Wall of water turned town into a trap from which few could escape
Published 14/03/2011 | 08:20
The ocean is blue and calm under bright sunny skies, but by horrible irony there is only matchwood and mud where the towns and villages used to stand.
"I looked up and I could see whole houses coming up the valley toward us," said Hoshi Itsuo (73), from Minamisanriku, who lived almost a mile from the sea.
"The whole town was being pushed along by the water. I've never seen anything like it, and I've lived here all my life."
His house had a second storey, so he and his wife went up there, thinking they would be safe.
"But I could see how big the waves were and I realised straight away that being up there was not going to save us, so we ran," he said.
"I'm glad I didn't try to take the car, because we wouldn't have had time. We just ran up the hill until it stopped."
When the waters receded, the couple returned to their home to find that it no longer existed.
The thousands of rescue workers digging through the disaster zone will find many bodies. The victims died as buildings were swept away.
Astonishing numbers of people have vanished: 10,000 in Minamisanriku alone, the local police chief said last night, or 60pc of the population.
They will not all have died. Thousands are camping in school halls and cars, and the doorways of buildings. Even in this ordered country, officialdom hasn't caught up with them yet.
The bodies are laid out in a local temple.
The town is, or was, built in a narrow valley, with broader stretches, snaking back from the ocean. When the tsunami came to Minamisanriku, the valley walls turned into a two-mile trap that few could escape.
According to survivors, the water reached as high as 30ft. There is debris in some of the treetops.
They say the reason the death toll across the disaster zone -- now 1,596 confirmed and still rising -- is not even higher is Japan's extraordinary level of readiness for earthquakes.
It is indeed remarkable to be sitting, as I write, in a fairly strong aftershock, with the desk and floor shaking vigorously, but to feel my earthquake-ready building merely sway and flex, absorbing the impact with much squeaking of window frames.
Like the buildings, Japanese habits of good behaviour, too, are strong and do not break.
Hiroko Yamashita, an elderly woman trapped under a bookcase with a shattered ankle, apologised to her rescuers for putting them to such trouble.
Everyone is trying to behave as if life were normal and working very hard not to let their fears show. It makes at least the immediate crisis a whole lot easier.
The Japanese may be ready for earthquakes, even pretty big ones. But not for ones on this scale, and not when combined with a terrifying new threat.
At Koriyama, however, the closest operating civilian airport to the disaster zone, the only relief activity to be seen yesterday afternoon was a single Hercules military transport plane and a few dozen soldiers setting up tents.
The Koriyama petrol station was running out of petrol and the fear everyone felt about being in the closest major town to a potential nuclear disaster finally broke through.
As the last few gallons humming through the pumps gave way to the sound of the garage's empty tanks, the drivers who had lost their chance of escape started shouting at each other.
"You took more than 10 litres," said one man. "You're only supposed to take 10 litres."
"No I didn't," the second fellow said.
"What do you mean there's nothing left?" asked another customer.
Petrol stations are not the only places where the fear runs just below the surface. Pharmacies hundreds of miles from Fukushima have been stripped of iodine and other drugs.
The nuclear crisis -- and the sheer size of the earthquake -- may, just may, be starting to strain another Japanese habit: respect for and obedience to authority.
Many rightly praise the earthquake rescue apparatus of the Japanese government. But the almost total lack of food in this town is due largely not to the earthquake, but to the fact that the government has closed the main expressway to most vehicles.
One Koriyama refugee, Okazaki Hiroko, said: "I have this feeling that the government isn't telling us everything."
The prime minister, Naoto Kan, went on television yesterday to appeal to his people.
"In the past, we have overcome all kinds of hardships," he said. "We should be able to stand up to these hardships and I have every confidence in us. Please, each of you, if you could realise this responsibility to overcome this and try to create a new Japan."
But if the Japanese people's patience is tried too hard, their self-restraint might burst. And Mr Kan's "new Japan" might not be quite the kind of country he wants.