KAMAISHI, Japan - Two years after the disastrous 2011 earthquake and tsunami, most of the debris from the deluge has been cleared away in this small city on the northern edge of Japan’s tsunami coast. The cars and vans once piled on top of each other like some kind of apocalyptic traffic jam have been sorted out or sold for scrap. My guide, a local teacher who lost three of her aunts in the deluge, drives us up to a lookout. Spread out below us is the coastal village of Unosumai, or, more accurately, what once was the village of Unosumai. The view reminds me of pictures taken of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb had flattened almost everything. The only exception there was one surviving building, the former Industrial Promotion Hall in Hiroshima’s Peace Garden.
In Unosumai, the village hall is still standing, broken windows and all, with the huge clock over the main entrance still fixed forever on 3:25 p.m., the time on March 11 of 2011 when an enormous wall of water washed into the building, drowning many of the village workers. A small shrine with flowers is set in front. While we stopped there, several people arrive to pray and give obeisance.
Kamaishi is a hilly city with little flat land. Rising directly behind the central business district are three steep hills, covered with a network of wooden ladders, stairways and pathways that have long provided a natural shelter against tsunami, a kind of local version of the storm shelters in Oklahoma. Tsunami is an historic threat here in the same way that deadly tornadoes are there.
These routes upward were critical in saving many lives. The town is extremely proud that not one of the approximately 3,000 elementary through high school children was killed in the surge, even though their schools, located along the shore, were inundated. It is often called the “Kamaishi Miracle.” By all accounts, the teachers and students performed admirably in the thirty minutes or so between the earthquake and the tsunami. Teachers had the presence of mind to tell their charges to literally 'take to the hills'. Don’t wait. Older students carried the younger elementary school children on their backs as they climbed to safety.
Kamaishi was famous for its network of seawalls, built at considerable expense before the tsunami. The seawalls utterly failed to hold back the surging tide. Plans to rebuild or strengthen them, using money from the national reconstruction fund, have become a source of controversy. Why spend so much money on a system that demonstrably failed its ultimate test?
Some argue that the sea walls gave the residents a false sense of security. “I do believe that, unconsciously, the breakwater’s presence did give people a false sense of security,” says Mayor Takenori Noda. Loud speakers all over the city had warned people to flee, with enough time to get to higher ground. Most of the town is within about two hundred yards of the nearest evacuation stairway.
Today, there isn’t much evidence of new construction going on. The national government has appropriated billions of yen to facilitate rebuilding in the tsunami-devastated zone, but not much is being spent in this town. When the slate is wiped totally clean, it is not surprising that it takes time to decide what to write as a replacement.
Kamaishi and other Japanese towns along the northeastern tsunami coast need something more basic than millions of yen in reconstruction aid sunk into greater seawalls, namely, a rationale for their existence. For more than a hundred years, the city's reason for being was grounded on its famous Steel Works.
The location of Japan’s first steel mill blast furnace, Kamaishi started to rise even before the Meiji Restoration began Japan’s transformation into a modern, industrial society. Built in 1857, the furnace was initially established to provide the steel needed for modern artillery to defend the country.
The city's heyday was probably in the 1950 and 1960s, when some 12,000 people were employed by the mill, and the town had a population or more than 90,000. Nippon Steel closed the works in 1988, putting thousands out of work. The town’s population has steadily declined, and is now around 40,000.
Kamaishi Steel Works never found a niche to justify itself, unlike Japan Steel Works a little further north on the island of Hokkaido. It, too, supplied the steel needed to build the large guns for the Imperial Japanese Navy, but it then evolved into a lucrative niche business to forge reactor pressure vessels for nuclear power plants, which it developed into virtually a global monopoly.
Kamaishi struggled to find a substitute for defense production. It recruited various metal-working enterprises. Some stayed, but others left because the location was too far from regular supply networks. The small harbor was thought to have container-ship potential, but it never developed into the kind of terminal that some of the city fathers had envisioned. The day I visited it was quiet and empty of ships.
In 2010, Foreign Policy Magazine used Kamaishi as an exemplar of what it thought ailed Japan’s economy, especially the propensity to spend billions of yen on unneeded and ultimately useless public works projects, including Kamaishi’s famous city breakwater.
Has Kamaishi's story changed since then? One element of the town’s new reconstruction plan involves a request for funds to build a rugby stadium. With the once formidable Kamaishi Nippon Steel Rugby team long gone, one has to wonder who would play there.
Todd Crowell is a Tokyo-based journalist.
Flickr photo by Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock, 1st Combat Camera Squadron 1. Posted by DVIDSHUB: "Petzel, a search and rescue dog with the Fairfax County, Va., Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue team waits for his master before heading out to search structures and debris on March 17, 2011, in Unosumai, Japan. A 9.0 earthquake hit Japan on March 11 that caused a tsunami that destroyed anything in its path." Related Photos: dvidshub.net/r/sojri7.