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March 14, 2012

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One Year After the Japan Earthquake: A Journey, Part III

Posted by Henry Tzu Ng, Executive Vice President
World Monuments Fund

Kesennuma is a historic fishing port sited at the mouth of a scenic bay that opens to the ocean. It is among the top 5 fishing towns in Japan and the daily catches of its fishermen find their way to the famed Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Until recent times, the city was Japan's busiest port for processing bonito and swordfish. Presently, fishing and associated industries account for 85% of jobs in the town. It has a population of approximately 70,000, of which about 1,400 perished or remain missing from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and about 11,000 houses were either totally destroyed or severely damaged. The tsunami that swept into Kesennuma on March 11 flooded the central harbor section of the city, rising to the second floor level before sweeping back to sea. The devastation of the town was featured in photographs around the globe.

As one winds down the Golden Trail that leads towards the town center and the port, increasing numbers of empty lots can be seen. The modern road itself portrays its medieval origins, narrow, purposefully—curvy as a preventive defensive measure against potential invaders—with buildings right up against the road line.

There is a tremendous and long-admired beauty to the port, a protected cove surrounded by soft mountains and a coastline harboring boats. It is said that when sailors turned the bend and saw the port, they were drawn to the mountains and the landmarks on shore. A vintage photo we encountered attests to this allure. This is a town of old fishing families. When the earthquake hit on March 11, the fishermen knew that there would be a narrow window before a likely tsunami. Many rushed to get their boats out of port, going into the sea, lest a tsunami deposit them inland. Some managed to escape with their boats; others did not.

At the historic harbor side level, there are many lots cleared of demolished buildings or empty from buildings swept out to sea. Those that remain remind me of giant fish, their lower floors gnawed out, with gapping mouths created by the tsunami that swept in, then out, of the town last March 11. Many have projecting second stories still resting on metal pole-supports—miraculously, it seems.