The threshold of a Japanese house is all-important. It is what divides the outer from the inner, and the public from the private. In Shinto, Japan’s ancient religion, the threshold is said to be the invisible space that both separates and unites two opposite worlds. It is thus only natural that, when visitors enter the abode of Seizaburo Sato, an 82-year-old retired carpenter living in the port town of Ofunato, they call out in the sing-song manner used on such occasions: “Ojama shimasu.” The literal translation is something like: “I am about to disturb you.” In English, it might be rendered: “May I come in?”
The thing about Mr Sato’s house is that there is really no “in” to come into. From the wooden foundation, it is possible to make out where the threshold once was. But the house is little more than an empty frame. Unlike the buildings in the immediate vicinity, many of which have crumpled into piles of wood and tile, Mr Sato’s house at least has a roof. But it has no walls. One can gaze from the living room at a mangled white sedan car, which may be inside the house or may be outside. It makes little difference. In the wreckage, it is hard to tell the two things apart.
Indeed, the tatami rush-matting that is symbolic of a Japanese home’s interior is spewed outside, scattered like muddy stepping stones. Visitors are obliged to pick their way to avoid the nails and broken glass scattered on what remains of Mr Sato’s floor. That is why, in a concession to these strange times, guests to his home neglect to remove their shoes. It is an affront to politeness that, though unspoken, everybody acknowledges is necessary.
From a vantage point above Ofunato, I spotted Mr Sato as I surveyed the almost indescribable destruction below. My colleague Mure Dickie had been one of the first to enter Rikuzentakata, a nearby town that – if such a thing is imaginable – was even more devastated than Ofunato. He described the experience as like stepping into a photograph of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. I thought of The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel in which a father and son make their way through a charred landscape. Both comparisons neglect the fact that the destruction of towns such as Ofunato, and many others up and down the coast, was wrought not by fire, but by water.
When I talk to people, many of them fishermen, they scoff at reports that the tsunami was 10m tall. No, they say, this one was at least 20m, perhaps 23 or even 24. One man swears it must have been 30. However high it was, it crashed in like a wild beast, breaching the once-formidable tsunami-defence wall, parts of which now lay toppled on the ground. The water picked up houses and boats and cars and people. It then sucked back before lunging at the town again, the debris in its churning waters now transformed into lethal weapons that smashed through walls and metal and teeth and bones.
The tsunami that attacked Ofunato was the terrible progeny of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the fourth largest in recorded history, which struck some 70 miles off Japan’s Tohoku coast at 2.46pm on March 11. When the tsunami started its life out at sea, reports said, it was travelling at 500 miles an hour, the speed of an aircraft. As it approached the shoreline, it slowed, first to the speed of a bullet train, then to that of a car and finally to that of an athlete. Still, for those who had not managed to flee to higher ground, its progress was unstoppable and its vengeance was swift.
I can only attempt to describe the devastation it left behind. My first impression is that the man-made world has vomited up its innards. All that is normally hidden – the metal frames of buildings, piping, electric wires and generators, as well as the crockery, bookshelves, televisions and other bric-a-brac of modern living – is spewed into twisted view. Then there are the cars, mangled into shreds, on their back, on their side and even the right way up, deposited as by an invisible hand in the branches of a tree or the slope of a hillside. A few houses have survived, though most of those are tilted on their sides like drunkards. Many are hundreds of metres from where they once stood.
One of the first things I notice, among shards of wood, mangled metal and flapping plastic sheeting, is a deer, on its back, staring up mournfully at the steely sky. It turns out to have been part of a taxidermy collection. The animal’s hooves are attached to a green baize board. Nearby is a second deer, an eagle, a snarling stoat and an owl. Like a world put in a tumble drier, nothing is where – or quite what – it is supposed to be.
As one’s brain adapts to this altered landscape, one picks out things yet stranger. It takes me minutes to notice, just a few yards away, a huge oil-delivery truck, nose down in the earth, as though flung from the sky. On one house is a twisted, lurid-green coil of metal that may once have been a fence, or perhaps an electricity pylon. To me, it is a diabolical snake that has settled on the teetering rooftop for a better view of hell.
