Japan earthquake

They come to see if anything is left – and find nothing

It was once a family home. Mum would have cooked dinner on the kitchen stove. Children would have played video games in the front room, facing the Pacific Ocean.

Now all that's left is its bare concrete base and a few scattered belongings: the shreds of a kimono and a child's schoolbag.

Like almost everything else in this town of 17,666 people, it was washed into the sea. "The water was 10 metres high," recalls Koichi Tsuto, who watched in horror from the surrounding mountains as Friday's tsunami roared into Minami Sanriku and took away everything he had in a giant muddy deluge.

"It was like a mountain of water," Mr Tsuto says, his eyes widening.

Beside him, his wife, Fujiko, looks shattered, defeated. They have come to see if there is anything left – and come away empty-handed.

The tsunami has left this town in ruins, reducing wooden houses to matchsticks, twisting metal girders as if they were strips of liquorice. Cars, along with everything else, were pushed two kilometres inland before coming to a muddy stop. Gas cookers, children's toys, photograph albums and trucks are among the detritus deposited all along the tsunami's trail. And an estimated 10,000 people have simply vanished.

"I've come to look for my mother and father," says Yuki Sugawara, 25, who took two days to reach this town from Sendai City, about 50 kilometres away. His ruined home town is almost completely silent apart from the caw of crows and the distant hiss of a sea that erupted with such terrible, unexpected violence two days ago.

His old schoolfriend Makoto Ishida, also 25, is from the same town. "I haven't been able to contact my mother or grandmother," Mr Ishida says. "I just came to see what's left."

A view from the mountains that ring this once picturesque farming and tourist town shows that the devastation is almost total. A house, tottering on its side, somehow survived the deluge. The post office, no doubt bustling with staff and pensioners on Friday afternoon, is recognisable only by its battered sign. A car lies on its back in a landscape of still-smouldering steel and chopped wood. Power lines and telephone cables have disappeared. Underneath, the rescue workers say there may be bodies – those that haven't been carried into the Pacific.

In one of the world's richest countries, it is a shocking sight: a once thriving town flattened into the ground, its modern infrastructure stripped bare, its people – office workers, students and farmers – reduced to walking in search of homes that are no longer there. Minami Sanriku, a town the size of St Ives in Cornwall, has effectively ceased to exist.

Its survivors huddle around gas heaters in a community centre about three kilometres from the sea. There is no television or radio. A noisy generator keeps the lights on. News comes in the newspapers delivered late every morning, with their thick black headlines bearing reports of the catastrophe from other parts of the country. Today, Tokyo will lose power for the entire day, inevitably bringing back terrible memories of the Second World War to a generation who thought such sights were gone forever.

"We didn't hear about the nuclear plant explosion until today," says Eiko Chiba, who huddles beside her daughter on a futon. "It's terrifying. All we can do is hope that the people in charge are doing their best." Mrs Chiba was working in an office a few kilometres inland when the tsunami struck. She and her friends screamed when they felt the quake, which was followed by a tsunami warning. "We went up on top of the building to watch the water. It bulged at the side of the buildings, then rushed in and submerged all the houses. Then it took them away."

Her husband, a truck driver, was in Tokyo when the quake struck. "He's safe," she said. "I talked to him on his cellphone. But he's stuck in the city."

With the dark and cold descending, the community spokesman Jin Sasaki says the search for bodies has been called off and will begin again tomorrow. "We've found 13 so far," he says. "When we discover one, we give it to the family or take it to the local temple." He has heard some of what is going on in Sendai, the prefectural capital, where officials are overwhelmed by the task of searching for 115,000 missing people in this one region alone. More than 700 people shelter in what has become a makeshift refugee centre in the prefectural offices, lying on blankets and futons in halls and offices. Many are from nearby Iwate Prefecture, where the quake reportedly hit hardest. "Most people are trying to find their families," says the government spokesman Moto Otsuki. "Phones aren't working."

The survivors scan bulletin boards in the prefectural office for news of their loved ones. Some will be fortunate. Takehiro Abe is walking back from Minami Sanriku on rail tracks that until last week ferried trains around the picture-postcard coast. "I learnt that my father, mother and younger brother are all safe, in a refugee centre," he says. "I just went down to see our house, to check if anything is left, but it's completely gone. We'll have to build somewhere else – we can't come here."

Somewhere in the distance, a siren wails, warning of yet another aftershock and tsunami. The few people still walking around in the dusk slowly head back toward the safety of high ground, away from the sea. What else can the sea do to them, they seem to be saying.

Japan is ageing, its economy past its peak, its government struggling with huge debt. How will it pay for the recovery of towns like Minami Sanriku – for that of the hundreds of communities all along this coast struck silent by last week's awful events? "Right now, we're just thinking of tomorrow and saving people," says a community spokesman, Mr Sasaki. "However long it takes, we will rebuild. People are depending on us to bring the town back." But Mrs Chiba, huddling with her daughter and waiting for her husband to come home, will not be among the rebuilders. "I could never go back. I can't even think about it. I can never feel safe in that town now."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015