nikkei

3/11

Photographs and recollections from the disaster zone

First came the violent earthquake at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011. Then, a massive tsunami engulfed entire towns. The disaster left more than 18,000 people dead or missing, and the survivors found themselves in a scene from hell. Amid the numerous aftershocks, an invisible threat also emerged -- radiation from the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. While the impact in the Tokyo area was nothing compared to the devastation in northeastern Tohoku, the capital, too, was temporarily hobbled. Public transport and other systems were interrupted; soon, staple goods were in short supply.

Five years on, the memories are fading -- not for Tohoku residents, who are still trying to piece their lives back together, but for the rest of the country and the world. In this special feature, Nikkei reporters who covered the catastrophe look back at their experiences.

Reporter's notes from the scene 01

A generous offer

"Won't you have a rice ball?"
Noriko Kudo, 72, in the Iwate Prefecture city of Miyako, had only three rice balls -- enough for one person. Yet she offered me, a journalist, one of them.
She had come to retrieve her possessions with her grandson, but her house had been swept away by the tsunami. "Nothing but the debt on the flat-screen TV remained," Kudo joked.
"We spent too much before. Now we will make a new start," she said, comforting her young grandson.
I politely declined the rice ball. "Then take this pickle," she said, offering me a salty takuan. I accepted.
"Please take care of yourself!" I told her before I left, and tears rolled down her cheeks. Her grandson quietly held her shoulder. My eyes burned.

Reflections, five years on
For some survivors, it is as if time stopped on March 11, 2011. Many are locked in what feels like an endless fight. Recalling the old woman who offered me some of her emergency food, I still get a lump in my throat, my heartbeat quickens and I find myself on the verge of tears. As someone who saw the aftermath of the disaster up close, I realize I still have many things to share with readers. (Kazumi Saito)

1: Only a few buildings remain standing near the port of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 19. Waves reached as high as 18 meters, leaving more than 1,000 of the town's residents dead or missing.

1

2

3

4

5

1: Only a few buildings remain standing near the port of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 19. Waves reached as high as 18 meters, leaving more than 1,000 of the town's residents dead or missing.

2: The aftermath of a fire that devastated the Shishiori district of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, is seen on March 23.

3: An ambulance lies crushed under a mountain of debris in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, on March 19.

4: A fishing vessel stands in the center of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 12.

5: A damaged wheelchair lies at the inundated Sendai Airport in Miyagi Prefecture on March 14.

Reporter's notes from the scene 02

Bowing

"Thank you very much." The old woman bowed deeply and thanked each firefighter and American rescue worker passing before her.
It was March 15, in the Iwate Prefecture city of Ofunato. Five-hundred people were dead or missing and more than 3,000 houses had been destroyed, yet the woman was amazingly calm.
Her house, on the coast, was destroyed by the tsunami. She had lost her home the same way in 1960, after the Chilean earthquake.
I was at a loss for words. "It's all right," she said. "We can build a house again. Thank you for your hard work. My office was not damaged, so please have a cup of tea there."
Hardships had made her tough, to be sure, but she still showed tenderness.

Reflections, five years on
During my visits to afflicted areas over the past five years, residents have often invited me into their homes for tea. Immediately after the disaster, I refrained from accepting their offers. But these days, I frequently trespass upon their kindness. "Thank you for having a chat with me," one elderly woman told me as I was leaving her house. It occurred to me that behind locals' hospitality is a deep sense of loneliness. (Koji Uema)

6: Fires burn in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 12.

6

7

8

9

10

6: Fires burn in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 12.

7: Residents survey the devastation from a hilltop in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 12.

8: A Self-Defense Forces team pulls the roof off a collapsed house in search of survivors in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, on March 14.

9: Tsunami debris litters a street in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 12.

10: With no electricity, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, is cloaked in darkness on March 21. The red light is from the taillight of a car.

