01/22/2012 09:54 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2012

Revisiting A Tsunami-Struck Town In Japan

My father is from a small town in Japan named Onagawa that the last few decades have not been kind to it. A gradual and persistent drain of youth to Tokyo and nearby cities had sapped Onagawa of much of it's work force and left its two major employers -- the fishing port and a nuclear power plant -- wondering about the future. Then, on March 11th, such quotidian worries were temporarily suspended when a 78 foot wall of water surged into the valley where Onagawa was located and all but smeared it from the map.

Last September, my aunt and I loaded up a car in Tokyo and drove North to see what we could of it. The road to Onagawa took us past towns and cities in various states of destruction. Every so often, she pointed out the government-issued blue tarps that still cover quake damage on houses. It was a grim game of eye-spy that has become a compulsion for many Japanese people. The Japanese coastline is so craggy that when the waves came, some areas only experienced light flooding while on the more exposed sides of bays and headlands others would have needed arcs to save them. Onagawa's fatal flaw was not that it faced the ocean, it was the angle at which it faced the ocean. A few degrees north or south would have spared much of the town. As it was, the earth shook, and the waves came head on.

"Onagawa is the most damaged town on the coast," says Tsutomu Yamanaka, the Program Coordinator for Japan Platform, one of the few relief agencies working in Onagawa. "Also, because it is small and relatively isolated, The situation is that Onagawa is very closed and there isn't much info about it, so it has also suffered from some of the smallest amounts of outside aid."

When my aunt and I pulled into town, it was hard to imagine that anyone was suffering because there was no town there at all. Instead, we entered the mouth of an empty valley carpeted by knee-high weeds. Ten thousand people lived in this valley at the start of this year in tightly packed houses and apartment buildings. Incredibly, an estimated 8,000 remain. Some 1,300 people were snatched away by the waters. Their names form part of a vague and ever-growing list of 22,000 other Japanese who disappeared on March 11 and will never be seen again. By comparison, the official death toll from Hurricane Katrina was 1,723.

The roads were shiny black asphalt, newly laid and immaculately free of debris in a place that is otherwise nothing but debris. We passed the old fishing port that used to be the economic heart of the town. Now it was just cracked concrete, and bent steal partially submerged in a sea that had refused to recede to its old level. A four story administrative building lay on its side, almost perfectly intact. It looked like it could simply be set it back on its base and it would be ready for use again.

Reconstruction was underway, donated fishing boats were already en route. The larger problem, however, was the ocean. "The tsunami left tons of debris in the sea," says Yamanaka. "Now they are employing pro divers to clear it and rebuild the infrastructure for aquaculture like salmon, oysters, and, hoya (sea squirts). But the bigger issue is radiation, and if the fish have been contaminated by Fukushima. Onagawa fisherman are really afraid of radiation."

Farther back into the valley, the road wound around four-story hills of debris. Teams of workers were still adding to them. On my left I passed the nuclear power plant - which the Japanese government used to tout as the fastest-built nuclear plant in the world. It didn't melt down, like the one in Fukushima some 100 miles Southwest, where they lost four reactors in a disaster that is ranked by international experts on the same level as Chernoblyl. But what exactly did happen to it remains unclear. "Many of the people aren't overly worried about radiation (from this plant), said Yamanaka. "But it's not clear if the power station has been damaged or not. The tsunami was very strong. Most people hope that the nuclear power station doesn't have any damage, but the government is very secretive about the information regarding it."

Yamanaka, who coordinates a staff of ten, says the biggest problem has been finding a place to put the people that remain. "We set up some temporary houses on the mountain sides, but we don't have enough land. Also, the government wanted to relocate people inland, but the fisherman insisted on being closer to the ocean. The culture here is very traditional and sometimes the cultural differences make it very hard to work together. Currently, (six months after the disaster) we still have about three hundred people living in the temporary shelter inside the primary school."

My aunt and I crossed a small creek and drove down what used to be a row of houses that looked out over it. Now, they were just foundations scattered with the remnants of peoples' lives. Inside some, where living rooms used to be, people had constructed small shrines of flowers and mementos that stood as makeshift graves to remember those that were lost. At the end of the row we stopped in front of the foundation where she and my father grew up and got out of the car. It was drizzling outside and the breeze would intermittently waft smells of raw sewage and rot. During the spring, Yamanaka said, the flies were almost unbearable. My aunt produced a picture of my grandfather, standing in front of a Japanese cherry tree in full bloom and pointed to the other side of the creek where a gnarled and broken trunk still stood. Thankfully, neither he nor my grandmother lived to see the tsunami.

We stepped into the foundations of the house and I tried to visualize the rooms as I remembered them from a childhood visit. Artifacts of my family littered the mud at my feet - a broken tea cup, a few marbles from a fish tank, soaked books - just a tiny sample of the artifacts of 10,000 families littering the ground for miles in all directions. I mused, for a moment, that archaeologists might excavate this place one thousand years from now and decide that some sort of cataclysmic event took place, like Pompei.

That won't happen, of course. People are already rebuilding; the media just isn't interested. "I think media should pay more attention to these places," Yamaka says. "In Tokyo people don't care about this any more. So many people are still living in disaster areas and struggling. The problem is that there are no jobs, especially for the women, and people feel very isolated. 15 years ago, after the great Hanshin earthquake, hundreds of people committed suicide because they felt isolated and depressed. We are very worried about that same thing happening here - there should be a program to deal with it, but there's not.

The only sounds were of distant earth movers, the whistling of the wind and the call of the crows, for the moment at least the only true residents of Onagawa. When I ask Yamanaka what the future holds for this place, he's non-committal. "Depends on the situation in the future. Most of the people here were earning money by fishing or working at the nuclear power station. I'm not sure, but maybe the fishing people will remain. If so, the fisherman's lives won't change. Maybe they cannot change. Other people will leave if they have a chance."

If you want to learn more about onagawa and how you can help, contact:

Onagawa After The Tsunami