A story of survival rises from the ruins of a fishing village
March 15, 2011
TARO VILLAGE, JAPAN—The seawalls that buffer this once-bucolic fishing village from the ocean were supposed to keep people safe from a tsunami.
The 10-metre high walls — more than a kilometre long — gave tiny Taro the feel of a fortified village, impregnable against all comers.
But not every one felt so sure.
When fisherman Tatsuo Haroki felt the force of Friday’s earthquake, he knew there wasn’t a seawall on earth that was going to save him.
He was right: he estimates the waves triggered by the quake that landed on top of Taro were between “12 and 15 metres high.”
They just sailed over Taro’s ramparts, he says, and pulverized the village into a mess of matchsticks and a whirling whirlpool that turned Taro into slurry.
“That earthquake was so huge, we’d never experienced anything like it before,” says the 64-year-old Haroki, standing amid the ruins of Taro. His decision to move quickly was just a “gut instinct,” he says.
He had been down by the sea, fixing his fishing nets when the 9.0 temblor hit. Almost immediately, warning signals were issued from a portable radio he had been listening to.
He ran to his car and sped home to find his wife, Misa, who was visiting neighbours. She leapt in to the car with him and the two sped up the hill that acts as a backdrop to the village
“We didn’t stop to pick up anything,” says Haroki, who has been a fisherman here for more than 40 years. “We just wanted to escape.”
And so they did, just as they had been drilled to.
Incredibly, just a week before, this village of 5,000 had held its annual tsunami drill, an event that occurs every March 3 to commemorate a devastating tsunami that struck Taro in 1933 and nearly wiped it out.
There’s a solemn minute of silence and people pray.
How many survived last week’s tragedy is not yet known, but many locals here estimate as many as 2,000 might be missing or dead.
In the end, engineering didn’t save a soul in Taro.
What saved lives here was good sense.
On Wednesday, Haroki and his wife returned to the village in search of their sodden belongings, whatever they could find.
It wasn’t an easy task and took luck: entire houses after all had disintegrated.
Taro resembled a garbage dump: hectares upon hectares of smashed wood, crushed cars, overturned boats, boats on roofs, kitchen appliances, stereo speakers, clothing, children’s books, a plastic folder of Japanese post cards based on fairy tales, a record album of Jo Stafford featuring Cole Porter’s “You’d be so nice to come home to.”
One boat, more than 30 metres long, had been hurled upside down like a toy.
Another was smashed into shreds and stuck to the entrance of what used to be the local Lawson’s convenience store.
This was village life violently interrupted on a grand scale.
But happily and almost miraculously, the Harokis happened upon a treasure trove of memory: their two family photos albums.
“We burst into tears when we found them,” said Haroki, opening one album to gaze at the pictures. “These are our babies,” he said, referring to their children and grandchildren.
But Taro was by no means unique in its reliance on a massive and intricate seawall. About 40 per cent of Japan’s 35,000-kilometre coastline is marked by concrete seawalls or breakwaters meant to protect the coast.
They are ubiquitous in a country where the expectation of the next big earthquake is part of national consciousness.
And many believe seawalls serve mainly as make-work projects, and to hand out big concrete contracts.
Taro’s is just one of about a dozen major seawalls around the country. But locals like to tell foreigners here how people from “all over Asia” come here to see its famous seawall and to learn from it.
But while many have praised Japan for its demanding building codes and quake-resistant buildings, Friday’s earthquake — and the failure of its elaborate seawall system — could call for a reconsideration of seawalls altogether.
In Taro, once the water cleared the seawall and hit the village, it stayed and raged there, having trapped the entire village inside a kind of ‘bowl’ formed by the seawall itself and the mountains behind the village.
In fact, it could be said that it contributed to trapping victims and drowning many inside the perimeter’s powerful waters.
For 55-year-old grandmother Mikako Watanabe, in her moment of need, the seawall was simply a barrier that had to be overcome. After the quake, with the clock ticking on the tsunami, she had to climb over it to get to her home quickly, in order to save herself and her 5-year-old grandson Yoh.
The two exited out the back door and climbed to higher ground.
“Everyone had said this area was a safe area,” Watanabe said, as she picked through the rubble Wednesday. “We hadn’t had a real tsunami since 1933 and we never really thought that we would see a big one in our lifetime. And of course they built this good seawall and so . . . we were quite happy and relaxed.”
Perhaps that is another risk of seawalls: a fall sense of security.
When Watanabe reached the top of the hill and looked back and saw the waves of the tsunami roaring in, that sense of seawall security was gone forever.
“I was really shocked when I saw it with my own eyes — sawing it breaking over the wall,” she says.
Up on that same hill were her fellow villagers, the Harokis.
Looking down, with the tsunami fast approaching, they all watched in horror as a traffic jam took shape on the village’s main street.
Tragically, people wouldn’t give up their cars and run to save themselves.
Instead, they perished in them.