BY OFANI EREMAE
AS Naomitsu Kakui spoke to a group of visiting journalists about the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the pain and trauma of that disaster could still be detected on his face.
Kakui, 64, a native of Yuriage district, near Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture, lost both his parents and his home in the 8.4-meter tsunami triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck an hour earlier.
Kakui remembered that day well. It was at 14.46pm on 11 March 2011.
“I was at work in Sendai City at that time,” he told journalists from the Pacific and Caribbean, who are on a 10-day media fellowship in Japan.
“My home was right in the path of the tsunami,” an emotional Kakui, who worked for a sports equipment-manufacturing company at that time, said.
“I tried to rush home but could not make it,” he added.
Lucky for him, his wife and two children were able to evacuate to safety before the tsunami struck. But his mother and father could not.
Yuriage, once a flourishing fishing town facing the Pacific Ocean, was flattened.
The tsunami, Kakui recalled, came three directions: north, south and east. It flowed into the Natori River and Yuriage port, destroying everything in its path.
Communities up and down the coast were devastated beyond recognition.
More than 750 residents of Yuriage lost their lives in the disaster. The damage bill was put at 100 billion Japanese Yen (SBD$5.6 billion).
Thousands of residents left the district.
But for Kakui, abandoning a town he called home is not an option.
As a local, he felt he has a role in the rebuilding of Yuriage.
Due to conflicts between the city government, which wanted rebuilding to be done on the same site as before the disaster, and residents who wanted to be relocated further inland, the reconstruction plans changed several times.
In the interim, however, many decided not to return, and the Natori Municipal Government readjusted its initial planned population of 5,500 down to 2,100.
But when the Natori government began to sell plots of its land, there was a large influx of the child-rearing generation who appreciated its proximity to Sendai.
Kakui became the head of a local community-building organization.
He has done a range of things for residents who have become scattered all over, hosting potato stew events to publishing residents’ status updates in a newspaper he founded.
Kakui had always thought that for old and new residents of Yuriage to become one, there needed to be something that would unify them.
He has come to think that speaking about and passing down the history of the district could be that “something.”
The mere building of new homes and the gathering of people, he says, do not indicate true reconstruction.
“Community-building that connects new residents who have come from elsewhere with old residents is crucial.
“Moreover, even if one does not live there, by visiting the place and interacting with the people there, the community becomes alive.
“I want to make sure people don’t forget.”
Kakui, however, regretted that members of his community ignored history and wisdom from their ancestors.
As part of their reconstruction, they’ve recovered a stone signpost from the depths of the Teizan Canal, which passes through Yuriage.
“Nobody knew what it was, but it had been erected (in the area) in the aftermath of the Sanriku tsunami of 1933 to indicate where the waves had reached,” Kakui explains.
“So it commemorated a tsunami of less than 80 years ago, but people had already forgotten.
“Written clearly on the signpost were the words ‘if there’s an earthquake, there’ll be a tsunami’.
“If people read this, more lives would have been saved during the 2011 earthquake,” Kakui said.
They didn’t inherit the experiences from previous tsunami. I found that very regrettable and upsetting.”
Kakui said since the disaster, much has changed and the visual aids help people to see how things were, but also how the recovery efforts have progressed.
Like many municipalities in the region, community has changed irrevocably.
According to Kakui, around 30 percent of the current population of the area are new residents lured by inexpensive accommodation and the district’s proximity to Sendai.
The majority of the remainder are elderly living alone, he adds.
Today, the district—which has been raised 5 meters to mitigate against future tsunami—is home to some 1,600 residents, new apartments, a new marina, port, fish market and a chic commercial center, Kawa Machi Terrace Yuriage.
A 7.2-metre sea-wall to ward-off future tsunamis was also built and completed on Yuriage’s shoreline.
For Kakui, this is an indication Yuriage is on the path to full recovery.