Resilience in Japan: Reflections from Onagawa


On the 11th March 2011 at 14:46 JST, an earthquake struck Japan off the Pacific coast of Tohoku, in Northern Honshu, triggering a massive tsunami and the now-famous meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The earthquake, known as Higashi Nihon Daishinsai (the Great East Japan Earthquake) was the most powerful to hit Japan since records began in 1900; it resulted in the deaths of over 15,000 people, the displacement of over 220,000, significant damage to or destruction of over a million buildings, plus the deprivation of water from 1.5 million households, and of electricity from 4.4 million. The litany of devastation goes on and on; the calamity for the Japanese people was beyond imagining.

Only 123 kilometres away from the epicentre of that earthquake sits Onagawa, a small but illustrious fishing town with a population, at that time, of around 10,000 people. Located near the Kinkasan fishing grounds, one of the top three fishing spots in the world, its catch in 2010 was the 12th-highest in Japan by volume, and 19th by value. Few people outside of Japan would have heard of Onagawa before the tsunami struck.

Few people outside of Japan would have heard of Onagawa before the tsunami struck

Onagawa has a nuclear power plant of its own, but unlike the Fukushima reactor, it survived the disaster without any meltdown. Yet despite this good fortune, the town was the worst-affected municipality by the earthquake in all of Japan, with almost 2/3 of buildings destroyed, 85% damaged, and 827 fatalities (almost 10% of the population). The highest waves reached a staggering 26m and 41m – hard to imagine except by standing on the sheer cliff overlooking the Onagawa dockyard, which marks the highest point they reached. This footage gives some sense of the scale of the destruction – 3-11 was, for Onagawa, an apocalyptic day.

Onagawa - before the tsunami
Onagawa – before the tsunami
Onagawa - after the tsunami
Onagawa – after the tsunami

In the aftermath of the tsunami, Western media and popular perception alike were filled with a sense of amazement at the reaction of Japanese people everywhere to the disaster – at how composed, level-headed, and civic-minded they seemed to be. We perceived this in the immediate response to the disaster, the classic example being the heroism of the ‘Fukushima 50’, the workers who remained on-site at Fukushima to assess the damage and stabilize the reactor, despite being fully aware of serious risks of radiation poisoning and death, with which one might contrast the confusion of Chernobyl, where many of the firefighters knew little about radiation, and probably thought they were dealing with nothing much worse than a standard electrical fire. We also perceived it in reports of social cooperation and sympathy for the victims, and of full, uncomplaining compliance with quarantining and other radiation protocols. In the West, it would be hard to imagine such a crisis without at least some accompanying chaos, some rioting and looting and unscrupulous opportunism. But no such reports were heard from Japan. People could, and perhaps should, have been angry. Yet for the most part it seemed that they were calm, patient, and cooperative.

Of course, this is only one side of the coin, and we have only belatedly realized the errors made by Naoto Kan’s government in its handling of the situation. The distortions they perpetrated, such as refusing to call it a ‘meltdown’ until 2 months after the Western media first used the term, and the echoing of such distortions by the mainstream Japanese media, perhaps shows the converse of this attitude to disaster – a refusal, or at least a reluctance, to acknowledge it, and perhaps a sense of closedness and restraint that we may find strange. Even so, I think there are insights to be gained in considering the response of the Japanese people.


A handful of the HLAB Japan 2016 journalist team relaxing outside the Onagawa Future Centre
A handful of the HLAB Japan 2016 journalist team relaxing outside the Onagawa Future Centre

I went to Onagawa for 3 days this summer with a team of journalists and videographers, on an invitation from the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office to follow an innovative summer school programme, HLAB (‘House/Hub for Liberal Arts Beyond Borders’), and to produce some media content reflecting on that programme, as well as on the distinctive nature of Japan and Japanese society.

