Songs That Matter Most: A Detailed Account of Specific Events Following 3/11 in Miyako City, Iwate

Matt Ketchum
9 min readMar 11, 2016


So, to quickly jump into it, I’m a survivor of the 3/11 tsunami that wrecked Japan’s coast 5 years back. Not survivor, like, I happened to be in Japan on the day (not knocking anyone who has that story), but rather I ran up the hill behind my apartment in the small town of Miyako in Iwate only to watch, first, the entire bay get sucked out by some unfathomable Force of Nature, and then, second, a gigantic wall of black muck sweep away half of the town I lived in, including my apartment. Like, I have a government issued document confirming that my place of residence was destroyed. Like, I spent every day of the first 5 weeks, from 9–5, as a first responder digging literally everything you can imagine out of ravaged, gored, filth-covered buildings.

So what I’m saying is, this shit is pretty real for me.

And 5 years is a long time to process the maelstrom of information that was hurled at me during that time, but, slowly, I think that I’m starting to realize the connectivity, the order, of the events in that 5 week span of time and, in a strange sort of way, the effect that its had on my progression from that point to now.

I say “strange” because there seems to be an element of time involved in all of it, or rather the dissolution of it, which in turn brings up some pretty heavy existential questions, particularly concerning self-development. “What am I” and “what will I become henceforth” are questions that, I’m willing to bet, literally every human being has asked themselves at least once, and with the tsunami those questions have, for me, become intrinsically linked to a small, blue collar town on the eastern-most point of Japan’s northern coast, and, if I’m not mistaken, to two very over-used, to the point of being trite, songs. This is, perhaps, embarrassing, or at least unfortunate because the two songs are kind of the song that you would reach for in this kind of moment. I mean, a really uncreative person making up a far-fetched story for attention would chose exactly these two songs. I know this. But these are the cards I was dealt, and so I am stuck with these two songs of drastically different import: Survivor’s (haha! just realizing the irony now) Eye of the Tiger, and Ben E. King’s Stand By Me.

The friends that I made in Miyako are, in pretty much every respect of the word, family. A family of frequently childish, rough-cut, foul-mouthed, tough love, work-hard-party-hard, stubborn, misfits. In short, they’re the realest people ever. And I love them. But amongst them there is one who, more than any of the others, I look up to as… a mentor?… an older brother?… Sempai?… A habitual drinking buddy?… I personally think that the word “Aniki” encapsulates the essence of it, but whatever — The Dude Who Taught Me A Lot suffices, and we’ll call him Taro (which is actually quite pertinent — Miyako was bad; Taro, about 25 mins north, was much worse).

Now, Taro is a character, and probably the unhealthiest person I know (that’s another story). But despite all of his shortcomings, he’s the life of the party and he is that guy around town. So, on March 15th, after 4 days living out of a Buddhist temple atop a hill (with: 20 people (children, 60+ year olds, and me (24 at the time), sufficient futons, sufficient blankets, a roof, a small fire, a small stock of rice, some umeboshi, 1 bottle of sake, a broken toilet, and a crank radio), I was understandably happy when I ran into him as I was scavenging for food. If I remember correctly, he yelled something to the effect of, “WTF yr alive?! GETTHEFUCKINMYHOUSENOW!!”

That’s a longer story (and no, I did not abandon the temple — I made food deliveries to them over the weeks), but suffice it to say that’s how I ended up living out of Taro’s house, which was just barely spared from destruction, with 8 other friends who were in a similar condition. When we left his house every day at 8AM to go to the front lines, I liked to think of us as some Supergroup of Excellent Dudes, with our filthy work-clothes Outfits, characteristic superhero tools of the trade, and an unbreakable conviction to Do Good. In fantasizing about that, I believe I was alone. Call it a coping mechanism lol.

Now, those houses and stores and salons and bars and restaurants that we ripped apart, those were some pretty intense spots. Emotionally? Of course, but really you kind of throw emotions to the dogs (or at least we did) in those situations because otherwise you break down and nothing gets done. Physical exhaustion is one way to deal with that. Liquor is another. Fortunately, we had both in spades. I have never “partied” harder than on those nights lol. I won’t be shy: we all drank entirely too much at pretty much every possible moment.

But I digress! Emotionally tough, but have you ever smelled the ocean floor? It is absolutely disgusting. So that was slathered over precisely everything. And don’t forget that this was a natural disaster, too, so its not like the buildings we entered were all spic & span — floors were now vertical, rubble blocked doorways, everything was slippery, you get the picture. And then of course we had to empty them of everything: we ripped up countless floor boards, moved hulking industrial refrigerators, tore down walls. So, put it all together and you get, for example: 8 filthy, hungover guys swearing a lot in a stinky natural warzone, falling all over each other because they can’t get their footing, miraculously slipping their way up a staircase to break down a wall to get into a baby’s room to throw everything out a window and then run away.

It’d be hilarious if it weren’t so devastatingly sad.

