1 Nov 2011

Why it’s time to revisit Japan’s tsunami zone

Chief Correspondent

Eight months after parts of Japan were obliterated by the 11 March earthquake and tsunami, Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson ponders his return to the worst-hit areas.

The Japanese town of Minamisanriku was ravaged by the tsunami (Getty)

As we sat, staring around at the endless, silent, shrinking piles of wreckage that until two days before was Minamisanriku, I remember the conversation so well.

“You thinking what I’m thinking?” I asked cameraman Stuart Webb

“I think I am,” he said.


“You’ve got it.”

Such was the industrial scale of obliteration and in this country of all places – the comparison seemed physically true – yet wildly wrong in so many ways.

And then our translator Hiro arrived, in tears, and said it was like those old pictures of Nagasaki.

So, eight months on, we are lucky enough to go back. Back to a place where the deepest questions arise.

Should Minamisanriku, Kesennuma, Kamaishi, Ofunato, Taro – names seared into global collective consciousness – should they be rebuilt at all? Is it viable to live here at all? Taro – to name but one – already destroyed three times over in recent history.

Basic questions to answer but over a vast range. How to move a freighter stranded on a crushed town?

How to trace those still missing?

Watch the video: Alex Thomson's original report from Minamisanriku
The Japanese town of Kesennuma was destroyed by the tsunami in Japan (Getty)

(The fishing port of Kesennuma after the tsunami in March (left) compared to September – Reuters)

How to protect even better for the next time in a region where there always will be “a next time”?

And what of the culture, the very psyche of a region where town after coastal town is now a Google-earth ghost – there, but only in virtual reality?

So we set out again to try to find some answers across the spectrum from the logistical to the psychological.

Go back we must, for so much of this is unanswered and scarcely explored by British TV news forgivably swamped by this extreme year of global news.

Somehow the time and space must be made. Normally I abhor doing “anniversary journalism” – there’s enough real news to happen or be dug out.

But Japan’s tsunami and her unique response to it demand answers after the reasonable elapse of time. We are now, I sense, at that point.

We know too that a mixed picture exists before we’ve left the UK. Heroic efforts, individual and corporate on one hand – grinding bureaucratic inefficiency on the other. Even in Japan, there is blame, finger pointing, as well as undoubted gratitude.

There are hundreds, thousands, swiftly and effectively living in temporary housing. But others are still waiting. People being asked for mortgage payments on houses long swept away. Towns which no longer exist being asked for rent on emergency prefabs.

Read more: After the floods, Kesennuma burns
A member of a search and rescue team cleans an area destroyed by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami as he looks for bodies in Ishinomaki, northern Japan (Reuters)

The tangled, mangling mess of officialdom, alongside the staggering (yet self-effacing) efficiency which is a by-word for Japanese can-do culture.

It was a disaster which redefined the image of a country. It posed global questions about nuclear energy. It brought the word “stoicism” back into the English language as never before.

It moved the very coastline of continental Asia in moments of natural violence beyond words and beyond measure.

It is time to return to the eastern coast of Honshu – the gorgeous, dark conifered hills, the deep valleys and the broken coastline where the works of nature and man are changed forever.