Yoshiaki Suda, Mayor of Onagawa (PHOTO: Michelle Chiang)
Yoshiaki Suda, Mayor of Onagawa (PHOTO: Michelle Chiang)

During that time, we were privileged to meet the Mayor of Onagawa, Mr Yoshiaki Suda, who told us about the rejuvenation of Onagawa, which has been implementing a flagship government revitalisation initiative, receiving approx. $3billion, or 1% of the total revitalisation budget. What has been achieved in a mere five years is certainly impressive, with partnerships of private, public, and not-for-profit organisations working towards the rapid construction of emergency temporary housing, an infrastructural redesign – with major urban facilities in the centre of town, but all housing up in the hills, above the level reached the tsunami – and the restoration of the value of the fishing and seafood processing industries to close to pre-disaster levels.

Suda made a political sacrifice of sorts in returning to his role as Mayor after the disaster, stepping down from a higher-ranking position as a prefectural congressman. As such a sacrifice suggests, he seems devoted to Onagawa – ‘I came back for the children of Onagawa’ – and has quite an optimistic vision for the town. For Suda, Onagawa is a timeless symbol of the human determination to survive and adapt; it confirms that ‘people can come back from anything’. He is keen to draw a parallel with the experience of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, from which he says they have learnt a lot, and also with the experience of war-torn Kabul – which apparently sent someone to Onagawa to learn about how they had handled reallocation of land, and how they had involved their citizens in the redevelopment process, to build a city better than what had been before. It all comes full circle – Onagawa presents itself as a microcosm of the vital human capacity for learning from one another.

View from El Faro
Onagawa, seen from El Faro

According to Suda, Onagawa has succeeded by adopting an approach that one would not expect to find in as conservative a country as Japan: the younger generation have been allowed by older people to handle the reconstruction efforts. The older people, he says, had lost everything, and so they were full of resentment and anger, and stuck in the past – whereas the young realised the importance of a new future, of starting afresh. This is why he is so proud of the town’s motto, ‘Start! Onagawa’, because it signals that this is a new start, not a restart, not the remaking of what once was, but a genuinely new beginning. People hate words like that, he says, like ‘reconstructing, rebuilding, recovering’, because they carry that sense of obsession with the past, when the point is to build a future – not a future forgetful of what happened, but a future that can move on from it. As he says with a chuckle, ‘the younger generation have been kicking our ass to make this happen.’

People hate words like that, like ‘reconstructing, rebuilding, recovering’, because they carry a sense of obsession with the past

This is not to say that he does not realise that there are challenges ahead for the town. Suda certainly realizes that Onagawa is in many ways a test run, an experiment, and what he and the local government are doing might be wrong – but if they are, he reasons optimistically, then someone else will learn from that, and find a new and better approach. Most of the problems Onagawa faces – problems like an ageing population, economic stagnation, and a population drain towards the major cities – are common across Japan. As such, in tackling these problems, Suda thinks that Onagawa can be ‘a leading example’.

Most of the problems Onagawa faces are common across Japan

For him, the future of Onagawa can and indeed will be one of waku-waku, an untranslatable phrase explained to us as ‘a feeling of positive energy and excitement’ – buzz, or hype, we might perhaps say. Over the next few decades, he wants this to remain a stimulating place to be; he wants to be going out for drinks and having fun and interesting conversations, and hearing about the summer school (HLAB), and so on. The impression this gives of a flashy, exhilarating tourist destination does not quite harmonise with what we saw in Onagawa, mostly quiet except for a small central arcade of tourist shops and cafes, with old jazz records blaring out from one of them – but there were many Japanese tourists wandering through, and apparently, even amid the reality of population drain, some people have been inspired by the restoration efforts to come and start new lives in Onagawa.