But we’re a rough and tumble bunch, right? Shooting the shit, cracking jokes as we worked until we collapsed — honestly, some of the best laughs I’ve had were had while shoveling muck out of a ladies’ boutique. So, oddly enough, the bonds we had prior to 3/11 were made immensely stronger as we worked our way through it together. And of those laughs, the one that stands out even now is of Taro, with characteristic impeccable timing, enthusiastically humming Eye of the Tiger as he sat resting on a bucket, very much enjoying his drink, watching me shovel all of the junk out of basically the whole room by myself. That then became something of a theme song and/or running gag used when one wanted to call attention to one’s own pleasure while everyone else worked through blisters and blood. Basically, “Hey guys, did you know that I’m being an ass now? Because, believe it or not, I’m being an ass right now.” Good times.

I still find it somewhat remarkable that we remained as happy-go-lucky as we did. I mean, taken at face value, “natural disaster” is probably enough to warrant a wide-eyed response to “Oh, yeah, we got some good yucks in during that tsunami alright.” But, at least in retrospect, the binary of day and night presented a much more visceral existential threat. Think about it: during the light hours, for miles all we could see was death and destruction and pain and soreness and exhaustion. That’s not so great, but then the night’s worse: without electricity, you might have gorgeous night skies, but those are distant and everything that is near is cold and dirty and invisible for being embraced by utter darkness. So really, it could seem like the world was against us, and there was absolutely no escape. But maybe that’s why we stuck together so closely: literally there was nothing else to stick to!

And on one of those nights, maybe 2 weeks after, when the roads had just been cleared enough to allow traffic through to some areas, Taro asked me if I wanted to go for a drive. “Where to?” I asked, and in response he said “Nowhere, just to check out the rest of the city.” So the two of us piled in to his car, probably around 9 PM, and off we went. We drove in towards the coast, and without electricity the city was still shrouded in black. For a while, we drove on in silence, not for nothing to say, but that the scenes before us, magically taken from the horror of daylight’s devastated reality to the terror of nighttime shadowy uncertainty, stole the words before they could form in our mouths. Buildings really can look like monsters, and the memories that you imagine the people you didn’t know who used to live there become so wrenching and full of despair that you’re glad to move past the building but only to find another, and another, and another, on towards the horizon, or at least until the dark consumes it. And have no doubt, that consuming darkness comes after you, too. Its mesmerizing, and alluring in a way, so extreme are the emotions that come along with it.

But we kept on driving. Perhaps seeing more of the damage than we had seen before was productive, expanding our understanding of the situation, but its heavy, man. As I’m writing this, I wonder if Taro did it purposefully, but on that silent drive through the night, at perhaps the deepest lull in conversation and the closest the darkness ever came to actually touching us, there was a sudden blast of noise from the car’s speakers that jolted me out of whatever bad headspace I was getting myself in. So loud and shocking was it that it took me a while to figure out exactly what was going on, but finally I realized that we were driving through the city wreckage with all windows down blasting Ben E. King’s Stand by Me. Reminder that we were going to be alright? Broadcasting hope to the populace? Random coincidence? I don’t know, but I do distinctly remember the stars shining brighter as we meandered our way through the broken streets.

And so that’s that, the portion of the story that seems relevant to me this year. And this year it strikes me that the tsunami was a rather musical experience. I also managed to find a guitar after and wrote a good bit; Taro’s cell-phone ring was a song by Brahman and that only rang when important information was getting passed around; the first non-Miyako/non-government assistance that I remember working with was from the guys in Idol Punch who also run Raccos Burger; every morning in the Buddhist Temple started with chants at 7AM, and there’s probably more.

So really, what is going through my head this year is about that odd prevalence of music in memory… or is it in memory only? For example, agency figures heavily into this: am I following my interest in music or is my “character” some how musically defined? With community development, am I sufficiently moved by the experience I had in Miyako and the tsunami, or is it just how things panned out? Obviously it would be a mix of the two extremes, but to what extent can an event like 3/11 affect an individual? Its easy to say “a lot” but not so easy to say “well, concerning things like this then a lot, but that thing over there will probably stay pretty much the same. Oh, and this characteristic? Say good bye to that one.” And to what extent do you have control over those effects, to what extent is one’s agency affected by, literally, the world intervening and saying “Uhuh. This is happening, buddy. Deal with it.”?

Personally, I’m mostly in the pro-agency camp, and of the opinion that a lot gets washed away (yeah, I know) in events such as these to allow that agency to flourish. Clean slate sort of thing, if you choose to go that direction. And, for the most part, that’s how I’ve moved forward. At the end of the day, the one change in myself that matters most addresses the future, and is a conviction. A conviction that people are worth it. A conviction that community, communication, and collaboration is the only way forward. A conviction that the self really doesn’t matter — let it go. I’m only a fairweather philosopher, and I certainly don’t practice any religion, but there is a comfort in those convictions, something like “Know this: it will get done. Because you and all the rest will get it done.”

The human spirit has proven its ability to triumph throughout history, and I got a pretty decent helping of that 5 years ago. I don’t particularly care to remember the tsunami itself, though I inevitably will, but that’s not really of any importance to me anyway. Its what we all did, together, up there after all was laid waste that is worthy of being committed to memory. On the 5th anniversary of 3/11, I really hope that people begin to see that positive element to a terrible situation.

Originally published at



Matt Ketchum

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