When the tsunami struck northeast Japan on March 11, the worst hit city was Ishinomaki. It’s a fishing port, and had boasted one of the largest fish markets in the world.
That economy ground to a halt.
The port was devastated, and 28,000 houses were destroyed. More than 3,000 died. And almost that many are still missing, presumed dead.
In other words, nearly a quarter of the human toll on March 11th was in this city.
The city now looks absolutely surreal: The destruction, the wreckage. A lot of it has been cleaned up. But just coming here for the first time, it looks, as somebody once told me, like the whole thing was put into a blender, the whole city down here by the port.
And what pictures can’t describe of Ishinomaki is the smell.
There’s the sea smell. But there’s also, garbage, sewage; and, if abandonment has a smell, that’s here too.
In the distance, tractors grind and moan in a never-ending cleanup of the disaster area.
In Ishinomaki’s business district, most shops are shuttered, though some are reopening. But even those have a temporary feel, as if the owners are still gauging whether it’s even worth starting again. Everywhere you look, there are reminders that people used to live here.
There are old photo albums.
Record collections, themselves a history lesson of the last fifty years.
Clocks that stopped when the tsunami hit.
Cars crushed like tins cans are now stacked neatly by the defense forces for removal.
Many died here. Many survived too. And some refuse to abandon it.
On the edge of the port is a house that did not get crushed or swept away. It belongs to 37 year-old Aya Saeki and her family. She used to live here with her kids, and mom and dad.
Now they’re living with her brother on the other side of the city. But they come back here twice a week, just to be in their house for a couple of hours. And they wanted me to see it.
The floor is muddy. But they still take off their shoes in the foyer and insist on slippers in the house, one of many little proud attempts at normalcy.
We sit on dining chairs in a circle. The floor has been replaced with particleboard. The ocean came up underneath and literally blasted the old floor off the crossbeams.
“When they earthquake hit, my father was here at home, my mother and I were driving in the car, and the car was shaking, crazy shaking,” Saeki said. “Everyone was heading towards uphill. But we came by to pick up our father, and we went uphill. And we watched actually the tsunami come from uphill.”
They watched their neighborhood get destroyed by the sea. And they could only assume that while they watched, people they knew were dying down below.
“I can’t believe what I, what we’ve all been through,” Saeki said. “And to think that people I spoke to until just a little while ago, I can’t really believe that they don’t exist any more. And even when I look at their houses, I still don’t really believe it. Because maybe it’s because I haven’t seen the body. And yes, there are many who are still just missing.”
I know it’s your house, but it’s badly damaged. Why do you keep coming back? What do you hope to find? What do you want to be in touch with, I asked.
Aya Saeki hesitated. Then her mother answers.
“So this area, we are really a tight community, we all get along really well, and for example, we’ve all been here from our parents’ generation,” she said. “And for us when we come here, we see our neighbors’ faces, even if it’s two or three people. We talk, we catch up. And at first, everyone was wondering if we should come back. But now we all say together, let’s come back here, let’s rebuild, like before, let’s have a community together.
After the earthquake and tsunami, their house isn’t safe. It’s just a block away from the ocean, and the ground is now like jelly.
Aya Saeki and her family want to come back, even with so much destruction staring at them when they open their front door. It says so much about the importance of place and home.
But the unforgiving earth here may not let them return.