14 Mar 2011

Minamisanriku: Japan’s tsunami-hit ground zero

Chief Correspondent

Alex Thomson reports from the devastated port Minamisanriku. He says in 30 years as a war correspondent – covering over 20 wars and several major earthquakes – he’s never seen anything on this scale.

The first thing you notice is the silence, which seems to hang over the place. There is no sound as we approach this once busy, thriving coastal town.

Driving round the final bend in the mountain path before making the descent into Minamisanriku, nothing can quite prepare you for the sight of such destruction.

In my 30 years as a war correspondent I have covered more than 20 wars and several major earthquakes, but I have never seen anything on this scale.

One minute you are passing through towns and villages completely untouched by natural disaster – not even a pane missing from the windows – and then as you turn the corner it suddenly hits you.

The most astonishing view stretches out below us down the valley towards the sea for at least four miles. An entire town of at least 17,000 people has simply ceased to exist here. The scale of it is horrifying.

All the mementoes of people’s lives are ground into the mud or floating in the wind.

At least 95 per cent of the buildings are not merely ruined; they have been reduced to a vast morass of splintered wood, jagged concrete and twisted metal. All of this is hideously decorated with the details of destroyed family lives: a woman smiles up from her wedding photographs, a smashed guitar lies in the debris.

I see a broken doll, and the pages from a child’s school exercise book. All the mementoes of people’s lives are ground into the mud or floating in the wind. Looking at them you can’t help but ask: “Is the person who owned this still alive?”

Buildings destroyed by a tsunami in Minamisanriku. (Reuters)

‘Pulverised town’

The police try to prevent us going any further, but we get out of our vehicle and simply walk on. All I can see is mile upon winding mile of a town totally pulverized.

An articulated lorry has been concertinaed by the force of the water, the cab ripped off. Four cars have smashed into it and the roof of a house sits on top. Homes have been reduced to matchsticks and driftwood. On the road that leads up the school, I see another four or five cars hanging perilously over edge of the hill.

The astonishing thing about tsunami damage, unlike earthquake damage, is that the devastation starts from the point where the water comes to its terrifying halt. One yard to the right and there is no damage at all and one yard the other way, it’s utter mayhem.

If you look up the hill you may see tennis courts, a cinema, a ten-pin bowling alley, shops – all untouched – but look down the valley and there is nothing but debris. Everything has been swept away.

There is no crying, no hysteria, no anger. It is in the psyche of the Japanese people to do what they have to do in silence and with dignity.

The scene is oddly reminiscent of the photographs of Nagasaki or Hiroshima after the A bomb was dropped during the Second World War. The occasional concrete structure has survived but nothing else.

Every mile, or half mile, a concrete office block may still be standing, but all around everything else is flattened. Canals, embankments, roads and car parks, have been mashed to pieces.

This should have been a busy Sunday lunchtime with day trippers and local people enjoying this prosperous, beautiful area with its stunning beaches and wooded areas.

What we can see instead are small knots of people all across this flattened area, quietly either searching for victims or returning to what remains of their homes, searching for possessions they had no time to save.

Sporadically, police lift the cordons to allow inhabitants to return to their homes to search for lost relatives or sift through the rubble to retrieve their belongings. They do this in an orderly fashion, before the alarm sounds warning of further possible quakes and they have to return to safety.

Silence and dignity

There is no crying, no hysteria, no anger. It is in the psyche of the Japanese people to do what they have to do in silence and with dignity.

The tidal wave water has receded now, but the town’s river is spilling all over the place because the force of the tsunami means the banks have been realigned. There are still large stagnant pools of seawater and mud everywhere.

As we look on rescuers gently retrieve another body, cradled in a filthy blanket – all they had to hand. The love, respect and ceremony with which these local people wrap their dead – people they know – is perhaps more touching than any tears.

The body will be taken up the hill to the town’s secondary school and join the others in the college gymnasium – now a mortuary. There, I see nine bodies, but I am told that they have recovered hundreds more. We can see none from where we stand, they are either buried too deeply or have been swept out to sea.


Ten thousand people are believed to be missing, but as yet there is no way of knowing if they are dead or by some miracle managed to escape before the tsunami struck.

At the school I meet one of the town’s restaurant owners, Yuchida Takuma. He no longer has a business. Instead, he helps in the mortuary, delicately tying the bright blue polythene body bags which lie here in rows.

“I am lucky to be alive,” he tells me. “We heard the sirens – the tsunami warning – and drove up the hill to the school, to high ground. The sirens saved my life.”

I ask him what was left of his restaurant down in the town. “Oh,” he says, bravely managing a smile. “There is nothing left at all. If you go there all you will see is the concrete base, the foundation. It is finished, washed away like everything else.”

Outside on the college baseball ground, a Japanese Army Chinook lands to unload supplies of food and desperately-needed blankets – the nights here are sub-zero. On the roof of the High School Building the letters SOS are written bold, for the chopper to land.

In Pictures – Japan tsunami and earthquake photo gallery

Click on the image to see more photos from Japan

Across the way in the college reception, we meet English teacher Shinji Saki: “I saw it all,” he says.

“The whole thing. First there was the quake, the shaking. Then, the sirens warning there would be a tsunami. I was already here, teaching, upon the hill. But in a few minutes you heard this huge roar and then it all began. We watched as our entire town was simply swept away. It just no longer exists.”

I look at him, genuinely wondering how it must have felt for those gathered on the hill on Friday watching their friends, family, businesses, being washed away before their eyes.

“There were around 7,000 of us on the hill that day,” Shinji says. “Perhaps, a few thousand at the school on the hill opposite. That was it really. Seven thousand people here, but there are 17,000 in the town. All the others have gone.”

He shrugs, looks at me: “Who knows if there are eight or ten thousand people still missing here. I just can’t comprehend it.”

We are about to walk away when he looks at me, opening up about the horrors he has just witnessed.

“You see, there was this man. I saw him going past on this water, sitting on the roof of his house as it floated by. I saw him. I looked at him and there was nothing at all I could do.”

All the schools were full the Friday afternoon the tsunami struck. The buildings are all on high ground, built on the mountain side, so there are many children who have lost their parents.


In the choas here, however, it is impossible to know who has been orphaned. Around 800 people are here, families sit quietly together, self-contained and dignified. They display a remarkable order and stoicism even in the face such desperate loss. Of course there is deep emotion, but it is not in their nature to show it.

As we leave, one woman comes out and hugs me. She says: “I cannot believe that anybody in England is interested in us, our little town.”

We try to tell her the tremendous impact this huge disaster has had worldwide, and she is completely amazed.

Down in this valley where the town of Minamisanriku once existed, we find a tourist brochure for the town amongst the debris. For this was a renowned tourist area with wonderful beaches – of all things. Minamisanriku is noted amongst the Japanese for its beautiful wooded hillsides, lovely coastline, and musical festivals at all times of the calendar.

But we can’t look at this for long. Suddenly the rescuers are shouting and the police gesturing at us to move to higher ground. It is another tsunami alert; we see police officers, firemen, nurses, and all manner of rescue workers rushing up the hillside in their high visibility uniforms of various bright colours. It turns out to be a false alarm, although waves are reported further along the coast.

We leave at dusk, trudging back through mile after mile of utter destruction.

Overhead, the buzzards circle, for they know there is carrion to be had here. Countless bodies have yet to be retrieved from what remains of this town, wiped from the map in a few moments of thunderous horror.