “Disaster happens when people forget previous disasters.”
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