3 Nov 2011

Kesennuma – a tale of two towns

It all began peacefully enough this morning, leaning on the balcony of our hotel, woken by the crying of tame seagulls who line up on the railings expecting to be fed.

Beyond, the millpond Pacific does not disturb the fishermen stretching out across the bay of Minamisanriku once again. The sun is rising hazily from the sea horizon.

And then the tremors. Now I have to be honest at this point and admit that I felt little or nothing at all. But soon the rest of our team was talking about how they’d felt a couple of earth tremors before breakfast. In Tokyo there were the strongest earth tremors for several weeks.

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But our business lies to the north in Kesennuma. Yes, the coast road is open. But from it you see the railway line with its severed bridges, shattered viaducts and station platforms cut in half by the quake and tsunami combined.

As in all these obliterated towns you can – eight months on – look at it in two ways. Clearly a huge amount has been done to clear up the debris if you look one way – yet in Kesennuma there are still buildings which look exactly as they did when we were last here eight months ago.

The silence still hangs heavy in many areas – you still hear the crows, gulls and buzzards mewing overhead. True, the road through town is no longer blocked by stranded tuna vessels – but away from the road itself the silence comes in once again.

An enormous job still remains to be done. We come across two men – and Afghan and a Pakistani – hard to say who is the more surprised to see whom in this chance encounter.

There is big and consistent money to be made collecting up the broken vehicles which still dot this broken landscape. And these guest workers are held in high esteem by many Japanese for the contribution they have made.

Round the corner from Hamid and Mehrab slowly lifting up another crushed family car, a sign lies embedded into a building shredded by the incoming tsunami surge. But the letters are distinct enough. It’s come from a car dealership wrecked close by. The names Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki in big red letters in a crumpled, now useless sign. Pillars of the once-tiger Japanese economy, pillars shattered by the economic effect of the tsunami.

Read more: Tsunami revisited special report

But equally you will see “Don’t Give Up” stickers on the sides of cards. On windscreens, tee-shirts, bomber jackets – you name it.

They couldn’t hold the town’s annual festival back in August because the beach where it was held has been scoured away by the inundation.

And anyhow, it was just too soon after the event. Nevertheless they are holding it now. Not on the ex-beach of course – but on a large dusty carpark of a supermarket at the edge of town. It is small, but it is a start. As school pupils thrash their electric guitars – in uniform – on the small stage here, they embody the “Don’t Give Up” attitude.

For these young people though, still teenagers, two huge questions lie ahead. Will they be forced to give up on their town when the year arrives for them to look for jobs which may well still not be in towns like Kesennuma? Or will the government ultimately decide that giving up is the long-term option, that these towns are not viable to rebuild, standing as they are in the path of an unending seismic storm.

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