The few large edifices that remain in the valley floor have had their first and second-storey walls ripped off by the inrushing water. They are like grotesque parodies of a doll’s house. Only further up the valley, away from the water – now a deathly, sheet-metal calm – have the houses survived. The difference is stark. To one side is annihilation. To the other are wooden houses with their neat gardens of manicured pine trees and stone lanterns. This is the Ofunato that was.
It is amid this wreckage that I spy Mr Sato, white safety helmet perched Dad’s Army-fashion upon his head, rummaging through the debris. He wears bluish overalls and purple rubber boots. As I draw near, I see that he is old, and blind in his right eye. He is a sturdy man for his age, but he is wheezing with his efforts. At one point in our conversation he dashes to a pile of items he had previously salvaged and comes back with the black, peaked cap he once wore as a volunteer fireman. With a jerky movement he removes his safety helmet, replaces it with the cap and raises his hand smartly to his forehead in salute. The cap is full of freezing rainwater, which runs, in little trickles, down his face.
The thing I notice instantly about Mr Sato – and see time and again in others – is his sense of purpose. If you could ignore the scenes of destruction, Ofunato might be some busy market town with people about their business. As Mr Sato bags up a few salvageable possessions, there is little sense of resignation and every sense of a job to be done. “Ganbarimasu,” he says, using the ubiquitous word of encouragement. “We must give it our best.”
Puffing with the effort of talking, he tells me how he and his wife escaped the tsunami. “When the earthquake hit, my wife, who is 80, banged her head and damaged her leg,” he says. But like everyone in Ofunato – where the epochs are marked by the great tsunamis of bygone eras – they knew a giant wave would swiftly follow and rushed to higher ground. “See that house over there,” he says, pointing to the crumpled remains of a building whose red-tiled roof is now only a few feet from the ground. “That survived the tsunami of Showa 8,” he says, using the imperial calendar to refer to 1933. “Look at it now.”
Mr Sato beckons me, across the threshold, into his house. It smells of saltwater. He wants to show me the butsudan, the shrine he built for his mother who died last year. It is a beautiful thing of gold and black lacquer, set firmly in the corner of what used to be his living room. It is the only object in the entire house that remains intact.
When the Great Northeast Kanto Earthquake – as it has officially become known – struck on March 11, I was in Beijing. Some Chinese said they noticed the ground shake even there, 1,300 miles from Tokyo. Like millions around the world, I watched in horrified awe as pictures of the tsunami were broadcast, and the scale of the tragedy became clear. The official death toll was still fewer than 100. But that was not the story told by the terrible images I was watching of giant waves crashing over towns and airports.
There swiftly followed reports of a crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, 150 miles north of Tokyo, where the cooling system had failed after back-up generators were knocked out by the advancing tsunami. As uranium in the reactors and nearby storage tank overheated, there were explosions and a fire. Radiation was released into the atmosphere.
On March 16, five days after the earthquake, I flew to Tokyo, a city that was once my home. I had checked with friends living there. Most advised me to stay away. A few had already left themselves for safer parts of Japan, further from the jolting aftershocks and the threat of radiation. The flight had 60 people on board. As the plane descended gently into Tokyo, it occurred to me that I was landing not on an island rooted to the earth’s surface, but rather on some unstable piece of floating ground. In my imagination it was a land aflame, tossed by underground forces and attacked by the ocean’s boiling waters.
The Tokyo that awaited me was transformed. It was also just the same. The escalators in the spotless airport terminal weren’t working, stopped to preserve energy. But the usual announcements trilled in the usual feminine falsetto, beseeching passengers to hold on tightly to the handrail and not to forget their belongings. The shelves of most convenience stores, normally stacked with a cornucopia of edibles – sushi, curried doughnuts, breaded pork cutlets, sesame sticks, dried octopus – were nearly empty.
Tokyo continued to be rocked by aftershocks. When they struck, conversations trailed off and people looked anxiously at the swinging lampshades. The trains, by which you can normally set your watch, were running to a restricted service, or not running at all. Many restaurants were closed. Those that were open, shut up shop early, a travesty in a city where the streets are normally dense with salarymen and bar hostesses far into the night.
