Ten years after Japan’s 2011 tsunami, grief haunts the living


Before tsunami: View of the buildings in Ishinomaki before the 2011 incident, taken in 2006. — ReutersBefore tsunami: View of the buildings in Ishinomaki before the 2011 incident, taken in 2006. — Reuters

RIKUZENTAKATA (Japan): When the tide finally receded, the world had changed after the 2011 tsunami. Trucks and houses had been swept aside like children’s toys, leaving the living to comb through a wasteland of mud and debris for their dead. Ten years on, the living are still searching, their grief never subsiding.

A father lives alone in a house at the end of a long driveway lined with cherry trees. He surrounds himself with books on the disorder that isolated his younger son in his room, unable to flee even when his mother begged him to evacuate as the tsunami roared toward them.

Just after: A view of the destroyed homes and buildings in Ishinomaki, taken following the tsunami, in 2011. — ReutersJust after: A view of the destroyed homes and buildings in Ishinomaki, taken following the tsunami, in 2011. — Reuters

A mother is haunted still by the cries of stranded children, maybe even her own, calling out for help in the darkness. Even now she carries around a laminated schedule of her daughter’s kindergarten bus, as if to prove that her six-year-old should still be alive.

A wife never gave up hope that her husband would return to her. In scribbled letters on the back of calendars, she chided her husband for staying away, sometimes writing his imagined response encouraging her to go on without him.

The 10th anniversary of the March 11,2011, earthquake and tsunami will be a nationally televised event, with dignitaries in black suits gathering at a theatre in Tokyo, where they will bow their heads and mark the moment of the disaster. For many survivors, the day will be marked by quiet prayers and family visits to gravesites. But for others, the day will feel little different than any other date on a calendar. They remain suspended, trapped in those frantic hours a decade ago.

The earthquake and tsunami killed nearly 20,000 people on a stretch of Japan’s Pacific coast more than 400km northeast of Tokyo.

Latest: A view of Ishinomaki after the tsunami in this image taken in April last year, showing progress. — ReutersLatest: A view of Ishinomaki after the tsunami in this image taken in April last year, showing progress. — Reuters

The disasters also triggered multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.

The government pledged to rebuild the region and has spent around 31 trillion yen (RM1.1 trillion) on reconstruction. In the span of a few years, Japan built new neighbourhoods and schools. But the scale of loss is beyond any policy response.

Thousands have moved away from the hardest-hit cities, with many of those who remain haunted by all that was lost.

While some survivors look backward, the larger Japanese public is preparing to celebrate the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, an event the government is intent on using to showcase its recovery from the disaster.

In Rikuzentakata, a city that lost almost a tenth of its population in the tsunami, a 12.5-m sea wall encircles the coastline, a project designed to protect residents from future floods. Instead, the city can feel like a fortress where the concrete wall obscures any view of the ocean.

In Ishinomaki, a coastal city in neighbouring Miyagi, nearly 3,200 people died in the disaster.

None of Futaba’s 5,700 residents can return to live there until 2022, when the town is expected to reopen partially. An area outside a train station reopened last March only for a daytime visit to bring in the Olympic torch. — Agencies

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