Posted by: jkirkby8712 | June 19, 2011

Saturday, 18 June 2011 – brother off to Japan and a cycle holiday

Brother Robert, and his wife Evelyn flew out today [I thin k] for Japan – heading for Hokkaido, where they have planned a bike trip!  They are not returning to Sydney until the 3rd July, but I’m not sure if the entire fortnight will be devoted to cycling [knowing Robert, most of it will be!]. Apparently, they are part of a small group of just five cyclists [including the organiser, an Australian who is quite passionate about Japan].  I’m not sure whether Robert was serious [or joking] when he commented that ‘Evelyn is looking forward to the climbs!’ – certainly, he is used to plenty of hill and mountain climbs with his various bike cycling excursions over recent years, but I’m not sure that Evelyn has had the same opportunity to be so trained!!

Anyway, the guy organising the trip wrote a bit of a personal reflection of the after-affects of Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami – he wrote an earlier piece a couple of weeks afterwards, and since then, he provided another report that brings out the personal perspective of the locals on that national tragedy. Robert sent me a copy of that, and I think it is worth including in these pages. The writer is John Morell, and as can be seen, he is indeed quite sincere in his feelings for the country and it’s people.

‘Shichigahama is a small port town near the city of Sendai and like every town and valley on this coast, it was partially destroyed during the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.   I was in Shichigahama to deliver hand written cards with messages from my son and his school friends at Durrumbul school in Mullumbimby, northern NSW. The cards were intended to raise the spirits of local children. I found myself in this particular town due to an introduction from Omura Susumu.

Omura san is an employee of the Miyagi prefectural government, of which Sendai is the capital. I talked to Omura san by phone before coming to Sendai and asked him about what parts of Miyagi were damaged. After a short silence he quietly replied. “Every part of Miyagi was damaged.”   Omura San works in the education division and I met him in his office on the 16th floor of the government building. He was here when the earthquake struck.  “It was big. We knew it was big as we get a lot of earthquakes. It was like being in a washing machine, you know, the full cycle. It seemed to last as long too! At the end it was like the spin cycle, just getting thrown around with an intensity that is hard to believe even now” he said when I talked to him in his office in May.

Miyagi’s coast is a melange of small coastal inlets and alluvial valleys, backed by steep wooded mountains. If you were going to design a coast for maximum impact from a Tsunami, then this would be it.  I asked Omura San about the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and weather they knew instinctively that there would be a tsunami.   “Of course, yes of course we knew there had to be. Well, we went out to help. No one knew what had happened, yet it seems it is just over the hill, you know towards the coast. We drove along with difficulty because the roads had been badly damaged, and the earthquake had bought down many power lines. Well we came around a corner and it, well, it was total destruction. Just nothing there.” He told me.

“A friend of mine, his wife is from Akita and she was in Ishinomaki, she was trying to leave the town and came to an intersection. She could see the wave coming. She didn’t know the way, you know, because she wasn’t from this town. The wave was coming from behind and a little to her right, but she turned right anyway and just around the corner the road went uphill and she survived. Other people behind her made the other choice and turned left, away from the wave. They did not make it. I asked her why she turned right. She said she didn’t know but felt compelled to go that way. In another town there was a traffic jam and no one could get out. They were all engulfed by the tsunami.”


It was only a little over two months ago that this part of Japan became world famous. On an early spring afternoon, on the 11th March, at 3:22 pm in the afternoon, the world literally collapsed under their feet. Two of the massive plates that hold us above the heat of the earth’s magma layer gave way just of the coast, resulting in a magnitude 9 earthquake, the fourth  biggest ever recorded. More significantly though, it occurred only about ten kilometres beneath the surface. It was this shallowness that gave rise to this extraordinarily destructive tsunami.  The crunching and grinding of these massive plates, on an unimaginable scale spewed forth a body of water of mighty proportions. Great mountains of black water were sent from this devil’s cauldron to surge over the coastal valleys of northern Honshu.

