Tsunami Country: Man Vs. Nature in Japan's Devastated Northeast

Tsunami Country: Man Vs. Nature in Japan's Devastated Northeast

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Unexpectedly, things taken for granted can be stolen and vanish like a dream. The rubble-cluttered wasteland pockmarked with dented cars and capsized boats had just days earlier formed the gracefully arching coastline of Matsushima Bay, famed for its scenic mini-islands and wind-bent pines. Not far from the national maritime park, oyster farms used to be a favorite roadside stop.

Standing on the mudflats in a pair of borrowed rubber boots, I'd wait for older women, heads wrapped in scarves, to shuck oysters with speedy dexterity. The cold juicy blobs slid down down the throat smoothly, followed by a shot of strong rice alcohol called sochu. That tangy taste of the sea won't be enjoyed soon—probably never again in this lifetime. Instead of plump shellfish, the shore is now dotted with corpses shot with the force of a torpedo into crawl spaces of collapsed buildings or between the crevices of boulders and under the roots of larger trees.

The death toll of the devastating Tohuko quake, estimated to exceed 10,000 in Miyagi Prefecture alone, was concentrated along the coastal plain. Aerial photos show the floodwaters penetrated on average 5 km (4 miles) inland, invading twice as far up the concrete-encased rivers.

My immediate impression of the coastal topography is its similarity with Khao Lak, the area in Thailand hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami. Viewed back then from a promontory over the Andaman Sea, that tropical bay revealed the same gentle curve, facing westward toward the sunset rather than to the rising sun. It could have been a postcard of paradise, if not for the apocalyptic panorama of smashed resorts and uprooted palm trees. Only the sturdily anchored banyans were left standing.

A local Thai trekking guide explained to me that, according to ancient lore among the sea gypsies, another tsunami had occurred there 3,000 years earlier. "Settlers from India and the Arabian Peninsula sailed here and drained the lagoons of their freshwater. They cut down the trees for their beautiful palaces and enjoyed immense wealth. That is, until the morning that the dragon gods rose up from the depths to wipe away every trace of these people and bring back the freshwater and the mangroves. Again, settlers have defiled our land and built hotels in the lost lagoons where as we as children once drank pure clear water."

His opinion of coastal settlement seemed harsh and inhumane, but the tale of nature's vengeful cycle came from a leader in the rescue work who had thrown open his lodge and kitchen to exhausted volunteers reeking of rotting human flesh.

Tsunami as Nature's Architects

Meanwhile, a geographer from Tokyo University has disclosed that ancient sand deposits indicate the coastline of the Tohoku, or northeast Japan, experiences tsunami once every millennium.

These accounts, one from the Indian Ocean and another from the Pacific, show that the great waves are not wrathful freaks of capricious nature. When wetlands become compacted by sediment and entangled in overgrowth, biological or human-related, a massive upswell in a single stroke will cleanse out estuaries and lagoons, drag debris out to sea and restore sandy beaches. Ensuing rainfall returns drinkable water to the dredged lagoons, and the consequent freshwater pressure can hold back non-potable saltwater for many centuries, nurturing new life on the shore.

Tsunami are the architects of our shorelines, evidence of nature's wisdom in restoring the balance of land and sea. It is folly, then, for puny humans to let their fragile structures get in the way. Most coastal areas worldwide should rightly be restored to their natural condition as wetlands and never zoned as beachfront property.

Northern Wilderness

The Tohoku region was far less developed than modern Sendai before and during Meiji revolution of 1868, when my great-great-grandfather rode horseback from the nation’s southernmost tip to the Fukushima-Miyagi border. A radical reformist samurai, he was chasing down remnants of the ousted shogun’s defeated forces. The newcomers armed with swords and single-shot rifles set up checkpoints on the seven passes of the Tohoku that led north into the stronghold of traditionalist resistance.

In those days, local fishermen docked their boats safely upriver, venturing to the seashore only for their catches of dogfish. These low-grade fish are pulverized to make kamabuko, the rubbery pink-and-white spirals put on ramen, and their smallish shark-like fins are salt-dried for export to southern China. There were scattered villages on islets in the coastal marshes, as shown by the name of the tsunami-devastated town Kensennuma—"numa" meaning swamp. When these inhabited islands protected by dense stands of tall reeds widened their boundaries with the industrial age of the 20th century, that's when the seeds of the present calamity were planted.

The Old Magic

The stubborn strength of the tsunami survivors who clung to floating timbers is a testament to the stoic character of the residents of Tohoku. The region is historically divided into two realms. Sendai, known as "the capital of the woods,” is traditionally the northernmost outpost of the Yamato high culture centered on the imperial court and defended by fief lords and Zen warrior-monks posted along the mountainous borderlands.

A few steps beyond was the outland of fierce tribesmen called the Emishi, bear hunters, gold miners, esoteric Buddhists who mummified their bodies by imbibing mercury, lute-strumming bards, sorceresses and fugitive rebels conspiring countless raids against the encroachment of centralized authority. My paternal grandmother, an immigrant to America, was touched by the ancient magic, singing and screeching otherworldly incantations of her native land, as I listened long ago in dread and wonder.

The region's wilder traditions still survive in the rough northern dialect, walled villages, and the spectacle of hard-won contests including cockfights, horse races and, in a modern variation, ice hockey. In a cold hard land, toughness and endurance are esteeemed in both men and women. The enduring strength of its people is confirmed by archeological digs over the past two decades tha t uncovered indigenous fort-towns far older than the civilization transplanted from the Asian continent to the south.

In the months ahead, the Japanese people face a policy choice in the reconstruction of the disaster zone. They can succumb to the temptation to rebuild to the way things were prior to the quake and tsunami, in human defiance against the omnipotent ocean. Or they can rediscover the fine balance of sea and land and plan accordingly in humble respect for nature. A dense population along the coastline is unsustainable, and populations can relocate to higher ground and safer sites inland. Restoration of coastal wetlands would hasten the revival of oyster beds and fisheries. To do otherwise is not just economically wasteful for a debt-strapped government, it’d be tantamount to suicide.

Tohoku, once a world away in spirit and temperament from the political dominance and urban decadence of Tokyo, should return along its own path— toward the preservation of a life-giving environment that flourished before the proud and destructive concept of "Japan" ever existed.

Yoichi Shimatsu, former associate editor with Pacific News Service and editor of the Japan Times Weekly, reported on the San Francisco and Kobe earthquakes and participated in the Indian Ocean rescue operation after the 2004 tsunami.