Ishinomaki (石巻) in June 2012

Japan Notes: Special Edition Tohoku

Long Road to Recovery for Northeast (東北) Japan
by E. Kodama

Tohoku (東北) after 500+ Days
by C. Usui, H. Ishida, and R. Colignon
Ishinomaki (石巻) in June 2012
by U. Segal and T. Anmei
JCIE US Giving Report


Ishinomaki (石巻) in June 2012


Uma A. Segal, Ph.D. & Tokie Anme, Ph.D.

There are few who have not seen some images of the devastation ravaged upon the north-eastern part of Japan by the massive 9.0 earthquake and the ensuing tsunami on March 11, 2011.  Most of us not immediately touched by it, were impressed by the fortitude and seeming rapidity with which the Japanese people and government dealt with the effects of this terrible natural disaster and its far reaching consequences.  Then, in addition to the earthquake and tsunami, the additional complexities of the problems associated with the nuclear reactor in Fukushima resulted in further flight and economic distress.  A trip to the area reveals that, despite clean-up efforts, despite the contributions of governmental and non-governmental organizations, and despite the desire of local residents to rebuild their lives, life in the area has been forever changed.

In June 2012, Tokie Anme, Ph.D., Professor of International Community Care and Lifespan Development: Empowerment Sciences Graduate School of Comprehensive Human Sciences, University of Tsukuba in Tsukuba, Japan and Uma A. Segal, Ph.D., Professor, School of Social Work and Fellow, International Studies and Programs, University of Missouri St. Louis, USA took a trip by train and bus from Tokyo to Sendai, passing Fukushima (where governmental regulations prevented visitors), and arriving in the beautiful Matsushima Bay, strangely relatively untouched by either the earthquake or the tsunami of 2011.  The tranquility and serenity of the Bay belied the struggles faced by thousands of residents just a short distance away in Ishinomaki in the Miyagi Prefecture.

Matsushima Bay

 Debris from the disaster has been cleaned up along the national highway that runs by the Pacific Coast. The trip from Matsushima Bay to Ishinomaki, ordinarily negotiable also by train, now requires the use of bus transportation (managed by Japan Railways) as the damage caused by the tsunami to the rail system has not yet been completely rebuilt. This comes as one of the first surprises to the visitor who is used to the efficiency and the intricacies of the Japanese rail infrastructure. As our bus wove its way along the coastline toward Ishinomaki, the effects of the tsunami became evident.  In this relatively rural part of Japan, isolated building structures remain abandoned and broken, providing a glimpse into the experience of March 11th, 2011.  However, life has returned as people have rebuilt the occasional farmhouse and reestablished themselves.

En-route to Ishinomaki

The calm of the panorama of green grass and rice fields, give no indication of the thousands of homes and businesses that covered that area less than 18 months ago and that have been washed into oblivion by the wrath of the tsunami.


Once we arrived in the quiet town of Ishinomaki, we were greeted by the sights and sounds of a small, bustling, and quaint town.  The streets are fairly narrow and the covered walkways connecting the stores provide a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere.  Little of the destruction is readily evident in this town, but as one walks along the streets, one sees unplanned gaps between buildings where homes and businesses once stood.  In other instances, there are buildings that have been partially salvaged, with the first floor remaining un-restored while people live on the upper levels.

But over a year has elapsed.  We do not see the progress that says that life has quite returned to its original state, nevertheless, residents have picked up the pieces and returned to some state of normalcy in their daily routines.  Housing and shelters, through the support of funds from governmental and non-governmental organizations, have helped assuage some of the difficulties, but the social, emotional, and personal losses are usually not evident to the casual passer-by.

Professor Anme and I visited the community agency developed by Ms. Sanae Ochiai, a principal of an elementary school in Yokohama, who took an early retirement in the spring of 2011 to move to Ishinomaki to volunteer in any way possible.  After a year of working with different volunteer programs, when most of the debris was finally removed, and as NGOs and governmental personnel began turning their efforts in other directions, Ms. Ochiai recognized that the reconstruction was far from complete.  Emotional scars and persistent fears and insecurities greatly affected residents, and to protect themselves further emotional injury, several were isolating themselves and falling into deep depression.

With her retirement funds, Ms. Ochiai opened a community center on the main street of Ishinomaki, and with the in-kind and financial help of the community who would benefit from its presence and local businesses, she has begun a variety of educational and support programs that promote interaction, develop skills, and provide a sanctuary for personal healing.  Professor Anme had visited Ishinomaki and the Mode Salon Sugawara community center a few months earlier.  She had met several clients there and in their homes, and on this day in June, one of those beneficiaries of the community center was present when we arrived.

With her unabashed praise for the community center and Ms. Ochiai, the resident we met at the center indicated progress in her personal life, giving credit to Ms. Ochiai.  Professor Anme was able to attest to the improvement in this resident’s outlook and her mental health.   Ms. Ochiai hopes to soon make the community center self sufficient, turn it over to the Ishinomaki residents, and return to her home in Yokohama that she left in mid – 2011, thus sealing the process of empowerment and self-determination for these residents. Below is a photograph of Ms. Ochiai (second from the left) and the Ishinomaki resident who has so benefited from the community center that she now offers her services as a volunteer; they are flanked by Tokie Anme on the left; I am on the right.

Mode Salon Sugawara

Following our visit at the Mode Salon Sugawara community center, Anme Sensei and I walked up Hiyoriyama Hill in the center of Ishinomaki, received a panoramic view of the area, and became particularly aware of the absence of buildings.  The walk up was beautiful, the weather was good, and the homes that had survived the tsunami were small but well maintained.   Often, homes that have access to coastlines are particularly attractive to residents and the prices are higher for them than is the norm for those homes found further inland.  This was the case in Ishinomaki.  Now, however, after the terrifying occurrences of March 2011, homes on the hill have increased dramatically in value , while the value of those still standing at lower levels has declined.

The top of Hiyoriyama Hill revealed a peaceful little temple, and after we had paid our respects, we returned to look down at the coastline. Below are photographs of the temple, a board that displays a photograph of the vista prior to the tsunami, and the present view from the top.  Clearly, life is not the same.

Temple atop Hiyoriyama Hill

Pre-2011 tsunami Vista

June 2012 from Hiyoriyama Hill

As we surveyed the area, Anme Sensei overheard the conversations of some residents who had brought with them their guests.  They spoke of the terror they experienced as they ran up the mountain to avoid the effects if the tsunami and the fate suffered by so many.  The said the weather was cold and they huddled together, with loved ones and with strangers, for warmth – both physical and emotional.  Yes, it was more than a traumatic experience; it was an occurrence that most of us cannot begin to fathom, and regardless of what assistance they receive, those who went through it have been forever altered.  Nevertheless, the resilience of the residents is evident in the lovely flowers dotted along the city streets.

Rose bushes along the street

I was privileged to travel to Ishinomaki, honored to meet a woman who has given so much of herself for so long to help in a quiet way, and grateful to Professor Tokie Anme for making this opportunity possible.  My nine short visits to Japan since 1996 have presented me with experiences in Japan that are always eye opening and rewarding.  Of the several Japanese people I have met professionally, there are a number I am pleased to now call friends, and I find that despite my poor Japanese, my not infrequent cultural ineptness, and our apparent visible differences, the warmth and generosity with which I am always greeted, keep me returning.

In Nikko, on Father’s Day, with Tokie Anme’s father and husband