March 11th, 2011 tsunami breaches the flood wall at Miyako Bay
March 11th, 2011 tsunami breaches the flood wall at Miyako Bay

10 Years On: 3/11 Tsunami in Miyako, Iwate, Day 1

Matt Ketchum


Note: An abridged version of this account appears in the Japan Times.

Listen for my retelling of the events of 3/11/2011

Something that I rarely hear and that I think bears mentioning when speaking about the March 11th, 2011 earthquake & tsunami is that a few days before it, there was another pretty strong earthquake (I think mid-7M). I suppose it could be the case that for some it was a primer for the main attraction, but it wasn’t for me. In fact, it just startled me. A lot, and then it placated me. When that one hit, with a hard thump, I was in my 2nd floor apartment in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture. I immediately ran outside in a panic, down the corrugated metal plank-way to the staircase, almost tripping as I descended the staircase, and knocked on my landlord’s door. I still remember my landlord, Mr. Kando, answering very calmly, sleepily even, in shorts and an undershirt saying to chill out, it’s nothing. That I would know when it’s something to be worried about.

Which meant that on 3/11, it took me a bit to recognize the quake for what it was. I was also in my apartment that day, though that was a last minute development — I normally worked in Taro on Fridays at Miyako Kita, but the night before I got a call from a co-worker saying that they had just wrapped up testing and that because there really wasn’t much to do the next day I should just take the day off.

I was sitting at a kotatsu in my apartment about 27 minutes into the 1976 movie Network eating a natto-kimchi omuraisu when it hit. For maybe the first minute or so I kept thinking back to the quake a few days before and told myself to relax — I even sent a still-notorious text to a friend describing the shaking as「すご〜い🎵」- but finally it got entirely too intense and once again I exited my 2nd floor apartment. This time, though, I saw the walls of the old kura’s next door cracking open horizontally and then shutting as they shuttered with the quakes. It was very much a concrete monster chomping at the air. Debris was falling from houses all around me, and the telephone poles were all wobbling perilously.

As I speed-walked down the corridor — careful to not yet fully panic as I had previously done — I passed my neighbor’s apartment and knocked, thinking that was the neighborly thing to do. I would occasionally run into the husband coming home from work and he would invite me out to Miyako’s finest, but he was presumably at the office. His wife, however, was home and answered the door, visibly shaken, already in what looked like a minor state of shock. I said to her that we needed to go downstairs immediately, taking her hand to accelerate the process.

We ran to street level, clanking on the metal staircase down, and joined a small group of neighbors that had gathered there, assessing the situation. At this point, my main concern was that the building was old and could collapse. I didn’t want to be in or near it, or any other building. We were all standing out in the street running between the houses and the 12m seawall.

Eventually the main quake abated, leaving me completely stunned and in the moment. I had never experienced an earthquake anywhere near that big before, and it literally and figuratively shook me to the core. My level of alertness was extremely high, but it wasn’t yet stratospheric as I was still only thinking about the quake — it didn’t occur to me that I would soon have to run from a gigantic wave. As I mulled around waiting for the all-clear, I pulled out my flip phone and started taking pictures of the some of the debris that had fallen off of the kura I was in front of thinking that they would be cool to show friends after everything returned to normal.

As I was taking those pictures, Mr. Kando came up to me from behind, spun me around, and sternly informed me that this was the one we needed to run from, that a tsunami was coming. It was then that I noticed the sirens, blaring the message that a large tsunami was expected presently, and to evacuate to higher ground. The seriousness of the situation then began to sink in.

Mr. Kando beckoned for me to follow him, his wife, and their dog, and I complied without a second thought. We began the climb up the hill behind our apartment towards the hilltop temple of Zenrinji, the head priest of which the Kando’s were friends with. However, about halfway up the hill, Mrs. Kando asked if I had taken my passport — I hadn’t, and so, with utter disregard of the lessons I was taught in elementary school about going back into burning buildings, I bolted down the hill and back into my apartment to get that important document.

As I entered my apartment, my mind was largely on getting in there for my passport and then immediately out, but it also occurred to me that I might grab something in addition to that singular document. Knowing I had maybe seconds to decide, I just grabbed whatever was in front of me: a messenger bag, and a dead iPod touch with no headphones. I can’t remember anything else I took, but suffice it to say none of it was useful. I particularly regret not thinking to take my Anchor road bike — that would’ve been immensely useful in the weeks to come.

I ran out of there as fast as I could and safely back up the hill to the temple, where I found the Kando’s and many other members of the neighborhood gathered. Standing high above the waterline now, I looked out and saw something very odd: Miyako Bay was completely empty, all the water was gone.

There are many things about tsunami that I think are top of mind for most people, and this drawback or hiki that precedes it crashing into the shore is not one of them. I honestly didn’t know what to do with it — How can that massive volume of water just disappear? Did it all go out to sea, but if so, why, and when would it return? And in what fashion? It was… confusing, but also very basic physics that you simply don’t interact with on a daily basis at that scale.

