The Tragedy in Miyagi, Japan

by phillipsauve on March 17, 2011


Koizumi region around Tsuya river. The trainline has collapsed in the foreground. The car bridge in the background is also destroyed.

It is a bit surreal to watch the videos of the recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan.  There are images of places where I used to hang out flooding with waves 10m high, and photos of roads I’ve driven on a thousand times split in half and with ships beached on them.  It’s been difficult to see homes washing away and cars floating down the streets.  Most heart-wrenching of all has been the inability to make contact with those affected, my friends, former students and coworkers.  People whom I considered family for the three years I lived in Motoyoshi.  A great deal of them have likely lost their homes.  Koizumi, the southern most village in Motoyoshi, is a very small community right along the water.  I surfed there many times.  The train line is destroyed in Koizumi, the bridge carrying it over Tsuya river having been knocked down.  Many homes were in these low-lying areas near the river and coastline.

Kaigan-shokudou is a restaurant owned by the family of Kazuma, a kindergartner I taught in Koizumi.  It was no more than a hundred yards from the coast.  We (the school staff) would often order bento boxes for lunch from Kaigan-shokudou on the days that there was no kyushoku (school lunch).  I knew when Kazuma had told his family about me and the games we played at the kindergarten (my work at kindergartens consisted of about 10% English teaching, and the rest was playing games while tossing out relevant English vocabulary) because after that I always got extra food in the lunches I ordered.  I can only hope that he and his family are safe.  That’s been the hardest part to handle through all this, the not knowingNot knowing about people’s safety or whereabouts and having no way to contact them.  There has been very little media coverage from Motoyoshi, despite it bordering Minami-Sanriku to the south and the city of Kesennuma to the north, areas where there have been many reports from.  Motoyoshi is technically part of Kesennuma now, as it was incorporated into the city a little over a year ago; perhaps that is why it has been overlooked.

The coast of Ohya, the northernmost village in Motoyoshi, has been wiped out.  I’ve heard water had reached the elementary and junior high schools but didn’t get in.  In downtown Tsuya, the part of town where I lived, there have been conflicting second hand reports of how far the water came.  So much focus has been about the tsunami damage that I keep forgetting that an 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit as well.  In places where the tsunami didn’t reach there is still probably damage from the earthquake.  Taka-so is the local watering hole where I would go occasionally for a beer, located just down the street from me in downtown Tsuya.  The owner was a volunteer firefighter for Motoyoshi, and often in the evenings many other volunteers would gather there for a drink.  They were rarely busy, but trained often.  I imagine they’ve never been busier than they are now though.

Luckily, it seems most people evacuated to the schools.  The schools are built differently than the homes in Japan, which are primarily made of just wood.  School buildings are also located in elevated locations as much as possible to ensure their safety and make them viable evacuation centers.  Tsuya Junior High School, where I worked most often, is situated high up on a hill.  I’ve heard that many in town found shelter there.  Hibiki High School is right next door.  The gymnasium there is being used to store bodies.

Kesennuma is the city to the north of where I lived.  I played basketball there once a week and often went there for shopping and entertainment.  Many videos have popped up from Kesennuma showing some of the terrible scenes of devastation in the area.  The video below is from right near the port of Kesennuma.  Last time I was there was right before I came back to America in August for the annual city summer festival.  As you could imagine it was a scene much different from the images I’ve seen recently.  The citizens were all out dancing, eating, and enjoying the fireworks and taiko drumming groups, reveling in the festival atmosphere.  The only solace that can be taken from the footage of last week is that there is no one on those streets when the tsunami hit.

The recovery from this disaster will be long and most definitely not easy.  But if there is any country that is able to it, it’s Japan.  They’ve recovered from large-scale devastation before.  After World War II Japan boomed to the second largest economy in the world.  Through perseverance, resilience, and cooperation these communities will get through this.  Upon scenes of a hundred Japanese people patiently waiting in line to buy food at a grocery store some reporters have suggested that maybe these characteristics are in their genes.  It’s not in their genes.  These are values that they’ve learned since childhood.  Kids are taught from a young age the value of cooperation.  When they enter middle school they select an after-school  club sport/activity to join.  They will continue with this club for the next six years.  Moving around from club to club is frowned upon not because they don’t want students to learn multiple skills, but because they want them to learn to 我慢, or persevere.  No, this is not genetic; these are the values Japan was built on.

Every time I heard Japan’s national anthem while I was living there, I always thought about Japan’s rise from the post-war rubble to greatness.  The anthem starts out very slowly and finishes with a triumphant, prideful feel to it.  Someday that anthem will serve as a reminder to the survivors of this earthquake of all they’ve persevered through.