On the day I arrived, the emperor appeared on television to address the nation. In a speech that echoed his father’s 1945 entreaty to “endure the unendurable” of surrender and US occupation, Emperor Akihito beseeched his people to unite in this dark hour. “It is important … to share the burden of the difficult period,” he said. “I am also deeply concerned about the critical situation at the nuclear power plant.” When they roll the emperor out, a friend of mine noted acerbically, you know you’re in trouble.
From Tokyo, I head north to Iwate, the most devastated prefecture, along with Miyagi and Fukushima. A week after the tsunami, the region is still in a profound state of emergency. Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated and the authorities are combing the rubble for bodies. People are cold and hungry.
It is difficult to drive north. Equally, there are almost no available flights. My best option is to fly to Akita on the Sea of Japan about 100 miles from the Iwate coastline, and drive from there. The ANA plane to Akita is full of Red Cross workers and volunteers bringing supplies to the stricken areas.
The taxi driver who picks me up is an elderly gentleman with a shock of white hair. There has been little damage to Akita, he reports. But even here, the electricity was knocked out for two days, no small inconvenience when snow still lies thick on the ground. “We had to put on our coats and gloves and stuff our clothes with Hokaron,” he says, referring to the disposable heating-pads with which Japanese line their pockets in winter. “Then we climbed into our futon.”
That night, I watch television in my tiny, spotless room. On one channel, a woman reads a never-ending list of names of the missing and the found. Using the Japanese order of family name first, given name second, she adds the respect term “san” for each one: “Sato Yoshie san, Takahashi Michiko san, Suzuki Mitsuko san.”
I switch channels. News footage shows Tokyo firemen in orange uniforms saluting as they prepare to douse the smouldering nuclear reactor with water. I can’t help thinking of kamikaze pilots, sent out on a last desperate mission to save the nation. On another channel, they are asking for donations. They have adopted Doraemon, a blue-and-white cartoon character, as their fundraising mascot. An hour later, I switch back to the original station. The woman is still reading out names: “Ono Megumi san, Uchiyama Tomoe san, Uchiyama Mitsuo san.” I go to sleep.
The next day, Toshiki Senoue, a Japanese photographer, and I drive to Iwate. We have loaded up the car with food and water, but still need a few more provisions, including protective boots for clambering over the debris. The hardware shop has posted a handwritten sign listing unavailable items: fuel containers, batteries, radios, flashlights, portable heaters, gas canisters, cellphone chargers, DC-AC inverters, assorted fuel, water, tea, water tanks. “All the things that are gone are elemental,” says Toshiki. “Water, fire, communication – the bare essentials.”
We have an emergency pass for the vehicle, which allows us to get petrol and to use the expressways that are closed to normal traffic. We speed past a mountainous landscape scattered with snow and thick with cedar trees. Apart from the absence of traffic, there is little evidence of the nearby catastrophe. Just a few miles from the devastated coastline, the car park of the Maruhan Pachinko Parlor is chock-a-block. A little further down the road, we are confronted by the apocalyptic sight of Ofunato.
An hour or so later, I come across Mr Sato, the retired carpenter and volunteer fireman. He is not the only person sifting through the wreckage that day. A little way off, I spot two middle-aged women shuffling along the train tracks. At first, it is almost shocking to see life stirring on this deadened landscape. One woman carries a red cane and wears a woollen hat. Her cheeks are apple red. The other has a white mask. Both carry backpacks, and are bundled up against the cold.
Hiromi Shimodate, perhaps in her fifties, is a café owner. Or at least she was. She waves her hand towards a patch of air that once contained her livelihood. “We are looking for anything of ours, just something, a chair, anything,” she says almost apologetically. They were both in the café when the earthquake struck. Ms Shimodate’s companion, Yasuko Kimura, shows me a smartphone photograph of a pink interior with framed pictures on the wall. It was taken a few days ago, in another era.
The building shook horribly, Ms Kimura says. When the tsunami-warning sounded, they rushed for their car and drove away from the sea. “A lot of old people died here. They didn’t escape. The older people from around here remember the Chiri [Chile] earthquake of Showa 35,” she says referring to the 1960 Chilean earthquake, the biggest in recorded history, that sent a tsunami halfway round the world. “At that time the tsunami only went up to here,” says Ms Kimura, pointing to a wasteland indistinguishable from the other wasteland slightly nearer the shoreline. “The old people didn’t think the water could come this far, so they didn’t move.”