Soon enough though, I found out. Tsunami are not as majestic as is commonly thought. Yes, there are crests and arcs and all of the other accoutrements Hokusai so masterfully depicted in his prints, but those are far out to sea and not inland. They do not hit you wave after wave as it were, they creep incessantly into you, building unstoppably until they are larger than life; they are not a deep, aquatic blue speckled with flecks of white, but are rather just a roiling wall of black; they are not pristine, but littered with the wrecked remnants of the natural and human world alike. There is no single word or phrase that can sum up the sheer dominance they project and then follow through spectacularly on. They will destroy you, unemotionally, judiciously, completely.

So there we were at Zenrinji, standing like meerkats lined up on a desert ridge staring down at the creeping death rolling so painfully slowly but massively in. I feel like it took hours, and I also remember thinking “oh this isn’t so bad” until I saw the debris starting to come in. I don’t even know where it came from because I was at more or less the tip of Miyako Bay, so I thought there wasn’t too much that lay before us for the wave to sweep up. But nevertheless, there they were, the boats. At first small, they kept building in size, and soon brought friends with them: cars, trucks, 18 wheelers; sheds, houses, barns. In a split second I went from thinking it couldn’t get that bad, to wondering how bad it was going to be.

The detritus was unstable in the deluge of black muck, whirling around on its own while knocking into whatever was next to it, rippling through its seemingly endless bounds and creating a perfectly chaotic mess. This mess, in turn, swept up whatever it passed, growing in size only until it ran out of room to run. It slammed up against the shore, the bay, the walls, and for a moment I thought that it had met its match, but that was a very short moment indeed.

It breached the seawall with very little effort, and once it did all imagination became meaningless. Over that barrier which had for years provided the residents of Miyako assurance that they would be protected from Mother Nature’s most outlandish onslaughts, the houses on our side of the bay keeled over or crumbled. On the other side of the bay, in the industrial district, entire warehouses collapsed in mere seconds of the breach. There were two visible shockwaves: the vanguard of the tsunami itself toppling whatever it came into contact with, and the dust cloud that followed, growing ever larger as it, too, crept inland.

Back at our small hilltop enclave, the water was still rising. We were only so high up, and with nowhere higher to go. Flitting my eyes back and forth from the rampant devastation crashing into the town all around me and the very real body of water coming up the street towards our encampment, all I can remember thinking is “stop, stop, please stop.” There is literally nothing else you can do, nothing to say at a time like that. Except scream. And those came too.

Tsunami video captured near Zenrinji in Miyako

The first wave thankfully halted before it reached us and retreated, for a time. Once the imminent danger subsided, my other senses came back online and in addition to witnessing the devastation around me I also felt the bitter cold, smelled a rotten, abyssal filth, and heard the frantic call and response between those crying for help from down below, submerged in the icy, murky water, and those around me yelling back, pleading for them to find some way out of the water and up the hill before the next wave hit.

Of particular note was a pathetic soul directly below us, a man maybe 50 years old in an undershirt, briefs, and socks, swimming around in the wreckage of his house screaming for his mother. I remember watching him, feeling completely powerless while the pit of my stomach sank at the realization of this man’s most basic physical and emotional plight. As I contemplated his situation unable to process the calculus of his rescue, 2 off-duty firefighters in our midst found their way down the steep cliff to help the man.

They descended carefully, slowly, along a narrow and poorly maintained but nevertheless existent path that had escaped my notice. Once at ground level, they crawled their way over 2 roofs of now-toppled houses partially submerged in the murky debris towards the man. Along the way, they found some sort of long pole, what they used to fish the man out of the watery wreckage. As I watched, Mr. Kando interrupted, shook me out of my shocked hypnosis with an armful of blankets, and said that we were going down to assist.

Just as the firefighters, we made our way down carefully, and I noticed just how roughshod the path truly was. Not a good sign, but better than nothing. We reached the bottom and precariously stepped our way over to the firefighters, who had since pulled the man from the water and he now lay almost naked, soaked and shivering, atop those wrecked roofs, still screaming for his mother, but now towards the gray sky, now without ocean water diluting with his tears, now in a feeble rasp.

We first placed blankets to his side, and rolled him over onto them to make a make-shift stretcher. We then piled more on top of him, and moved into a position to hoist him up the foreboding hill we had just descended. He was completely dead weight, and the 2 firefighters, myself, and Mr. Kando did our best to just barely not drag him up to Zenrinji. This was not a pretty sight, and I distinctly remember flinching as I watched his head bang against the ground time and again on our way up, though thankfully he seemed to have passed out from exhaustion or shock and so I can only hope he didn’t feel it or take offense. We were trying, and though it wasn’t very good, I suppose it was better than nothing.

