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Japan tsunami: Sirens, prayers and a wave of sorrow

Monday, 12 March 2012 - 4:13pm IST | Place: Ofunato | Agency: The Daily Telegraph
Exactly a year after the tsunami struck, Japan comes to a standstill to remember 19,000 victims... and attempt to move on.

At 2.46pm, the howl of the emergency siren cut through the silence in Ofunato, plunging the remembrance service back into the horror of last year's tsunami.

This town of 40,000 on the north-east coast of Japan was the first place where the tsunami reached land, and many in the crowd visibly blanched, their eyes wet with tears, as the wail of the alarm transported them back to that day.

At least 440 people died and a quarter of the town's buildings were destroyed as the wave, funnelled into the tight V-shaped bay, rushed almost two miles inland, growing to a height of 77ft.

"When we heard the warning, we did what we had been drilled to do: we headed for the primary school, our evacuation centre," said Murakami Hitoe, 60.

"But when we saw the wave, it looked very big. So we quickly decided to run up to the temple, the Hanzo-ji. That is what saved us," she said. "Looking back, we feel a mixture of relief and anguish. We lost our house, but others lost a lot more."

Yesterday (Sunday), less fortunate families gathered to bid their dead a final farewell. They queued along the water's edge to strike a cast iron bell, burn three pinches of powdered incense, and clasp their hands together in silent prayer.

Kawahara Kazunori, 74, lost his sister, Noriko. "We were very close, she was just a year younger than me," he said, bowing to a small memorial where she used to live. "We managed to survive the [Second World] War together when life was truly hard. I thought we would survive this too." Her house lay more than a mile inland; she thought she was safe and did not run.

Throughout the region devastated by the tsunami, only 58 per cent of the population evacuated when they heard the sirens, according to a government survey. In the days before the earthquake, there had been a series of smaller foreshocks, including one that measured magnitude 7.2. In turn, Japan's meteorological office had issued tsunami alerts, all of which had proved false. By the time the earthquake struck, some had begun to disregard the warnings.

Others decided that the wave would not affect them. In Ofunato, a brown stone marks the furthest point which a previous tsunami had reached in 1960. Over the years, the town came to regard anything built beyond the marker as safe. But last year's wave was twice as big.

Sato Tokiko, 48, lost her 74-year-old father, who had survived the 1960 tsunami and assumed his house was beyond the safety line. "My mother died two years before the tsunami," she said. "We think my father just wanted to be with her. He would not have wanted to leave her altar in the house."

When the wave struck, Japan's sophisticated offshore buoys, designed to measure the height of tsunamis, malfunctioned. The official alert dramatically understated the size of the wave.

Along the north-east coastline, 15,854 died in the disaster and 3,155 are classified as missing, either because their relatives are still searching for them, or because they do not have the paperwork to register the death.

In Ofunato, the day began with snow, a reminder that those who survived the disaster went on to struggle for weeks in the winter cold, many without heating or supplies.

But as the moment of the anniversary neared, the warming sun emerged from the clouds. After a series of speeches, mourners lay white lilies and chrysanthemums and silence fell, a palpable sense of sorrow rippling across the crowd. And then: a collective exhalation, relief and perhaps a sense of closure. "For a lot of people this year has passed very quickly, like a bad dream," said Hashimoto Katsuo, a 74-year-old monk who has counselled the town and helped conduct an earlier memorial service.

"The mental anguish, including a feeling of guilt for surviving, is very deep. I know one man who lost his wife who was just a few feet away from him in the water. But we must try to be active, to communicate with each other, and search for happiness. That is how we will get over the terror of what has happened," he said.

As the ceremony ended, Buddhist monks chanted sutras and the crowd streamed to the docks to release prayers and paper cranes into the water. The bay was entirely calm. The town's remaining eight boats were already out. They had sailed to where two of the fleet capsized, drowning all on board.

"When we heard the alarm last year, we sailed straight out to sea," explained one fisherman, Watari Koichi, 58. "We made it past the wave before it got to shore and stayed out there for two days. But our friends never made it out of the bay."

The fleet only started fishing again two days ago, and it was the first chance for them to mark their friends' passing. "We circled the spot where they died three times, cut our engines, said a prayer and a final goodbye," said Kotsubo Teruo, another fisherman.

In the late afternoon sunshine, as the town's residents slowly filtered away, there were smiles, some laughs, and a feeling that the dead had been properly honoured.


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