5 Nov 2011

The ‘humbling strength’ of Minamisanriku’s mayor

Channel 4 News cameraman Stuart Webb, one of the first foreigners to reach the tsunami-hit Japanese town of Minamisanriku, writes about his return and the mayor faced with impossible decisions.

The 'humbling strength' of Minamisanriku's mayor.

Jin Sato is a remarkable man with a thousand things on his mind. He is dealing with issues that no mayor should ever have to face, like working out how to rebuild his town, or whether to at all.

Trying to figure out how to help business recover and how to keep the young people from leaving, as they are doing, because there are no jobs in a place where most industry has been completely obliterated. He is even overseeing the recycling of his own town – how to dispose of the thousands of tonnes of rubble, cars, plastic, fridges and all the other things that make up a community which were smashed to pieces and strewn across miles of land by the surging waters.

To plan for the future he also has to face up to the task of finding out how many of his people have decided to leave for good never to return. Most of this once thriving town has been utterly destroyed.

On the day of the tsunami Jin Sato was holding a meeting at Minamisanriku‘s disaster prevention centre. As the waters surged in he and his staff retreated up the floors. But the three-storey building was not high enough.

More from Channel 4 News: Minamisanriku - Japan's ground zero

Thirty of them found themselves on the roof clinging on for their lives. A further 20 were swept away to their deaths, never to be seen again.

Jin Sato and nine others survived by holding onto the building’s communications mast watching helplessly as the town was submerged around them; watching as their friends and colleagues were torn away.

The mayor took us to his home, or at least where his home once stood. The tsunami ripped it from its foundations so all that is left today is the faint outline of concrete poking through the mud. Jin Sato grew up here. He told us how busy his street used to be; how the main fish market was just opposite; how the town held a big festival at the end of his street every year.

As with so many survivors the mayor does not see his former home as just mud and rubble. To him it is still his home; this muddy ground is still personal; the place where his memories are.

Jin Sato’s strength of character is humbling. He stood there in the mud, which was once his living room, with the weight of his town’s past and future on his shoulders. All around a scene of total devastation.

Tsunami revisited: follow Alex Thomson and team as they return to Japan – live blog.