Re-Visiting Otsuchi

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

by Charles A. Pomeroy

The manuscript for my memoir, Tsunami Reflections: Otsuchi Remembered, was completed in July of 2014 and published in the following September. I was inspired to write the book on my first visit to Otsuchi, seven weeks after the tsunami, while viewing the bare foundations of our former home. Struck by the absolute stillness of a dead town, interrupted occasionally by the distant sound of backhoes moving debris, that eerie silence triggered an overwhelming desire to share with the world the story of Otsuchi and one family’s travails.

My wife’s hometown, Otsuchi, had been ideal for retirement, but then became a microcosm of the horrific tsunami that devastated Japan’s Sanriku Coast on March 11, 2011. More than 19,000 people lost their lives and some 5 million households were affected directly, including ours.

After setting the scene in the first chapter of the book with an overview of the situation at the time of the disaster, I focused the next three chapters on describing Otsuchi’s geography, history, and local culture as well as our family’s circumstances to give readers a sense of the time and place. In particular, Chapter 4 describes the cultural fabric that strengthens community relationships in Japan, including annual festivals and Buddhist rites of Obon for the dead.

This is followed by a detailed description of the earthquake and tsunami in Chapter 5, which also includes survival stories and explanations of why so many died. Recounted, too, is the first-hand experience of the Sea Shepherds, an ocean conservation group, with additional links to videos of the disaster. The next two chapters reflect on the tsunami’s aftermath and volunteer activities before the more emotional Chapter 8, which provides details on the search for missing relatives, mass funerals, identification of a family member’s remains, interment of ashes, and the 2011 Buddhist commemoration of the dead.

Chapter 9 brings a lighter mood with descriptions of humanitarian aid to the town from Otsuchi’s sister-city of Fort Bragg, CA, and contributions in general—no doubt of interest to all who gave to relief efforts—as well as a Tokyo donation program that failed. Several digressions, including one involving Hawaii, complete the chapter.

Chapter 10 concludes the book with an outline of the master plan for the reconstruction of Otsuchi and resurrection of the town’s businesses in the face of ongoing depopulation. Included, too, is a critique of the Japanese government’s response to the disaster, a description of local media, and thoughts on future possibilities for revitalizing the town. The last few pages offer a few suggestions from the viewpoint of a former foreign resident.

Although the town is making progress on raising the ground level in Central Otsuchi by another two-and-a-half meters, that area will not be ready for rebuilding until 2018. We will then be able to rebuild there, but doubts remain as to the recovery of both population and local businesses.

In particular, the mainstay fisheries industry continues to struggle. Despite new boats and government subsidies, especially for fuel, catch volume for fish has recovered to only some 40% of pre-tsunami levels. Moreover, the presence of fewer brokers placing bids at fish auctions has resulted in lower prices. This in turn has prompted those with significant catches to head for larger ports, such as Miyako, to take advantage of more profitable auctions. Some Otsuchi fishermen even truck their catches to auctions at larger ports.

Shoreline subsidence caused by the magnitude-9 earthquake in 2011 also made using the harbor’s jetty more difficult as well as negatively impacting aquaculture in the bay. Although aquaculture is recovering—seaweed and shellfish harvests are increasing—and offers possibilities, a standout product of some type is needed to offset the decline in the fisheries business. Hopefully, something special can be found in Otsuchi Bay, which offers biodiversity arising from the confluence of the cold Oyashio Current from the north and the warm Kuroshio Current from the south providing a rich environment for sea life.

As suggested in the last few pages of my book, Otsuchi also has potential to become a haven for the elderly, especially if the town builds geriatric-friendly infrastructure, and as a destination for both tourism and eco-tourism. Existing points of interest include Tokyo University’s International Coastal Research Center, the islet of Horaijima (made famous by a TV puppet series and its theme song), and the excellent Shiroyama hiking trail. In the near future a tie-in with the Sanriku Reconstruction Park system will come into play, as will better access to the town via the new Sanriku Espressway and a new railway line to replace the one destroyed by the tsunami. Otsuchi, too, has a sister-city relationship with Fort Bragg, California, which has recently opened its own marine research center.

[Tsunami Reflections: Otsuchi Remembered (an Imprint of Telemachus Press in paperback and eBook formats, 2014) is available world-wide in both Print-on-Demand (POD) and eBook formats through major book sellers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Kobo, Smashwords, and Ingram.]

Charles Pomeroy, born in Beloit Wisconsin on Nov.6, 1930, enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17 and became an aviation electronicsman, As an aircrewman, he was assigned to duty in Japan as part of Patrol Sqaudron Six in July of 1950 to serve in the Korean War. A subsequent assignment in the mid-1950s took him to Rome, Italy, where he served with the Naval Attaché and where acquaintance with Japanese diplomats led to his return to Japan as a student in 1957.

After graduating from Tokyo's Sophia University in 1962, he freelanced as a translator and then became a correspondent in 1966 covering Japan’s healthcare sector until his retirement in 2004. His retirement took him to a new home in his wife's hometown of Otsuchi on Japan's Sanriku Coast, where he returned to his earlier ambition of creating woodblock prints. That ambition was ended by the tsunami of March 11, 2011.

His latest book, "Tsunami Reflections," provides insights on that disaster. In addition to his translated works, he authored two earlier books, "Traditional Crafts of Japan" and "Pharma Delegates."

Photo: Charles Pomeroy with Otsuchi harbor/bay in the background

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