The Fall And Rise Of Onagawa


FIVE YEARS after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, the port of Onagawa has a craft beer bar, an artisanal coffee house, a Spanish tile factory, and a workshop where electric guitars are carved from local cedar, all laid out along the new Seapal Pier shopping precinct, at the town’s own Ground Zero. None of these were here before March 11, 2011, when the quake sent a wave of almost fifteen meters through Onagawa Bay and over the waterfront – destroying more than seventy percent of the town’s buildings and killing about eight percent, or one in twelve, of its residents.

(The official local death toll stands at 827, from a pre-tsunami population of just over 10,000. This includes the 254 victims for whom death certificates have been issued, but whose bodies have not been recovered.) Survivors did not fail to notice that the scale of the disaster also put Onagawa on the map, along with other stricken towns and cities like Kesennuma and Minami-Sanriku – small and marginal fishing communities at the edge of Miyagi Prefecture, in Japan’s relatively poor Tōhoku Region, suddenly made famous by their near-erasure. Alone among these, Onagawa had since remade itself as a kind of model village for the reconstruction process: rebuilding by way of rebranding.

Hiroko Shimanuki was now serving Onagawa Curry at her new combination cafe and dress shop, which takes the same name, Daishin, as the business she lost to the tsunami – all that remains of the original is a single kanji character (Dai), from a wooden sign that someone found amid the floating debris. The craft beer place was selling a pretty zingy Onagawa Hop Ale at 750 yen (almost $7) per glass.


And Shuhei Shimura, owner of the recently opened Bar Sugar Shack, had been working on a new cocktail, tentatively named the Onagawa Highball. Last Wednesday night, a select group of local stakeholders were invited to sample it. Also present were sponsors from the Kirin Brewery Company, which distributes Johnnie Walker whisky in Japan. It had been decided that the brand slogan “Keep Walking” was particularly suited to Onagawa’s spirit of post-tsunami indefatigability.


Shimura mixed a “male” version of the highball with whisky, soda, a little salt to represent the sea outside, and a some lemon to symbolise the sanma, or saury – the signature fish of Onagawa Bay, usually eaten with a little squeeze of citrus. He also mixed a heated version with some honey “for the ladies”, which his girlfriend and co-bartender Chouko Chiba found both a bit condescending and literally too sweet. Chiba was a relative newcomer from the interior of neighboring Iwate Prefecture, the coast of which was also badly hit by the tsunami. She had first moved southward and seaward to volunteer with the tsunami relief group It’s Not Just Mud in the nearby city of Ishinomaki, and later to Onagawa when she got together with Shimura.

Chiba had since noted that the people of minato machi, or harbor towns, speak more “loudly and directly” than inland folk like herself. Swimming against the outgoing tide of regional evacuees and exiles, advancing further into the disaster zone that so many were still leaving by force of circumstance, she’d also learned to be very careful in expressing the private happiness of someone whose life was essentially changed for the better because of the tsunami – friends made, fun had, love found.

She and Shimura were about to get married, on Saturday March 12, the day after the fifth anniversary of the tsunami. The date had been chosen as a statement, or an affirmation. Born and raised in Onagawa, Shimura lost his home, his grandmother, and his younger brother on the day before, five years earlier.  And much as he might wish it never happened, he was not inclined to romanticize his hometown as it had been the day before that. Now thirty-two, he remembered when the only local jobs available were on fishing boats, in seafood processing factories, in the town hall, or at Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant, just out of town in Koyadori Bay. (Despite being 60 kilometers closer to the offshore epicenter of the quake than the now-infamous Fukushima Daiichi plant, Onagawa’s three reactors were “remarkably undamaged” by the tsunami, according to a subsequent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The facility had even sheltered hundreds of residents for months after the disaster. Even so, it has remained in cold shutdown since the disaster, pending approval to restart.)

Shimura’s own job had not been much more appealing, at the giant Nippon Paper Industries mill in Ishinomaki, which was also inundated by the tsunami. Having survived where others didn’t, he had since committed himself to a different life, and a different Onagawa. Recovering his teenage passion for hip-hop and graffiti art, he sprayed vivid, positive-minded murals on fishery container units under his new tag D-Bons, commissioned by the fishermen themselves.

And he now conceived Bar Sugar Shack as a place to hang out and listen to good music where nothing of the kind had existed before. Asked to define “good music”, he said that Nas was “the best”. Tokyo rapper Rino Latina II had performed at the Sugar Shack earlier last week, while Ishinomaki breakdance troupe the Bi-Hive Crew turned headspins on the floor. In the old Onagawa, said D-Bons, “there was nothing for young people to do but sit around and drink outside the train station”.

