Smiles Return as Tsunami-battered Japan Town Moves toward Recovery

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A residential area in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, that was developed on land more than 20 meters above sea level after cutting into mountains, is seen on Dec. 2. The central part of the area, which once faced Onagawa Port, was elevated more than 5 meters using soil from the excavation. It is now home to a park and commercial district.

ONAGAWA, Miyagi — Despite the devastation wrought by the tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, no breakwaters have been built in the coastal areas of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture.

Shortly after the quake, a plan emerged to build a 14-meter-high seawall, an idea supported by local store operators but opposed by the municipal government. The Onagawa government argued that a seawall cannot completely eliminate the danger from tsunami and that construction would cut into narrow residential areas in the town, which is surrounded by mountains.

Work to develop residential land began on the nearby mountains, but this too ran into difficulty due to the hard rock underneath.

“People live around the area, and there’s a hospital nearby,” said Toru Hoshino of Kajima Corp., who was in charge of the development project. “We were extra careful even when using heavy machinery. We had to conduct repeated blasting operations. It was an unusual, challenging experience.”

Kajima used special heavy machinery to reduce noise and vibrations, and employed less explosives than usual. The work to develop a safe residential area ultimately continued for 4½ years, scraping away earth and sand equivalent to 1.2 million 10-ton dump trucks.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shoko Noguchi smiles while holding a store’s noren curtain for the Ojika eatery that she and her husband run in the town.

About four years ago, Shoko Noguchi, 64, and her husband, Yoshio, 66, opened an eatery called Ojika on the developed land. Its signature dish is a set meal focused on salted sea urchin rice.

Their previous eatery located near Onagawa Port was washed away by the 2011 tsunami. At that time, they employed four part-time staff, but this time they decided to run the business at their own pace and built a smaller eatery.

There are about 90 households in their new neighborhood. Onagawa Elementary School and Junior High School, attended by about 300 students, were also built nearby.

“We don’t have as many tourists as we used to, but now more local residents come often,” Noguchi said with a smile. “We have more acquaintances now, so it’s more comfortable living here.”

The atmosphere of a port town has faded, and the once-present mountains have disappeared. But for local residents, Onagawa remains unchanged. Next year will mark one decade since the town, which was stricken by grief, started to move forward again.

This year as well, Onagawa Station is lit up with Christmas illuminations that have continued since before the disaster.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
This photo taken on March 29, 2011, shows a coastal area at Onagawa Port, which was devastated by a tsunami up to 14.8 meters high. A total of 827 people were killed or remain unaccounted for in Onagawa as a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and about 2,900 houses were destroyed. The town was covered in rubble, and fishing boats caught up by the tsunami were strewn all around.