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Boats Ashore, Tsunami Scars Japanese Fishing Town


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. One year ago this weekend, Japan was battered by a devastating earthquake and tsunami. One of the places hardest hit was the coastal community of Yuriage. What was once a beautiful fishing village, and home to a bustling community of thousands, is now a desolate and deserted place. Doualy Xaykaothao reported from there shortly after the earthquake, and has just returned to file this report.


DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO, BYLINE: Visitors to Yuriage won't find the town's fishing boats in the harbor. The worst tsunami to hit Japan in the last 100 years carried the fleet a mile inland, where many of them still remain - some, literally, still on the sidewalks they crashed into.

HIMINORI TANNO: (Through Translator) Water came up right up until this next traffic light that we're coming to.

XAYKAOTHAO: Seventy-year-old Himinori Tanno is driving around what's left of his hometown, which had a population of just over 5,500 before the great East Japan earthquake. He managed to get his granddaughter to safety when the magnitude-9 quake hit. But, pointing to a ship lying wrecked on the road, he says others weren't so lucky.

HIMINORI TANNO: (Through Translator) Because the owner of the boat died, they can't actually dispose of the boat.

XAYKAOTHAO: At least 667 Yuriage villagers were killed or are still missing. They stopped searching for bodies here in Yuriage. Most of the debris has been cleared, and the roads have been fixed. But the only people using them are workers clearing and cleaning the damage one year on. Tanno drives to the town's new landmark.

HIMINORI TANNO: (Through Translator) This hill here is actually made from the wreckage of houses. And the reason they built it is in case another tidal wave or tsunami comes, they can seek refuge at the top of this building.

XAYKAOTHAO: There's nothing left here.

HIMINORI TANNO: (Japanese spoken)

(Through Translator) Yeah, nothing.

XAYKAOTHAO: So where did all the people go?

HIMINORI TANNO: (Through Translator) They've left. They're living with relatives or they found an apartment, or they're in the temporary housing.

XAYKAOTHAO: Yuriage officials say 2,100 people are still living in temporary government housing, but not 58-year-old Takeo Tanno - no relation to Himinori Tanno. The younger volunteer firefighter lost his home but managed to save his garage workshop. So that's where he, his wife and two college-aged children have lived this winter.

TAKEO TANNO: (Through Translator) Yeah, well, I just have to hang in there and do what I can. There's nothing else.


XAYKAOTHAO: Tanno is standing with his fellow firefighters in the cold, night wind. After a year of helping disaster victims, they've developed a dark humor to help them cope.


TAKEO TANNO: (Through Translator) Well, yeah, if a tidal wave comes, run for your life.

XAYKAOTHAO: Another firefighter, Hikichi Koichi, says there's a debate on how to reconstruct the town. But he, for one, just wants stability.

HIKICHI KOICHI: (Through Translator) Yes, I really want to get my family's life back together. But, you know, it's really uncertain times right now, you know, because of other influences. But I'm doing my best to bring my life back to the condition it was before.

XAYKAOTHAO: Firefighter Matsura Toshio says things in Yuriage have changed forever but hopefully, life will be better by the next anniversary.

MATSURA TOSHIO: (Through Translator) I don't think my life will ever be back to the way it was before the earthquake came. But back to a livable situation, back to a good situation, will probably take a year or two.

XAYKAOTHAO: But others say reconstruction could take between seven to 10 years. It's so difficult to know how each person will cope with all the challenges in their lives, says Sendai city spokesman Tumatsu Watanabe. His parents lived in Yuriage and survived the tsunami, but he's still trying to come to terms with the trauma.

TUMATSU WATANABE: (Through Translator) When I was at the emergency office watching the tsunami come in on the monitors, and they showed my parents' home - the place where I was born - I tried not to panic. But I just couldn't handle it.

XAYKAOTHAO: There isn't much to see now in Yuriage, but there is a shrine called Hiroyima, a place that used to welcome fishermen home. The man who took care of the shrine died in the tsunami, but people now go there to pray for him and the nearly 20,000 others who died last March.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Yuriage, Miyagi prefecture. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.
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