Commemorating the Great Tōhoku Tsunami of 2011

It has been 10 years since the Great Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011. Let us remember those whose lives were taken that afternoon.

Great Tōhoku Earthquake, illustration by Joseph Honton
Great Tōhoku Earthquake

Along the northeast coast of Japan, these are the cities and villages that experienced the tragedy. Hardest hit was Miyagi prefecture:

  • Iwanuma, 178 souls
  • Tagajō, 186 souls
  • Watari, 251 souls
  • Onagawa, 473 souls
  • Minami‐sanriku, 514 souls
  • Sendai, 683 souls
  • Natori, 901 souls
  • Kesennuma, 930 souls
  • Higashi‐matsushima, 1031 souls
  • Ishinomaki, 2964 souls

To the north, in Iwate prefecture:

  • Ōfunato, 321 souls
  • Miyako, 412 souls
  • Yamada, 566 souls
  • Ōtsuchi, 765 souls
  • Kamaishi, 837 souls
  • Rikuzentakata, 1490 souls

And to the south, in Fukushima prefecture:

  • Iwaki, 303 souls
  • Soma, 424 souls
  • Minami‐soma, 504 souls

And elsewhere, twenty‐three other cities, as far north as Aomori and Hokkaidō prefectures, and as far south as Ibaraki and Chiba prefectures, count casualties, though less than one hundred each.

Tectonics of Japan, illustration by Joseph Honton
Tectonics of Japan

In the open waters of the Pacific Ocean, the great wave measured more than three meters in height. But as it swept inland, the topography of bays and valleys and river ravines squeezed the surge into a roiling monster. In some places the tsunami rose to a height of 24 meters. Nothing in its path remained intact.

The tsunami was indiscriminate, taking the lives of young and old; students and teachers; fisherman and farmers; firefighters and policemen; shopkeepers; transit operators; council members and mayors.

In contrast to the coverage provided by foreign news agencies, the Japanese media refrain from speculative commentary: the number of casualties is reported precisely as counted by government officials, with no one presuming to inflate numbers towards their inevitable magnitude. Injuries are counted using official hospital records, and deaths are counted only when officials have confirmed the death and relatives have been notified. Moreover, the unaccounted for, and those presumed to have been washed out to sea, are tallied separately as “missing”. (The enumerated list above is from March 2011.)

We cannot begin to comprehend the magnitude of this tragedy, measured in terms of human suffering. The images from afar show cataclysmic destruction of homes and businesses and public structures. But what are the dimensions of the tragedy on a personal scale?

In Kokura, a compassionate scene plays out, one that is to be repeated over the coming days, throughout Japan and throughout the world. Ordinary people, moved by the events, wanting to help, to get involved, to stand together and to support the people of the Tōhoku Coast, do what they can. At Kokura Station, doctors and nurses have formed a line outside the main entrance, soliciting relief donations from the passers‐by. The appeal is heartfelt, the response is true, and the strength of the support can be measured not only in donations, but also in the length of the line, as ordinary citizens join the hospital staff: standing in solidarity, lengthening the line of solicitors ever further, simultaneously creating a gauntlet that few could deny, and creating a glorious snapshot of benevolence. At Yasakajinja, as at shrines and temples everywhere, donation boxes bear signs with impassioned pleas for relief, while ordinary retail stores everywhere set up hastily prepared cardboard boxes or glass jars with hand‐written signs, to collect what they can. At Mihagino’s ballpark, drivers drop off sacks of rice, boxes of instant ramen noodles, crates of water bottles, blankets and futons, large bags of just‐bought clothing, and other things that are desperately needed. And pleas for donations reveal the despair of so many who have nothing: toothbrushes, soap, heaters, jackets, boots, underwear, bandages, prescription drugs, writing paper, newspapers, cook‐pots, kerosene, chopsticks, batteries . . .

And just as Kokura is mobilized for relief, cities and towns all across Japan are mobilizing, each in its own way, each doing all that it can.