In the coastal villages, school teachers were finishing off their lessons. In the small towns and valleys the day was coming to an end and people were getting ready to go home, to their dinners, their comfy chairs and their loved ones.   After the earthquake many people immediately tried to flee, even before the town sirens started screaming. In some towns, it was only minutes before they were engulfed by the wave. Many of the nearly 25,000 dead and missing were elderly. According to Omura San, they didn’t have a chance. “Many of them simply sat in their chairs, too old and frail to move. They would have known it was coming, not just because of the earthquake, but because as it approached it was roaring, like a train coming at you. They died in the wave. Some that were mobile, they went back to get, oh, money, you know, silly things that don’t matter in life and death situations. Many people died going back for trivial things.” He said.

At this point I think about the kids, and I asked him about the school children, hoping against hope and better judgement that they all made it. Being a father of two young children, I wanted them all to survive, to be happily walking with smiling faces to their new schools while their towns were rebuilt.  “In one town, 200 students, all the students, in one school died.” Omura San told me.  “Nine teachers also died in that school. One survived and he tried to help the others. But you know, he kept asking himself, why me? Why did I survive” Omura san added and then paused.  “He committed suicide two weeks later.” He finished.  As I drove through the utter devastation on the coastal fringe of Shichigahama the next day, I looked at the nearby ocean through distrustful eyes.  My university studies in coastal geomorphology told me that this was a once in a lifetime event that had, over millions of years, occurred frequently and had shaped the world we live in. Lands rise, lands fall and the restless oceans driven by massive tectonic forces surge and abate.  Now I was experiencing a quiet disconnect between the rational and the emotional, between reassuring scientific knowledge and an ocean that appeared to have a malignant intent as it harmlessly lapped and gurgled on the broken foreshore.

Nakatsugawa san is the head of the Shichigahama town school department. Unlike Australia, school administration devolves from prefectural governments to local town councils.  There are three junior schools in this town and Nakatsugawa san promised to have the cards translated and given out to students in those schools.  “There were one hundred people killed just here in this small town.” He said. “We lost one student.” He added.

The tsunami has drawn a new border that snakes along the east coast of Tohoku. A border determined by nature not man. On one side lies total destruction, on the other, the shattered lives of the survivors and those whose fate has been spared due to dumb luck, timing and geography.  In some small towns, where the tsunami has left villages intact, there is a new menace. Simply put, northern Tohoku has dropped up to a metre in elevation in some places. What this means is that in certain villages, the tide gurgles up through road grates and quietly slips into lounge rooms, garages and street scapes. Twice a day these people can’t use the water taps or toilets. Whole towns who thought they escaped relatively unharmed must be rebuilt on higher ground. The once fertile rice paddies are now soaked in salt, with a mixture of rotting fish and the detritus of human existence strewn about over them. As summer approaches this fetid mixture is starting to make itself known.

As I look down at the harbour in Shichigahama,  I see fishermen and divers scouring the harbour for rubbish and possibly bodies. An overturned boat still drifts just of the wrecked fishing co-op buildings. On a hill overlooking the harbour I meet Watanabe Tetsuyo, 71. He is standing with a carpenter, making repairs to his house.  “See that car” he says, pointing to a crumpled wreck next to us. “It was in my front room.” He then points to the house just metres away, “My neighbours there, they died in the tsunami. They were old, maybe in their seventies.” The house has a huge gash out of the front, as if a back hoe eviserated it.   This hill is only about 100 metres from the water line but it is about 25 metres above sea level, with a steep incline leading down to the harbour. Everything between Watanabe San’s shattered house and the harbour has been destroyed. Only concrete foundations remain to give some silent testimony to what lay before this huge wave. Debris litters the site and at the front of one concrete slab, a collection of cherished soft toys has been lined up, a quiet reminder of the loss of family life that once held sway in this small village.  “It was like, what do you say, ‘kuroi akuma’. It was black, the head of the wave as it came in, this is what we call it. Do you know what kuroi akuma means?” asked Nakastugawa san back at the town office. I didn’t but resolved to look it up.

