5 years on / Jin Sato / Flame of duty to rebuild town ignites in hellish cold

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Minami-Sanriku Town Mayor Jin Sato speaks during an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun.

9:06 pm, January 30, 2016

The Yomiuri ShimbunMarch 11 will mark the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which unleashed a tsunami of unimaginable power, claimed an enormous number of lives, and triggered an unprecedented nuclear disaster. In this series, leaders and experts who found themselves in the midst of great chaos spoke of their experiences and lessons from the disaster during interviews with The Yomiuri Shimbun. This is the first installment of the series.

After the shaking — which measured a lower 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7 — had subsided, I left the Minami-Sanriku town office and hurried to the crisis management office on the second floor of the neighboring disaster prevention center (see below).

However, we could see from the window that waves were surging up the river, so we took refuge on the 12-meter-high rooftop. The air in the direction of the coastline turned yellow with a cloud of dust, and building after building toppled like dominoes. It was like watching special effects in a movie. Soon after, we were engulfed by the tsunami.

The tsunami wave unleashed a crunching sound as it swept away the town office building and reached the building where we were. I was fortunate that my leg got caught on the emergency stairs and I managed not to be swept away.

However, when the water receded, the about 50 municipal employees and local residents who had taken shelter together had been reduced to only 10, including me. Everyone was soaked, and simply stunned. The surrounding buildings had almost completely vanished.

Eventually, as we continued to brace for further tsunami waves, the sun went down and snow began to fall. To get warm, we even tried the oshikura manju technique [standing in a circle and pressing our backs together] inside the building. But our teeth clattered and we could not stop shivering. It was hellishly cold.

The only consolation was that a municipal employee who smoked happened to have a lighter. Somehow the flame lit. When I saw that, I knew we could survive until morning.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    People look at the washed-out remains of the disaster prevention center in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 13, 2011.

We burned our neckties and driftwood, and we divided five mikan that had washed over in a net among the 10 of us. They were delicious.

Watching the flame, I thought that the whole town had probably been washed away and that municipal employees were likely to have been killed, but that rebuilding this town was my duty. That was the only thing I could do for my lost companions. That flame I watched in the darkness of the disaster prevention center became the source of my motivation.

Lessons for the next generation

We waited out the night at the disaster prevention center. The sun came up and illuminated our town, now reduced to rubble.

Together with the municipal employees, I set out for a designated evacuation center at Shizugawa Primary School, in a relatively nearby area. I was overwhelmed by the merciless destruction of the town, and was thinking that the rebuilding work would be a long and hard fight.

I suppose it was around 10 a.m. when we arrived at the school. Residents taking refuge there called out, “You’re alive!” They told me that the radio had been reporting that the mayor was not accounted for.

Afterward, we established a disaster response headquarters in the town gymnasium, where roughly 1,000 people had been taking refuge. This became a place where heaven and hell existed side by side. People were reunited after days of worry and shed tears of relief. Others collapsed in tears of grief in the space reserved for storing bodies. Nearby, other evacuees were eating their meals. It was miserable.

Getting word out

First, we had to develop an understanding of the damage, and secure food supplies. The day after the disaster, I held a press conference. “After the tsunami receded, I found that only 10 of the 50 municipal employees and residents were still there,” I told the reporters. “I need you to report on our situation.”

I spoke of the situation as it was, and cried.

The town office had been washed away and we had no money. I felt that all I could do was try to convey our terrible situation, and wait for people to deliver supplies to us. From that point onward, I began holding press conferences twice nearly every day.

To secure emergency supplies, I sent the town employees to the inland cities of Tome, Miyagi Prefecture, and Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, after issuing each of them with an identification paper that stated: “Certification: This person is an employee of the Minami-Sanriku town government. Minami-Sanriku Town Mayor Jin Sato.”

I heard that one of the store owners they visited said, at the counter, “We cannot prioritize just Minami-Sanriku,” and then, when in the back of the store, said, “Take whatever you need.” I learned that tactfulness is crucial during times of emergency.

I have regrets about how we managed the flow of goods and people.

I advised people not to waste the supplies that arrived, but things quickly began to pile up and the oldest food at the bottom became unusable. We should have handed over the management completely to logistics experts.

We lost 36 out of 238 town employees, as well as our town office building. Even so, we needed staffers who could manage the evacuation centers. I was reminded that developing citizens on a daily basis who participate in community management is a big task of municipal government.

Moving to higher ground

When I was a primary school student, my house in the former town of Shizugawa (now part of Minami-Sanriku) was washed away by the tsunami triggered by the 1960 Chile earthquake, and my house was washed away again in the 2011 disaster. Minami-Sanriku has been hit by four tsunami in about 120 years.

We must pass on the experience and lessons of these disasters to future generations. We made moving the town to higher ground (see below) the basis of our reconstruction plan.

Still, we struggled to work out the plan with the central government. When constructing elevated land or undertaking a group relocation, there are various regulations and limitations to take into consideration, so our work was stop-and-go.

I asked the Reconstruction Agency numerous times: “Don’t just apply the system to reconstruction. Make the system work for reconstruction.” We do not know when or where disasters will occur. The system must respond rapidly.

A general hospital and primary school have already been rebuilt on higher ground. The construction of homes is now beginning in earnest. However, there was no way to avoid the process taking a long time. A considerable number of people have moved out from the town. I worry that they may not return after reconstruction is complete.

I have been criticized, including with the filing of a criminal lawsuit by the families of deceased municipal employees. Even so, I have never once thought of quitting my work as mayor. I was engulfed by the tsunami on top of the disaster prevention center building, and my life was saved only because my leg happened to get caught on a sturdy railing. That night, I swore that it was my duty to rebuild the town.

■ Profile:

Jin Sato was born in Shizugawa (now part of Minami-Sanriku), Miyagi Prefecture, in 1951. A graduate of Sendai Commercial High School, Sato served two terms as a Shizugawa town council member and became mayor in 2002. After a municipal merger with Utatsu in 2005, he was elected the first mayor of Minami-Sanriku and is currently serving his third term. During high school, he appeared in the Koshien baseball tournament as a shortstop.

■ Disaster prevention center

Minami-Sanriku’s base for crisis management in a three-story steel-frame building. Built in 1995, it was located next to the town hall. A radio communication system for issuing disaster warnings, to instruct residents to evacuate, was installed in the building. Forty-three people, including municipal employees and residents who had sought shelter there, died or went missing, and residents of the town were divided over whether to preserve or tear down the remnants of building. Last summer, the town turned over management of the building to the prefectural government until March 2031 — 20 years after the disaster. The town government has decided to hold further discussions on what to do with the remains in the meantime.

■ Moving to higher ground

Many municipalities are undertaking plans to relocate residents of coastal areas affected by the tsunami to higher ground that would avoid damage in a future tsunami. The Minami-Sanriku town government designated areas inundated by the tsunami as “disaster risk areas” to limit residences, and purchased affected homes.

Under the framework of the central government’s program to promote group relocation for disaster mitigation, the town plans to create 841 plots in 28 residential zones. Of these, 255 plots in 20 zones had been completed as of the end of last year. Many of the relocation areas will be constructed by leveling mountains.

■ Great East Japan Earthquake

Occurred on March 11, 2011. As of Jan. 8 this year, the number of people who died in the disaster has reached 15,894 in 12 prefectures, not including later deaths judged to be quake-related, while 2,563 people are still missing in six prefectures. Minami-Sanriku was left with 812 people dead or missing, roughly 5 percent of its total population.

(Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Tatsuro Yasuda conducted this interview.)