When your hometown no longer looks like a town

Japan, June 27, 2011

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  • When your hometown no longer looks like a town
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    Captain Hoshi Isami talks about octopus season with Sachie Saijo, manager of the Peace Winds/Mercy Corps fisheries recovery program. Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps Photo: iphone_photos_spring_summer_2011_173.jpg
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    Sachie Saijo stands in what used to be her family's bathroom. Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps Photo: iphone_photos_spring_summer_2011_207.jpg

As we head west toward the coast, and start to see signs of the March tsunami’s devastation, I ask my colleague Sachie Saijo to stop the car so I can check it out.

“Wait a minute,” she says. “I have the right spot to show you.” We pull off the main road, drive up a way, and park at a huge white institutional building on a hillside.

“My junior high school,” Sachie says, with a pride not generally associated with middle school. We get out of the car and she walks me to an overlook. The view is stunning. “This is Shizugawa.” Below us, several square miles of rubble stretch all the way to the sea. It is her hometown. And it is a complete wasteland.

Sachie, a sweet and sturdy 30-year-old who manages the fisheries restoration project for Mercy Corps’ partner Peace Winds, gives me the background. Before the tsunami, about 10,000 people lived here. Now, no one lives downtown – it is literally obliterated. Fishing, seafood processing and tourism drove the economy.

But now the tourist hotel across the bay is housing hundreds of people whose homes were swept away by the tsunami. And the local fishing fleet has been wiped out. Before the tsunami, there were about 1,000 fishing boats based here. Now there are 20.

One of those 20 vessels is the Matshushima-maru. While his four-man crew prepares traps, coils rope, and does other commercial-fishing tasks I don’t understand, Captain Hoshi Isami tells me his plans for octopus season: Alternate between two sets of 750 nets out beyond the bay. Come back in every day to sell what he’s got, assuming it passes the higher threshold for radiation safety in post-Fukashima Japan.

Captain Isami is one of the lucky ones. The day of the tsunami, he tells me, he was in port prepping his boat for the spring fishing season when he felt the earthquake. He immediately headed out to sea, which, somewhat counterintuitively, is the safest place to be during a tsunami.

“I didn’t feel much of anything,” he said of the tsunami. “The current weakened a bit, but there was no big wave to see.” But then he started hearing radio reports from land of the massive destruction the tsunami had wrought in Shizugawa.

“I knew when I saw entire roofs floating by me just how bad it was. We spent three days out at sea because there was no place in the area to dock the boat.” Everything was destroyed, including the Shizugawa hospital, where his mother was a patient and lost her life.

Saddened as he was, Hoshi feels blessed not to have lost more.

The Shizugawa fishing community faces several boatloads of challenges. Getting fishermen back in their vessels will be complicated, expensive, and will probably require deep investment from both government and the private sector. In the meantime, Sachie is working with the local fishermen’s association to make some progress.

“Right now, we are helping the fishermen clear up parts of the bay by providing them with some diving equipment, heavy rope, and vehicles. We are also helping get the seaweed cultivation up and running in the bay.” Sachie, her colleagues at Peace Winds, and Mercy Corps are now assessing next steps for supporting the local fishing industry.

This isn’t just a job for Sachie.

She spent her life here in Shizugawa, but she when the tsunami struck she was in Paraguay with the Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteers – the Japanese equivalent of the Peace Corps. She headed home immediately, and signed on with Peace Winds to help build her city back.

Later in the day, as we stand in the rubble field that used to be her neighborhood, she points to a small tile floor. “That was the bathroom.” Her parents were on higher ground when the tsunami hit Shizugawa — tending to their shop in a neighboring village — and they have survived. We spend a couple of quiet minutes shuffling through the ruins, and I ask her how all this makes her feel. Is she depressed? Angry? Anxious?

‘I’d be angry,” she says, “But who am I going to blame?”

We climb back in the truck so we can go catch another view of her hometown.