Initially, news from the Tōhoku Coast is unavailable. Now, we have learned that all transportation routes are blocked and all communication links are broken. Bridges are washed out, railways are twisted wrecks of steel, ports are unreachable due to the debris, airport runways are under thick layers of mud, cell‐phone towers are out of power, transmission lines are lying on the ground.

For some of the coastal towns, where their isolation is complete, no news of their situation is reaching the outside world, and incoming news is limited to FM radio broadcasts picked up with battery‐powered devices. News media provide an image from Minami‐sanriku, where someone encapsulates their plight in three oversized white letters on the Shizugawa High School soccer field: the internationally recognized signal of distress, as seen from a helicopter, SOS.

In nearby Ishinomaki, the city’s newspaper, Hibi Shimbun, provides vital news to its residents in a low‐tech way. Without electricity to power their computers and printing presses, the print room has worked out a system to report the news as “wallpapers,” using black felt‐tipped markers to write the stories on poster‐sized paper, using blue and red ink for critical headlines. For the next six days the daily circulation will be reduced from 14,000 to 42, with wallpapers posted at emergency shelters and convenience stores in Ishinomaki and nearby towns. By the fifth day, the newspaper will venture from essential facts to an important editorial with this headline: “Let’s overcome the hardship with mutual support.”

It is only when outside news agencies are finally able to make it through the areas of disaster, that we begin to see things on a human scale.

In one story of heartbreak and hope, we see the poignancy of families and communities finding strength on their own, in a scene that might be unremarkable but for the details: mothers working shoulder to shoulder, in a school lobby, around a temporary table, turning freshly cooked rice into onigiri; fathers stoking the fires of makeshift stoves, using scrap iron pulled from the rubble to fashion fire rings, using wood timbers gathered from the debris of their own homes as fuel. These mothers and fathers are nourishing and nurturing not only their children, and not only their fractured community, but also themselves: they are finding strength and courage in their usefulness. Their needs are dire, and they do ask for help from the outside, but they also need to overcome their own sense of helplessness, and these simple acts of self‐sufficiency provide a starting point in their recovery.

In another story of sadness, we see the assembled students of Okawa Elementary School being addressed by their principal. This is graduation week across Japan, but there will be no diplomas handed out to the five survivors of this graduating class, out of respect for the sixteen classmates whose lives were taken by the tsunami. The school itself no longer stands, so the assembly occurs at a nearby school. In the windows, two simple kanji characters admonish the visitors: “Please cooperate” and “Let’s overcome.”

Yet miraculously, in Kamaishi, students of Eastern Kamaishi Junior High School not only escaped the tsunami themselves, but followed their training and drills on tsunami preparedness, led the students at neighboring Unosumai Elementary School from their third‐floor evacuation shelter. The older students marshaled the younger students to a designated evacuation site, and then, as their safety seemed in doubt, on to even higher ground. Both schools were overwhelmed by the tsunami, yet no one was harmed. One of their teachers remarked that it was these students who gave him hope and the strength to move on in the face of the disaster.

We hear a story of valor and duty that occurred in Okirai. There, firemen working to manually close a seawall gate before the tsunami arrived, were caught by the onrush of water, and were swept out to sea when the massive wave reversed.

Prefectures of Japan, illustrations by Joseph Honton
Prefectures of Japan

Through it all, the government’s spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, has steadfastly delivered the news to the nation. Wearing a pair of standard-issue blue coveralls, with upturned collar, his uniform clearly transmits an image of a workman on the job. He wears it well. As the government’s “number‐two man,” he has appeared again and again on live television, bringing new developments to the press corps and directly to the public. His calm demeanor is the perfect tonic for a frazzled nation. Even while being peppered with questions from a demanding press, he keeps his composure and answers every question directly, never turning from uncomfortable truths, never deferring a response that could be given in the moment, tirelessly working day and night without sleep. He epitomizes the soul of a nation determined to learn, determined to overcome every obstacle, determined to prevail over calamity.

The above is excerpted from the author’s book, There’s a God for That.




Living out the remaining days of my life on the only habitable planet I’ll ever know.

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Joseph Honton

Joseph Honton

Living out the remaining days of my life on the only habitable planet I’ll ever know.

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