We finally managed to carry him to the top, and took him over to a suspiciously vacant house nearby that had opened its doors and in which was a kerosene heater. The last I remember of this man was setting him down as gently as possible next to the heat source, and walking out for what reason I don’t know, but it probably had something to do with the sheer immensity of the situation I found myself in. I never saw him again, and do not know his name.

I think at that point a very enthusiastic group of maybe 4 or so older men and a woman from the area who I didn’t know insisted that I come into their nearby house with them to keep safe, to keep warm. I distinctly remember not knowing what to do with their very strong pleas for me to come with them, and kind of just went along with it, despite the fact that I was standing in front of the temple where my landlords were and I would be staying. I think they probably just didn’t understand my situation and were doing their best to be helpful with their limited knowledge.

So along I went, into their house, and they sat me down on a low-lying, blue sofa against the far wall, with a large kerosene heater in the middle, with a pot of boiling water on top, and a large window overlooking the wrecked bay. They poured some hot tea and we all drank together. They were speaking in hushed tones, but I don’t think I said much as I was sitting there, sort of stunned, confused, muddled by the events that had just unfolded. I certainly felt safe, if not comfortable, and over most of the maybe 2 hours I was there I think I answered a few questions but really just sat there in the blanket they gave me and stared out the window thoughtlessly. At some point I came to, or someone had let them know I was with Zenrinjin, I don’t really recall, but I managed to leave, thanking them for their hospitality.

It was now dusk, so probably 4 or so PM. Snow had begun falling, but I noticed that across the bay what looked like an inferno was raging. This didn’t make much sense at all to me, considering how we had just been hit by a wall of water, and I had to ask around if what I was seeing was in fact the truth. Across the bay was the industrial district, and just like the pattern of bubbles in the water below us where the man screaming for his mother was, there, too, the buried gas lines had burst, but I guess just by virtue of being an industrial district a spark had caught somewhere and started the whole conflagration.

So as the sun set, and the snow fell, and the fire burned, I looked out across an entire city, the only civilization I could see and had known for the last 18 months or so, that had been completely laid to waste, wiped off the map, by a gigantic tsunami. I doubt I’ll ever see a more stark juxtaposition.

But then the Kando’s came and found me, standing alone on the edge of the hill gazing out over the devastation. Mrs. Kando came up from behind and to my left, took my arm, and lead me into Zenrinji, still in a daze. The sun had now set, and the priests had lit candles as well as a fire in the main traditional floor fireplace, around which maybe 20 or so people sat. I think there were 3 children, maybe 2 younger couples, myself — 24 at the time — and then the rest were above 65. Some were even over 90, which is of note considering they remembered the bombing raids of World War II and said that this is exactly how it was back then. This was the first of many instances in which I didn’t have the slightest inkling of what to say, so I just kept quiet.

So we sat around the fire, with a decent amount of conversation going on considering the circumstances, but really we were all huddled together for the warmth and to listen to the emergency crank radio. Just like I hadn’t extrapolated from the earthquake itself to the tsunami that followed it, I also hadn’t done so with the tsunami, where it may have also hit, and what that could mean. From about 245PM that day to this point, my entire world was about 2 square miles, so focused was I on my immediate surroundings in Miyako. But tuning into that radio broadcast compounded the severity of the situation several times, as we listened with disbelief to the reporting about the Dai-Ichi Nuclear Reactor meltdown.

At some point, amidst the flickers of the fire against the brown, textured tsuchikabe walls, gold and purple Buddhist decorations, and the conspicuous anxiety that permeated the chill night air, the head priest pulled out a large bottle of sake — local Otokoyama, I believe — to ease our nerves. As I sipped, I could see my breath crystalize before me, over the far edge of the cup, and drift off into the darkness at the edge of the room. Despite being amongst good company, I had a very hard time shaking off the feeling that we were going to be very alone for a very long time.

Once the fire had died down, and the children were now quiet in their mothers’ arms, Mr. Kando, the priest’s family, and myself began setting up futon and blankets for everyone. Thankfully, we had no shortage at all of these. The room we had been in was the living quarters, but next door was the temple itself, which was far more spacious, and this is where we would sleep. A simple affair, but still work in a sense, it was nice to set my mind to a task after having spent the last few hours sitting stationary and soaking in all of the horrors, known and unknown, that were developing around us.

I chose a spot in the far left corner to sleep, as far from everyone else as I could reasonably get. There were countless emotions and feelings going through me — exhaustion, destitution, confusion, sadness, a strange sense of embarrassment that I can’t quite place — all attributable to my direct surroundings and circumstances. As much as I knew that being alone would be the death of me or anyone else, for that moment I just wanted to get away from it all and drift off into oblivion. And so I did.

To be continued…

Continued here



Matt Ketchum

Consultant, curator, musician, amateur documentarian & calligrapher, hovering between Seattle and Tokyo.