The station was long gone now, ripped away by the tsunami and replaced last year with a new designer structure by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban. Surveying Ban’s work from above the following afternoon, sixty-seven year old local teacher and nature guide Ikuo Fujinaka said the only thing he really liked about it was the way the roofline seemed to trace the contours of the mountain behind.

That mountain, which had “no name” according to Fujinaka, was one of the few around Onagawa that still retained its original shape. Most were now being cut, cleared and terraced to make space for new public and private housing at higher, and, presumably, safer elevations, as per the town’s reconstruction plan.  Its sheltering slopes now ascended in concrete-clad layers, like ziggurats rising out of the coastal plains. The soil extracted in the process was being used to raise the lower town an average of five meters above sea level for industrial and commercial use. The work was far from finished – delayed by years of complex land and property purchases, mortgage and inheritance wrangles, and more earthly obstructions like an unexpected excess of solid rock in the ground beneath the town.

Meanwhile, a majority of remaining residents were still living in temporary housing units. Some, like Shimura, in repurposed shipping containers, also designed by Shigeru Ban as part of his firm’s pro bono disaster relief programme. Others, like Fujinaka, in less comfortable standard-spec government-issue kasetsu units. But now, after almost five years in what he called his “rabbit house”, he could at least visit the plot of land where his new home would be built this summer. It was a nice spot, with a sea view, on the corner of a raised promontory. One rainy day last week, he stood bareheaded in front of a portable bamboo altar while a Shinto priest, robes soaked and billowing, performed a traditional jichinsai ground-breaking ceremony.

“We asked the gods who made Japan, Izanagi and Izanami, to come down and listen to us,” explained Fujinaka later. “Then we asked them for permission to live in this place, and to let the construction finish safely.” He felt the service had gone well, but he couldn’t say he was “happy”, exactly. The new house would cost him twenty-six million yen ($230,000 approx), and his compensation from the tsunami covered only ten million.

The bank loan for the balance was more than he could hope to pay back in his lifetime, and the burden was likely to fall on his three adult daughters. As for the new shops and station below, he sighed and said it didn’t look like Onagawa down there. “I don’t think these things are really for Onagawa people. They’re for tourists to come for sightseeing, spending money, taking pictures.”

Last Friday afternoon, in his anniversary address to local survivors and mourners at the Sogotaikan sports center  – one of the only civic buildings still standing above the inundation line – mayor Yoshiaki Suda seemed to acknowledge that the town’s dead wouldn’t recognize the place it was now becoming. “The old Onagawa, as those in heaven used to know it, is disappearing now,” said Suda.

“Perhaps they see this, and it makes them sad. But the shape of the new town is emerging, little by little, from the landscape that was covered with despair. We who survived will be the ones to live in it. We can’t go back, and we can’t be afraid of change. By building this new town ourselves, we are creating our own future.”

Later, in office at the interim town hall – the original was destroyed, a permanent replacement is planned for next year – Suda said he’d heard the concerns of older residents, who have told him this new Onagawa looks more like Daikanyama (a trendy enclave in Tokyo) or Karuizawa (a resort town near Nagano).

“I understand their nostalgia,” he said. “But it was never just a matter of rebuilding. We also had to solve the town’s problems, which are the problems of every small town in Japan. Old people getting older, young people leaving.” A heavy metal fan of 43, Suda himself was youthful by the standards of Japan’s patrician political culture, and even more so in his own town, where more than half the tsunami victims and a third of the survivors were over 60. Which is to say, the disaster had only accelerated Onagawa’s long, slow demographic death.

In the thirty years before the disaster, the population had dropped by over thirty percent. In the five years since, it had fallen to less than seven thousand, as those of working age could not afford to wait for new jobs, new homes. Any viable future for Onagawa, said Suda, could no longer rely on revenues from the fisheries and subsidies from the nuclear power plant. For all the logistical complexities of reconstruction, his job had required him to think of the town in existential terms.

“What does Onagawa even mean?,” he asked. “How is it defined? What makes it distinctive? The beautiful ocean, the mountains, the fresh fish, they’re all great, but they’re also common to the whole Sanriku area. The special feel and color of a place is not necessarily inherent, it’s something that we create, right? We add that value.”

Suda had lost more or less as much as anyone to the tsunami – a cousin, an aunt, an uncle, not to mention his house. He was still living in one of Shigeru Ban’s container units with his wife, mother and children, and expected to be there for at least another year, as new housing plots were being allocated by lottery. Asked if he would stay until the end, until all his townsfolk had been re-homed in the new Onagawa, the mayor said no way. “If my number comes up, I’m out of there.”


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