If you were in Japan during and immediately after the tumultuous events of March 2011, you might recall all the strange stories that emerged in the international media at the time. My parents in New Zealand saw images on TV of cars being washed away, with a caption saying this was taking place in Tokyo. A few weeks later, a friend in the United Kingdom sent me a newspaper clipping of an interview with a British mother based in downtown Tokyo, claiming that her children were “starving” because they were too scared of nuclear radiation to leave their apartment. Sometimes it was hard to know what to believe.
Many communities in Tohoku suffered in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami that followed, but the town of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture lost more than most. Entire sections of the town were washed away by waves as high as 13 meters and some 1,700 citizens perished. The mayor, Futoshi Toba, took the unprecedented move of taking to social media to disseminate information about the local situation, appealing to the world not to forget about the people of Tohoku.
And the world responded. Rikuzentakata became a global symbol for the suffering and devastation, and Toba asked Amya Miller to be the city’s international PR liaison. Miller, a bilingual American who spent much of her childhood in Japan, has continued in the role, balancing media relations, speaking engagements and cross-cultural development both in Japan and abroad. She has recently published a bilingual children’s book about true events connected to March 2011. (The Extraordinary Voyage of Kamome: A Tsunami Boat Comes Home, co-authored with Lori Dengler.)
I caught up with Miller to find out how Rikuzentakata is faring five years after the Tohoku disaster.
“Rikuzentakata is very much still in the process of rebuilding. We are starting from a negative place—not even from zero,” she says. According to Miller, from the tragedy of the events of five years ago has come a unique opportunity to do something other municipalities can’t. “The mayor has gone on record as saying the new Rikuzentakata will be an inclusive community that welcomes anyone, whether foreign nations, LGBTQ, single parents, those with physical challenges, and so on.”
While some have expressed skepticism at these plans, Miller says the town is determined to create a new and unique kind of community in Japan. “We are taking the chance to put ourselves on the map both locally and internationally and these plans are beginning to attract interest from families and ‘U-turn’ people who left the area but want to return to Tohoku.”
Before the earthquake and tsunami struck, Rikuzentakata was famed for the 70,000 pine trees that grew along the coast. A sole surviving tree, dubbed the ‘miracle pine,’ became famous both in Japan and abroad as a symbol of tenacity and endurance.
The hardy tree was later declared dead in 2012 due to salt-water damage, so a rod was inserted up the center to brace it and synthetic leaves and branches were added. This move drew criticism, with many arguing that funds would be better spent on helping citizens rebuild their lives. Miller, however, points out that the cost for preserving the tree came from a specially created fund, and not from money earmarked for post-tsunami recovery.
Today the ‘miracle pine’ is one of the main reasons tourists come to Rikuzentakata and it continues to inspire the residents who lived through the tsunami. In other areas of the city, visitors can see a handful of buildings left in their original post-tsunami state, as a visual reminder of what happened.
When the town’s CBD and residential areas are completed, there are plans to rebuild the famous pine forest, as well as adding a waterfront park and museum. Visitors can also get to know the people of Rikuzentakata better by participating in agricultural and cultural activities along side local farmers and artisans.
With the Olympics coming to Tokyo in 2020, what are the implications for Tohoku? “While we can’t prove the construction for the Olympics has negatively affected the reconstruction efforts in Rikuzentakata or in Tohoku in general, we do know it’s now much harder to get construction companies to bid on projects, and that has definitely caused delays in getting work done,” Miller says candidly.
The influx of visitors and international media attention will probably bring economic benefits to the greater Tokyo region, but Millar says it comes at Tohoku’s expense, slowing down progress for clearing land, building homes and public housing apartment complexes. “It’s hard to understand why the powers-that-be chose to prioritize Tokyo’s needs over those of the people who so desperately still need help.”
The path ahead for the people of Rikuzentakata is far from smooth but the residents will continue to draw on the resilience that has brought them this far and build a new future–on their own terms.