The people of Miyagi and Motoyoshi will need help in getting through this disaster.  I know the economy is tough right now and money may be tight for some, but even a small donation will help.  Right now many people don’t have food and water.  Evacuees are getting rations of one bowl of rice per day at shelters.  Many farms have been destroyed.  Even $10 will help feed several people.  These are the people I lived and worked with for three years, the people who took care of me.  Below is a list of some important organizations to donate to:

  1. Second Harvest
    This is a nonprofit group that is already in Japan, providing food and relief to victims.  There is no concern over when your money will actually get to the people– they’re already at the evacuation sites helping out.
  2. NGO JEN (Japan Emergency Network)
    Another group that is already in the Tohoku region of Japan aiding in the relief effort.
  3. American Red Cross
    The money will eventually get the Japanese Red Cross association and help out with the relief aid that they are providing.  There is a Red Cross hospital in Ishinomaki city where many have been receiving care.  Blood donations are also needed.

  4. Red Cross - Japan disaster relief

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

jocelynn vryenhoek March 17, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Hello Phillip,

I was googling trying to find out info about Tsuya and Motoyoshi in the aftermath of the Tsunami. I have a lot in common with your experience. I lived in Tsuya and taught as a JET at Motoyoshi-hibiki. I also coached girls basketball there with a guy named Sodeno. This was in 1997-98.

I am sick at the thought of how many of my former students and their families as well as friends that I had in Oya, Tsuya and Koizumi have been devaststed by this tragedy. I too spent a lot of time on that beautiful beach.

The thought that the gym where I spent countless happy hours is being used to store bodies is terrible.

I was happy to come across your blog. It made me feel more connected to the situation.

Thank you.

Jocelynn Vryenhoek
Senior High School Math Teacher
Calgary, AB, Canada


phillipsauve March 17, 2011 at 11:27 pm

I’m glad you found this. It’s sounds like you had a wonderful experience in Motoyoshi like I did. I helped coach basketball too at Koizumi and Tsuya JHS.

Here’s some good news I just came across: Route 45, the one that runs all along the coast, has been reconnected from Karakuwa north of Kesennuma down to Motoyoshi! It stops in Koizumi at the bridge that was knocked down. This will help a lot in terms of accessibility for everyone in the area.


Jocelynn March 18, 2011 at 12:14 am

Btw. Were your shuji courses right in Tsuya/Motoyoshi? When I lived there I took private lessons from an older man whose name I can’t remember.


phillipsauve March 18, 2011 at 8:18 am

Yes, it was probably the same guy. Sato Tetsuo san. He’s about 84 now. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately.


Jocelynn March 18, 2011 at 11:55 am

No kidding. Can’t help but think about all of those people that cared for me and touched my life while I was living there. Your Japanese is much better than mine. When I arrived in Motoyoshi, July 1997, I didn’t speak any Japanese. I was quite dependent on the community for the first while.

I think that must be the same man. Spent many hours one evening a week in his little shuji studio. Very patient guy. You must be very talented. I know first hand how challenging shuji is.

What a small world it is. If not for the internet, we never would have crossed pathes and known that we walked similar journeys.

Have a great weekend.



phillipsauve March 21, 2011 at 5:51 pm

Thanks for your kind words Jocelynn. Indeed, it is a small world. Did you live in Tsuya next to Sato-san, the landlord? I’ve not heard of there status yet.


Canon March 21, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Hi Phil–

So glad to hear that the roads are opening up. That was one of the luckiest things about Shizugawa, so Im glad other places will be getting help. I know cell service was restored to Shizugawa last week, so hopefuly they’re getting mini towers up in other places and people can start connecting again.

My parents started a fund called if you are interested in passing the word along. I’m hoping to put the funds towards rebuilding a school or something like that down the line.

Glad you are well!


phillipsauve March 24, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Thanks for letting me know Canon, I’ll be sure to pass it along. I’m so glad you are safe.


Kelly April 15, 2011 at 1:12 am

I was the first JET to live in the Sato’s apartment. I lived there from
93-95. I have not kept in contact with them since late 96 or early 97.
I was not part of the community or school system the way I should
have been but I still have fond memories and many were very kind
to me, especially the Satos. If you hear anything of them would you
please let me know?


phillipsauve April 17, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Hey Kelly, thanks for the message. The Satos are OK. The water didn’t reach their place. I was quite relieved when I heard that they were safe, they’re always so kind and thoughtful.


Meskini March 2, 2017 at 11:10 pm

Yeah man. that was surreal for the people who lived or worked there. I live and work in Miyagi, too. I came here just months after the earthquake. The tohoku people are hurt but not defeated. Just few days ago a photographer from Sanriku visited our school in Sendai to show the students his photos he took of the same place( Koizumi village) before and after the tsunami. It’s unbeleivable. But as you said, the Japanese won’t give up and won’t throw the towel . This is what they do best. They gambaru.


phillipsauve March 5, 2017 at 10:37 am

Absolutely- you continue on and rebuild. I visited the area two years ago and my old landlord showed me a photo book the local newspaper created- just devastating images. It seemed like there was still a lot of uncertainty from the local governments at that time on how best to move forward.


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