On northeastern Japan’s Pacific edge, towering concrete walls twist along the coastline like the stitching on a wound. In the wake of the March 2011 Tohoku Disaster, the central government raised 250 miles of tsunami barriers in one of the largest construction projects in the nation’s history, hiding the fishing towns and villages of the coast from the sea that had both sustained them for centuries and, in the space of a single, awful day, laid them to waste.
Ishinomaki was one of the areas worst hit by the tsunami. The crashing, 30-foot wave swept through nearly half of the city, ruining tens of thousands of homes and claiming over 3,500 lives. I’d seen news footage of the city being destroyed, so it was an uncanny experience to end up in Ishinomaki myself during my journey through Tohoku this spring, eleven years after the disaster. Though it wasn’t originally on my itinerary, due to rainy weather I ended up seeking a last-minute place to spend the night outside of Sendai, and Ishinomaki provided. I’m glad I went, because it was unlike any place I’d ever visited.
One of the first things that struck me about Ishinomaki was the beautiful yet profoundly eerie sense of *newness* exhibited by many parts of the city (at least, the areas that I explored), with numerous buildings appearing to have been constructed, repaired, or remodeled within the last decade. The city has spent over a trillion yen in rebuilding after the disaster, and I have rarely been to an urban area that felt so pristine and yet so vacant, with many open spaces awaiting new development. Like most small cities in Japan, Ishinomaki has been plagued for decades by a shrinking population, a problem only exacerbated in the wake of the tsunami. Yet what made Ishinomaki feel so different—and so dissonant—was that all the new repair and construction gave the impression of a town on the upswing, rather than a place still fighting to forge its way forward after one of the worst natural disasters imaginable.
Yet one cannot help but be moved by the unexpected beauty of Ishinomaki. Those who have stayed, those who have dedicated their efforts to rebuilding their community, have every reason to be proud of what they’ve achieved in the face of the bleakest adversity.
When the rain abated, I left my hotel for a late-night stroll around the city to take it all in. Close to the station, one sees increasingly frequent tributes to the legendary manga artist Ishinomori Shotaro (1938-1998), who was born nearby. Mr. Ishinomori created multiple hit kids’ series such as Kamen Rider and Super Sentai—the latter of which became the source material for the Power Rangers in the U.S.. Tributes to his life’s work appear in statues and murals around the city center, offering the area a nostalgic, whimsical aspect.
Still, the city’s recent history looms ever present. In the morning I wandered down to the Tsunami Memorial Park by the sea, which covers a wide area that once contained entire neighborhoods, now all washed away. Despite the short, newly-planted trees that will someday grow tall and turn it into a scene of great beauty, the park in 2022 still feels like a stripped and desolate place. Walking its length, it’s hard to imagine the area had once been full of streets and houses and shops, yet at the same time it does feel like the sort of place where something momentous and catastrophic happened. The ground still has a shocked, gouged, and scoured feel, the rugged vegetation recalling waves that not only pounded the earth, but salted it full of brine. If a place can be said to feel traumatized, then that’s how it felt to me—though it struck me as a defiantly hopeful place as well, with its fluttering fish kites, gleaming infinity pool, and signboard emblazoned with the encouragement to “Fight on, Ishinomaki!”
To the south, a 30-foot wall blocks the sea from sight, though the bay can still be glimpsed from a hilltop. The seawalls are a new addition to the landscape that evoke mixed feelings from the towns and fishing communities along the northeastern coast. In the eyes of many, they are a necessary bulwark against future disaster; once you’ve witnessed the ocean leveling your town, shattering homes, schools, and hospitals, and drowning friends and family, it fundamentally alters your relationship with the sea. To others, however, the barriers feel like the walls of a prison, blighting the natural landscape and severing the communities from the ocean that sustained not only them, but their parents, grandparents, and all the untold generations before them. To coexist with the sea, in full view of its beauty, rather than hide from it, is their ancestral way of life, and the seawalls to them are objects of deep resentment that cut them off from their source. One village—Akahama, in Iwate Prefecture—managed to reject its seawall outright, essentially telling the government contractors to take their concrete monstrosity and shove it up their collective ass. The community of Taro, conversely, takes great pride in its seawall (it’s had one for many decades, with more added after the 2011 disaster) and even has songs in honor of its protection. It’s striking how towns from exact same region can share such similar histories, lifestyles, and cultures, experience the same unthinkable tragedy and respond to it in such drastically different ways.
Ishinomaki, for its part, seems to have made a grudging peace with its wall. The question is whether the city will have sufficient protection when the next great wave comes, be it decades or centuries from now. Whatever its utility, it will serve a solemn reminder to future generations of a broken trust with the sea.