It is hard to estimate the monetary cost of rebuilding in the devastated area of northern Japan, but recent estimates put it at 285 billion, the costliest disaster ever, and this does not take into account the personal and emotional cost of such a massive dislocation. The event is now officially called the “Higashi Nihon Daishinsai” which translates to the “Great Disaster of Eastern Japan”. It will take at least ten years to rebuild and recover. Already, only three months after the event the world has moved on.  I was nearly finished talking to Nakatsugawa san. The journey of the cards was almost over. I wanted to report back to the Durrumbul community and others on the situation here and asked if it was OK to take pictures. I had a sense of not compromising the dignity of a town and nation in mourning.  “Yes. Yes. yes. Take pictures, lots of pictures, tell everybody tell the world. We still need help.” Replied Nakatsugawa san. He then gave the national symbol for money, the thumb and forefinger rubbing together.  “The cards are great and much appreciated but you know, I have to be frank, we need money as well.”

His parting words to me were “Don’t forget us.” After I left Sendai and the destruction behind me I grabbed my dictionary and looked up the phrase “Kuroi Akuma”. There were a few choices, but the most obvious, is “Black Devil”. This is what the wave, the unimaginable surge of black water was to the people on the coastal fringe of Tohoku.  I vowed to myself that I would not forget’.

Certainly, a story worth telling, worth remembering, and as I noted a few weeks ago, in presenting another observation from an English school teacher working in Japan, it is great to be able to read an eye witness account about such an event, that is not swallowed in journalistic jargon and procedures, but material ‘straight’ from the heart and soul of to ‘story teller’.

Unusually for a weekend, I had a meeting to attend this afternoon – the annual ‘Business Plan’ discussion and consideration by the Radio Station Committee, a planned 4 hour session which was actually over within that time. Our basic  aim was to assess the success or otherwise of the objectives set for the station last year, and establish our set plans and objectives for the coming new financial year. With just one committee member missing, and a brief delay due to the President needing to deal with an unwelcome serial complainant to the premises prior to the start, it proved to be a very fruitful and cooperative session. We all realise that there are so many things that we would like to achieve for the station, but must accept the fact, that as volunteers there are limits to our resources, be that time, abilities or financial contribution. Change is occurring – many people expect change to happen quickly, but more often than not, they are the people, sitting in the background doing little other than complain, while a small nucleus of the organisation, as in all community organisations does most of the work. It was estimated, that of our total membership, less than 10% actually contribute outside of their basic 2 hours a week appearance on air.  It would be helpful to have at least another 10 active members at the station – on the above percentage figure, that means we need to find another 100 members!!  Anyway, despite that, progress is been made in many areas, and our station is a considerably more community orientated station than when I came there 6 years ago. And that is primarily and outcome of the committees of the past couple of years, and the leadership associated with those committees. At present, my volunteer organisation is a promising environment in which to work.

Although I again spent most of the evening, working on my family history tasks,  found the house a little lonely tonight, probably something I need to get used to!



  1. Hi Bill,

    Found this a wonderful piece to read – well written 🙂

    How is your brother enjoying Japan?

    I read a story a few weeks ago and I’m hoping this link works as I think you will find it interesting.

    It’s about how a mayor who died a few years ago, built a controversial tsunami wall after an earlier tsunami wrecked his home – this wall saved the village this year.

  2. Hi there Hami,

    Thanks for your comment. much appreciated 🙂

    I haven’t heard from my brother as yet – flew to Japan last weekend, and obviously having sucha busy time on the bikes, etc, no chance to ‘correspond’ with those of us envious of his travels, lol!!

    Thankyou for the link about the tsunami wall – a fascinating story indeed. What a pity the man himself didn’t live to see the benefit of his efforts.

    In the midst of our southern Winter here – being in the southern most part of the continent, we ‘do’ have a winter, and at present, it is generally cold, wet and rather chilly at times!

    I trust conditions where you are a little warmer!!

    Cheers, from Bill [in Aussie]

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