from Asia Unbound

Ishinomaki City—Three Months After

June 29, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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In Ishigaki, debris of all types in piles along the roadway, organized by type and size (June 22, 2011).
In Ishinomaki, debris of all types are organized in piles along the roadway by type and size. (Photo by author, taken on June 22, 2011)

So many aspects of Japan’s response to the disasters of March 11 have yet to be fully understood. Many in Japan continue to be critical of their government’s response, and yet so much that happened on that day and in the days that followed demonstrates the strengths of Japanese society—and of the Japanese people.

I visited Ishinomaki City in Miyagi prefecture as part of an American task force organized by Michael Green at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) as a bipartisan effort of support for Japan. Three months after the earthquake-tsunami, Ishinomaki is clearly in recovery mode. Yet, as we drove into the city, the extent of the devastation became increasingly visible. There was little traffic, except for the long lines of trucks carrying debris. Piles of debris could be seen along the roadway, sorted neatly by size and function. Containers from ships in one field, railway lines in another. Ravaged slabs of concrete in one area, contorted pieces of metal in another.

A harbor city several hundred miles north of Japan’s capital, Ishinomaki has a long history of providing Tokyo (and Edo before it) with rice and marine products. The town is bordered by the ocean to the east, and is divided by the Kitakami River that runs into the sea from the northwest. The tsunami was 21 feet high when it hit the seawalls, and was reduced to 15 feet in height by the time it reached the inner regions of town. Thus, the wave was smaller than the churning wall of water that devastated other smaller coastal towns, yet the ruin of the city’s coastal area was complete.   

The city lost 3,097 people, and 2,770 are still missing (as of June 14). A week after the disaster, roughly one-third of the city’s 162,822 people were in evacuation shelters. 13.2 percent of the city was flooded, including the entire downtown area. 44,000 buildings were completely ruined, and 34,000 were inundated with water. The bulk of these were homes. The city’s fishing port was completely destroyed, along with the marine processing factories that were the mainstay of Ishinomaki’s economy.

In short, the city’s economy has been brought to a standstill, and reconstruction planning is just getting underway. Making everything even more complicated is the fact that the region closest to the ocean has fallen two and a half feet as a result of the earthquake, and thus during high tide the city’s coastal area is under water. 

In the weeks after the disaster, Ishinomaki City government received help from the Self-Defense Force (SDF), the U.S. Marines Corp, and volunteers from around the country. NGOs continue to operate in cooperation with city officials to help feed those who have returned to their homes, and many continue to offer medical care to evacuees and others living on their own. As of last week, approximately 2,000 SDF were still operating at a makeshift camp in Ishinomaki, down from the 7,000 SDF that provided critical services in the first two months. The day before we visited, the local city government had taken over the delivery of food to residents still living in their homes but without the ability to cook at home.

Meeting with city officials, fisheries managers, and prefectural staff brought home the incredible effort that has already been expended since the disaster. But clearly the biggest challenges are ahead. Ten years is the estimated planning time for a full recovery, and when asked what Americans might to do help, almost everyone said: Come help us rebuild. Visit Tohoku and help the tourism-based economy. Invest alongside Japanese corporations to bring jobs to the local community.    

The spirit and the determination of those in Ishinomaki who had lived through Japan’s worst natural disaster were clearly transmitted to our group, and yet the scope of what remains to be done was daunting.

The people of Tohoku have long prided themselves on their self-reliance. This request for help was not an appeal for charity. Rather it was a realistic assessment of Ishinomaki’s needs.  

Even in communities as determined as Ishinomaki, recovery will just not be possible without the full and consistent efforts of all of us—inside and outside of Japan.

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