Japan, one year later: glimmers of life in a ghost town

The fishing village of Minamisanriku takes small steps toward recovery

Most people in Sendai are living their lives much as though nothing happened on March 11, 2011. On the surface, anyway.

But push on north as the sun is setting over the Tohoku region, toward the town of Minamisanriku, and the blackness overtakes you.

First the mountains roll in toward the coast to swallow up the roads; then, little by little, the lights are extinguished. What’s missing is all the ambient light that vital, living towns emit. I’ve seldom driven in such pitch darkness. That’s what a ghost town after dark looks like. And Minamisanriku is very nearly a ghost town.

When I was last in Minamisanriku the roads were strewn with muck or littered with boats, the buildings were decorated with the ropes and buoys of the oyster farms that once thrived here and the tsunami, which struck shortly after the massive earthquake of March 11, toppled buildings.

All that’s gone now—the streets scrubbed, most of the debris carted away and sorted into metal or wood or plastic. What’s left isn’t much of a town.

And yet there are glimmers of life. Most obvious is the strangeness of the Minami-Sanriki Hotel Kanyo, a hot springs resort that is now the town’s only accommodation. The luxurious hotel now welcomes construction workers and journalists as well as the tourists, who enjoy bathing in an outdoor bath, under the stars and overlooking the fishing harbour, after a day spent taking in the devastation of Minamisanriku and environs.

The hotel opened in November; its employees are billeted in nearby dorms. Everyone around here, it seems, is billeted, including the townspeople themselves.

We came across 81-year-old Seiki Sano, taking a stroll by a Minamisanriku middle school, near the compact, narrowly appointed neighbourhood of temporary housing units where he lives. Pointing below—we were on high ground overlooking the sea—Sano turned our attention to the hospital where many of the townspeople fled the tsunami. Those who climbed to the fourth floor, he told us, survived; those who fled to the third did not. He saw it all from the roof of a building next door, where wedding ceremonies once took place.

These are the sorts of stories that Sano doesn’t share with his neighbours at the temporary housing complex. “My neighbours are from everywhere,” he says. “I don’t know them. We don’t talk about personal things. Besides, it’s too cold outside to chitchat.”

Sano, who despite his age was still working as a fisherman as recently as last March (he lost both his boats to the tsunami), shares three cramped rooms with his wife, Kuni, who turns 80 next month, and their 52-year-old daughter, Hisako, whose job in the auto sector has been transformed by the disaster into a job in the auto scrap industry.

He’s not optimistic about the future of Minamisanriku. “It’s hard to rebuild,” he says. “I won’t live to see it happen. The fishing industry here was really important. If that’s not brought back, Minamisanriku won’t last.

“We’ve been living on support and charity here,” Sano went on. “It’s time for the people here to make their own money. But fishing’s expensive—you need money to make money, and us fishermen lived by the sea and lost everything.”

Down below, however, just by the waters, there is full-blown hope. Katsuhiko Endo, 60, is the head of the oyster section of Minamisanriku’s fishing cooperative. Endo and his 34 fellow oyster farmers started producing again for the first time in November. The Miyagi prefecture, where Minamisanriku is located, once produced a staggering 40 tonnes of oysters a day. He says he thinks the local industry could be back on its feet and thriving as soon as three years from now.

Endo himself lost his home, moved into his wife’s sister’s house for a time, and now rents a house. He has nothing from his life before March 11. “I used to love Burberry,” he says, referring to the iconic British brand. “I had Burberry socks, Burberry belts, Burberry shoes, even Burberry underwear. Every time I went to Sendai, I bought more.” Endo smiles sheepishly. “I cared about luxury. Now I’m happy with UNIQLO,” he says–a major Japanese retailer of cheap clothing.

“I never cried about what I lost,” he adds. “I cried about what I received.” The support that Endo and his fellow oyster farmers received, flowing from the Japanese and prefectural governments as well as from international non-profits, has allowed them to make a go of it again.

In November, Endo travelled to Hiroshima, a famous oyster centre in Japan, to learn about the cultivating techniques there. He sampled the city’s oysters, which are known in particular for their size. “It’s true the oysters are bigger,” he says. “But there was something missing. The taste was too simple–not complex.”

In December, in the days leading up to New Year, Japan’s most important holiday, Endo and his 34 co-op oyster farmers gathered together and, for the first time since March 11, ate oysters they themselves had cultivated in the sea below Minamisanriku.

What did those first oysters taste like? “They were delicious,” he says. “Sweet and soft and kind.”