Dewy Sacayan: Yuriage four years after the Great East Japan Tsunami

Figure 1: Memoire de Yuriage office 

Figure 1: Memoire de Yuriage office 

On the 11th of March 2011, a magnitude nine earthquake hit Japan. Many prefectures around the North and East were badly affected. Japan was shaken physically, economically and emotionally. 

However, the disaster didn’t stop there. 30 minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami happened. Eight big waves with a height of 8.5 metres crashed into East Japan. Approximately, 11,280 people died or were missing.

Four years after, I visited the town of Yuriage – a coastal town heavily devastated by the tsunami. Once there, we were welcomed by Mr. Nakanuma who survived to tell the horrible stories of the Great East Japan Tsunami.  

Figure 2: Mr. Nakanuma sporting my university jumper.

Figure 2: Mr. Nakanuma sporting my university jumper.

Mr. Nakanuma is a simple and happy man with a great big voice. His whole family, including his parents, lived together in a two-storey house. On the day of the disaster, he instructed his eldest son to take the two elders to the evacuation site while him and his wife stayed to pick up the things that fell during the earthquake. Much to his surprise, an emergency call was given that a tsunami was fast approaching.

“I was going to use my truck to evacuate. But when we got in the car, the water was already very close. We just used it to climb up our roof,” he recalled.

Three days after, he found his truck 15 kms away crumpled like a tin can. “Good thing fate stepped in and I didn’t end up driving away otherwise I would have been crushed just like this,” said Nakanuma.

Figure 3: Nakamuna showing a picture of his truck crushed by debris.

Figure 3: Nakamuna showing a picture of his truck crushed by debris.

For hours, him and his wife sought refuge on their roof while they watched how their beloved town slowly disappeared.

“In Japan, buying a house is a lifetime commitment because we have to pay off our mortgage in 25-30 years. It is so hard to see my investment be destroyed in one day,” he said while showing a picture of his house submerged in water.

Figure 4: Nakamuna and a picture of his former house.

Figure 4: Nakamuna and a picture of his former house.

Everyone in the room was silent as he showed us his photos. It was as though we were seeing and experiencing the tsunami with him. We felt cold, desperate and helpless as all we could do was watch.

After his story, he toured us around a junior high school wherein 14 students died. The school was in a sorry state as the locals wanted to preserve what was left of the building to show respect.

Figure 5: Yuriage Junior High School

Figure 5: Yuriage Junior High School

Again, he explained the horror of the tsunami as the water rose just under two metres which they marked with a white line. Junior high school students who are around 15 – 17 year olds would never have survived if they didn’t know how to swim.

Figure 6: The white line which marks the water level.

Figure 6: The white line which marks the water level.

“My youngest son was friends with all those who died. They all grew up together,” he said. School is a big part of Japaneses children’s lives. Youths tend to stay in one school for the rest of their lives so children grow up and graduate together. I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for his son to lose a childhood friend let alone for anyone to lose a loved one in a very tragic way.

These 14 students and all those who died in the great tsunami are not and will never be forgotten. All around Yuriage, there are memorials and monuments which symolises hope.  

Figure 7: Memorial outside Yuriage Junior High School with the names of the 14 students who died.

Figure 7: Memorial outside Yuriage Junior High School with the names of the 14 students who died.

Figure 8: Pillar inside the school with hopeful messages.

Figure 8: Pillar inside the school with hopeful messages.

Figure 9: A blackboard with congratulatory graduation messages left as it was.

Figure 9: A blackboard with congratulatory graduation messages left as it was.

The biggest one is called ‘The Cenotaph’ which consisted of a seed (stone) and a blossoming plant. The seed symbolises all those who past away and how their death will motivate Yuriage to blossom again.

Figure 10:  The Cenotaph built to commemorate the 2011 tsunami. 

Figure 10:  The Cenotaph built to commemorate the 2011 tsunami. 

Today, the local community has thought of innovative ways to reduce disaster risk and to better prepare the people for when natural phenomena happen.

One way, Mari Yusada teaches children is through the Gensai Pocket. This multipurpose handkerchief does not only educate people what to do and prepare in anticipation, it can also be used as a head protector and many more (see photo below).

Figure 11:  Gensai Pocket innovation by Mari Yasuda, a Research Associate from the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS). 

Figure 11:  Gensai Pocket innovation by Mari Yasuda, a Research Associate from the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS). 

Another way the IRIDes educates people is by letting them experience an earthquake through a simulation. This colourfully designed truck has a mock dining area inside and can shake up to magnitude 6. Experiencing an earthquake first hand prepares you not just physically but emotionally for the torment that is to come.

Figure 12: An earthquake simulation at IRIDeS. 

Figure 12: An earthquake simulation at IRIDeS. 

have visited many disaster zones having come from the Philippines (a typhoon vulnerable country) and New Zealand (an earthquake vulnerable country). However, Yuriage has left a very distinct imprint in my heart. This is because I have seen the willingness of the people to get back on their feet and I have felt their determination to reduce disaster risks so that future generations will be better prepared.

Yuriage might be a deserted place now but there is a lot of potential in this city. Before we left Yuriage, Mr. Nakamuna didn’t say goodbye. He said, “See you next time! Come back in 10 years time and see the beauty that I knew Yuriage had and can have again.”