Ms Shimodate says: “People round here lost their entire families. Compared to the others, I have suffered nothing. Over in the next valley, they’ve had it far worse.” The food situation is getting better thanks to the efforts of the Self-Defence Forces, Japan’s army equivalent, whose trucks I later spot roaring through the valley. “A few days ago, they were handing out onigiri rice balls. But we had to share one between two people. There’s not much gasoline either, so we have to walk,” she adds, performing a cartoon caricature of walking, elbows locked, arms swinging. “It’s good for our health,” she laughs raucously.
“Her friend sent her an e-mail from New York,” Ms Shimodate says, indicating Ms Kimura. “She said that Ofunato had been on television. We’ve become famous. What a way to become famous, though,” she adds, as if in afterthought. Then, suddenly, she shrieks. “Look, there’s something.” She rushes forward. When I look up she is holding a tiny, flat metal sieve, the sort one might use to strain miso soup. She holds it up, half delighted and half sad to be reunited with a relic of her former life. “I knew it was mine straightaway. It’s something I used every day,” she says. Then she looks at it anew, a small sieve in the midst of desolation. “It’s a bit pathetic, isn’t it?”
The next day, we drive north-east to Tomari, another coastal town. It is hard for me to distinguish it from Ofunato. Here, as there, life and activity are stirring. Hideo Sagawa, 62, in a baseball cap and blue sports jacket, is standing near his 57-year-old wife, Kumiko, bundled in a bright red coat and blue, knee-length smock. She is prodding the debris with a walking stick. Mr Sagawa is sawing pieces of house timber. “Firewood,” he says.
Mr and Mrs Sagawa point us up the hill in the direction of a nearby evacuation centre where some 70 of the town’s dispossessed are temporarily housed. In an old clothing factory, the East Area Evacuation Centre has established its headquarters. In the car park there is a truck belonging to Yoshinoya, a beef-bowl chain, delivering emergency supplies. It may be the first hot meal many have had since the day of the earthquake.
We enter the main hall where 20 or more families are gathered in small groups. By the sliding door, next to the tatami-matting, shoes and boots are lined up neatly. The room is cosy. Indoor braziers are heating water in large tin kettles. People sit on the floor, chatting quietly or watching the latest news about the nuclear reactor. Children chase each other around. A few people, perhaps those who have lost loved ones, stare into the middle distance.
At the far end of the room, a red-felt floor-covering has been laid out. Low trestle tables are set up in neat rows. A few people are placing plastic bottles of green tea at regular intervals. Then the little Styrofoam packets of beef and rice are brought out. At 6.30 precisely, there is an announcement, “Dinner is served.” People move to the tables quietly. One by one, they put their hands together, saying “Itadakimasu,” – “I humbly receive” – in the way Japanese people are accustomed to start each meal. A hush falls as they set about their food. My guess is many were extremely hungry.
The last person I speak to in the evacuation centre is Tomoya Kumagai, a 58-year-old fisherman who had been on his boat when the earthquake struck. “The boat always rocks, of course. But when there’s a big earthquake, the water moves differently,” he explains. “You get these triangular-type, jagged waves. I knew it was a big one. So I headed back to the dock.”
Mr Kumagai found his wife and mother-in-law and drove them to safety. From a hill, he saw everything clearly. He gives me the most vivid description of the tsunami I have heard yet. “The first wave was about seven metres tall,” he says. “It didn’t make it over the defence wall. But then it sucked out to sea and it came in a second time. The amount of water doubled and it broke the wall. It came in many times after that, four big ones. Once the water came on to the land, it didn’t flow back because more kept pouring in from the ocean.”
Mr Kumagai is a realist. It will take a long, long time before the fishing industry returns to the valley and before people find new housing and pick up their lives, he predicts. The temporary life of evacuees may stretch on for years. What about him, I ask. Will he return, rebuild his house and start again? He ponders the question. “I’ve seen many big tsunamis in my time,” he says eventually. “I’ve had enough of it. From now, I want to live on higher ground.”
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia managing editor. He was formerly the Tokyo bureau chief
Toshiki Senoue is a freelance photographer based in Tokyo. He studied photojournalism at the University of Missouri