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."

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