Reporter's notes from the scene 03

Helping each other

While I was gathering information at a shelter in Sendai's Wakabayashi Ward on March 13, a rumor spread that another big tsunami was on the way. People staying in the shelter were instructed to move to other safe havens.
There was a mother in her mid-50s, with a 20-year-old daughter. The mother had sprained her foot running away from the first tsunami. The daughter was trying to help her mother with a large blanket in one hand. I called out to them and took the mother's other hand.
I can never forget the feeling of holding that weak hand.
On March 14, in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, a strong aftershock occurred. After a few minutes, we heard an announcement from a distant speaker, informing us of an imminent tsunami.
A fire engine, its siren blaring, sped along the coast.
As I tried to run away, one of the firefighters pointed at the ladder and shouted to me, "Hang on here!"

Reflections, five years on
I can still feel the hand of the injured woman at the shelter. I also vividly remember my heart throbbing as I ran after the tsunami warning. Five years later, I wonder how those people I met are doing. I can never forget them, and I hope they are OK, wherever they are and whatever they are doing. (Wataru Ito)

11: Firefighters search for missing people in Sendai's Wakabayashi Ward, in Miyagi Prefecture, on March 13. Numerous bodies were found in the area.

11

12

13

14

15

11: Firefighters search for missing people in Sendai's Wakabayashi Ward, in Miyagi Prefecture, on March 13. Numerous bodies were found in the area.

12: A man and a boy look for their belongings in Sendai's Wakabayashi Ward, in Miyagi Prefecture, on March 13. They were forced to head back to their shelter after a tsunami warning sounded.

13: A man is carried away in a wheelbarrow on March 17, after he was found trapped under the rubble of his home in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, several days after the quake.

14: At 2:46 p.m. on March 18, precisely one week after the earthquake, members of the Ground Self-Defense Forces pause for a moment of silence in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture.

15: A man struggles to cycle through clouds of dust in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, on March 23.

Reporter's notes from the scene 04

'I will do my best to carry on'

I was out doing legwork in Sendai's Wakabayashi Ward on March 13 when a new tsunami warning sounded. A policeman, firefighter and Self-Defense Forces personnel who had been searching for the missing scrambled into a car.
I recalled a family I'd interviewed moments earlier. They had returned home to find their belongings. But they had come on foot, and now they needed to get out fast. I asked the rescue workers in the car to warn the family.
When I returned to my car, I saw the family running along the damaged road toward me. I got the mother and child into the car as quickly as I could. The grandfather got on a nearby fire engine.
We all made it to a shelter safely.
The mother expressed her thanks many times and told me, "I will do my best to carry on." I thought I saw hope in her eyes.

Reflections, five years on
The family I interviewed in Sendai was forced to live separately for some time after the disaster. Today, they are together again, having repaired their damaged house. Their child, who was in first grade at the time, is now a sixth grader. The population of their district has decreased and the child's school is to be closed. The mother wrote me a letter in which she recalled her vow to carry on. "When I felt like collapsing, I encouraged myself by recalling what I told you and kept going." I'm inspired by this family's determination. (Takuya Imai)

16: A son and daughter attend to their mother while waiting for an ambulance to arrive in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 15. She was rescued from their tsunami-ravaged home.

16

17

18

19

20

16: A son and daughter attend to their mother while waiting for an ambulance to arrive in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 15. She was rescued from their tsunami-ravaged home.

17: Mourners bid farewell to the dead at a temporary burial site in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 22. A lack of coffins meant most of the bodies had to be covered with sheets and could not be cremated.

18: A woman sits on tatami mats amid the debris in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 19.

19: A woman collapses in tears at a morgue in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 13.

20: A mother and her baby arrive at Saitama Super Arena, in Tokyo's neighboring Saitama Prefecture, on March 19. Residents of Futaba, a town that hosts Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, were offered shelter at the stadium.

A time to remember

In areas struck by the tsunami, debris has been removed and ground levels have been raised. The reconstruction is progressing gradually, but there is a long way to go. For the survivors, the fifth anniversary is just another waypoint. For the rest of us, it is a moment to refresh our memories of the tragedy.