The Great East Japan Mourning Stone
The Great East Japan Mourning Stone

Nevertheless, for other inhabitants of Onagawa, the future feels less aglow with optimism, and it is harder to climb out of the abyss of the past. A memorial rock, known as the Great East Japan Mourning Stone, sits on the cliff overlooking the Onagawa dockyard, which marks the highest point reached by the tsunami. Nearby is a structure looking like an obelisk, by which an array of food and drink has been laid out – as our guide tells us, in traditional Shinto religion, when people die in the ocean, it is thought that their spirits get thirsty. Overlooking the still-devastated dockyard, here the wounds of the disaster feel as fresh as if it had struck yesterday. By these various memorials there is a café – when we approached the woman running it, the memory of 3-11 was still overwhelming; when another journalist asked her about the idea of ‘rebirth’, she defined it as ‘the courage to stay despite the difficulties’, affording a glimpse into the pain this town still feels.

Kiyoko Watanabe, local shopkeeper
Kiyoko Watanabe, local shopkeeper

For another inhabitant of Onagawa, an elderly shopkeeper called Kiyoko, the tsunami took everything – ‘my life was washed away – nothing but myself was left.’ Meanwhile, her friends have all moved to Tokyo, having moved there with their children, and they are too old to return to Onagawa. Even if they did come back, she says, ‘there’s no work for them here’. Even so, she has stayed, and she still loves Onagawa, both because of the sheer natural beauty – ‘I grew up surrounded by oceans’ – and because of the spirit of ninjo (‘compassion’) – the community are very tightly knit; everybody helps each other, and everyone’s door is always open. The kind hospitality with which she receives a couple of us gaijin journalists reflects the touching sincerity of that spirit. But the spectre of loneliness and loss remains.

“My life was washed away – nothing but myself was left”

Yuichiro Tanaka, El Faro Hotel Manager
Yuichiro Tanaka, El Faro Hotel Manager

Yuichiro Tanaka manages the El Faro hotel, a tourist trailer park complex/hotel where the HLAB summer school was held this year, for the second time. Though he emphasised the same challenges for Onagawa as the Mayor, he was more emphatic about what still needs to be done in terms of infrastructure – ‘Onagawa is still in need of revitalization.’ As for Kiyoko, Onagawa to him is a place of great community spirit – a place that is hitokko ga yoi, so friendly it’s almost too friendly; he has made strong connections with merchants and fishermen in the town, whereas he made much weaker connections with people while he was living in Ishinomaki, a large city (~150,000) in Tohoku. Indeed, as we discovered at the end of the interview, he was on very friendly terms with Kiyoko!

This spirit of cooperation and community is reflected in the hotel he manages. El Faro was started by four hotels that used to be in the area before the disaster – hence the four colours of trailer (pictured below). It also conveys a sense of historical consciousness and connectedness: ‘el faro’ means ‘the lighthouse’ in Spanish, and this, Tanaka tells us, refers to a town in Spain whch experienced a tsunami 200 years ago but has since been reborn, the four colours of the trailers being the colours of that town.

The web of connections grows. Tanaka is very emphatic on the need for a more international future, for more people from different and diverse cultures to come together and interact and learn from each other; he wants to learn English so he can become a part of this. This, for him, is an important part of how this place will become more exciting, more like the hot tourist location envisioned by the Mayor – by embacing the rest of the world.
Sky over El Faro

So what, in the end, does Onagawa show us? There is no one point that can be extracted from such diverse perspectives; there is some truth both in the Mayor’s optimism, and in the skepticism of other local residents. Onagawa has great potential, but there is still much work to be done to build its future. Yet it is hard to deny that there is hope in this town – its survival of such utter ruin, together with huge strides towards a new vision made within the space of a mere five years, must ultimately stand out to us as a triumph of the human spirit, the determined twinkling of a star even when engulfed by a dark and ruthless sky.

This piece was a result of an innovative, intellectual, and far-reaching journalistic experiment: 10 foreign student journalists, invited by the Prime Minister’s office and hosted by the HLAB summer school, sought to explore and illuminate Japan over a span of 19 days. Our projects eventually spanned topics ranging from Japanese views of success and failure to the robust Japanese artisan culture. See some of the other pieces here