A small fishing town in rural Japan undergoes a process of revitalization after a tragic natural disaster destroyed it five years ago.
On March 11th, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami that devastated Japan’s eastern coast. It was not only the most powerful earthquake that had ever hit Japan, but also the fourth most powerful earthquake in modern history. Onagawa, a small fishing town, was one of the most heavily damaged; 75 percent of the town’s buildings were destroyed and 827 people, one in 10 local residents, were killed. Over five years later, large sections of the town are still in need of reconstruction. But among the still-bitter memories of sorrow are new, cautious glimmers of hope: however slow, Onagawa and its people are undeniably experiencing rebirth.
Mass graves honoring the victims of the tsunami can be found throughout the city.
Visitors place flowers and unopened beverages at the foot of each grave. The local townspeople believe that even after death, our spirits need nourishment and appreciate beauty.
Until construction ends in 2019, many of the townspeople, including the mayor, must live in temporary housing. Rows of housing blocks like the one pictured above were hastily constructed in whatever space was available, such as the town’s main baseball field.
“I have decided to remain in Onagawa because I have no choice but to move forward. That is all I would like to say.”
A paper daruma swings gently in the corner of Rie’s store. Traditionally seen as round, hollow figurines, darumas symbolize the fulfillment of one’s wishes; when bought, the eyes are blank, and the owner fills in the eyes when a certain goal has been achieved.
“In just five years, we have been able to rebuild this city. El Faro is an example of this rebuilding effort. This cluster of trailer houses provides housing to visitors, and its mobility allows us to be flexible. To me, rebirth means transitioning from a city known as a disaster stricken area to one famous for being a tourist spot. Projects like El Faro can help us achieve this rebirth.”
After the tsunami destroyed four family-owned inns, the owners decided to pool their money and resources to open El Faro (Spanish for “lighthouse”), a hostel that is open to anyone who visits the town. Because local housing construction has not ended yet in Onagawa, the owners were prohibited from building permanent structures and therefore invested in trailer houses built on wheeled beds. They intended for the bright pastel colors to instill hope and reflect the bright future to come.
“Even before the tsunami, there were so many problems in this city, like the declining population and aging society. This is not unique to just Onagawa but rather affects the entire country of Japan. Even though more than 70 percent of my town was destroyed by the tsunami, we have been able to restart and begin tackling these demographic problems. In this way, Onagawa can become a role model for all of Japan.”
This train station, which officially became part of the Ishinomaki Line just a year ago, is a testament to the city’s gradual rebirth. Just as Onagawa has both preserved cultural customs and embraced modern ideas during its reinvention process, the station itself is a mix of old and new: inside, visitors can find a modern massage parlor as well as an onsen, a traditional Japanese public bath.
Similarly to how “9/11” evokes memories of tragedy, chaos, and great national sorrow in Americans, in Onagawa, one needs to only say the date of the tsunami–March 11th–for local residents to instantly remember the sharp loss of homes, loved ones, and entire livelihoods. This coffee cup honors everything and everyone that was lost.
This store is well situated in a plaza across from the train station. Although well-stocked with ripe produce and various other grocery items, its customers mainly consist of elderly Onagawa residents; even at the center of town, the younger generation is notably absent. The young are increasingly moving to larger cities like nearby Sendai where economic opportunities are more abundant. The population of Onagawa now hovers around 6,900, down from 10,000 before the tsunami.
“I lost everything. Everything was washed away except for myself. I lost my best customers and friends to the tsunami. And the few people who survived fled shortly after. I only want everyone to come back and live together. I especially want young people to come back, but I know this is difficult because there is no work here. But me? I’ve always lived by the ocean, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”