On March 11, a Friday, spring was already in the air. The sunshine was getting more and more intense, even young shoots were appearing. Everybody was looking forward to the upcoming weekend. Yasuo Takamatsu drove his wife, Yuko, to work. Yasuo had a lot of free time lately. He had just retired, after having served in the self-defense forces all his life. Transferred between various bases – Okinawa, Miyagi, Aomori. His wife and children travelled with him. They had been together for twenty two years.
They met through a nakōdo – a matchmaker. Although it’s nothing out of the ordinary in Japan, Yasuo hesitates when he speaks about it. Did he already know during the first meeting that they would be married? The thought had crossed his mind. Half a year later, they were posing for their wedding pictures, dressed as a European couple from the turn of the twentieth century. She was wearing a wide, full-length dress with puff sleeves and a ribbon at the back, and a hat, from which her veil flowed. A green and white bouquet in her hand. He was in a dark gray suit, with white gloves in hand, and wearing a bow tie and vest. They are standing on a Persian rug, with baskets of roses in the background, a vine-covered column and a painted window that lets in plenty of painted light. Serious, upright, shy.
“Our life really wasn’t anything special,” Yasuo claims. Having breakfast together and watching TV together at night. Shopping over the weekend or taking trips to hot springs. There was nothing extraordinary about their life. That’s how they wanted it. And that’s what he misses the most.
He dropped his wife off in front of the building of Shichijū Shichi Bank in Onagawa, where she worked part-time.
“What do you want for dinner?” she asked. Yasuo made a face. “Just don’t say that you don’t care!” she added. Yuko knew that face all too well. But Yasuo liked it when she was the one to decide. He weaseled out of giving an answer, waved goodbye and drove off toward home.
The ground shook at 2:46 p.m. Differently than usual. Instead of moving left and right, it jumped up sharply. Instead of thirty seconds, it all lasted nearly six minutes. Although for the people who hid under desks and heard books, documents, glasses, and dishes fall off of shelves, and then finally heard the shelves themselves thud against the ground, it seemed like eternity.
At 2:50 p.m., as the employees of Shichijū Shichi Bank in Onagawa got off their knees and started to pick up the strewn documents, they heard the tsunami sirens. The manager appeared in the doorway, on his way back from a meeting, and demanded, “Everybody up on the roof! I saw the sea moving back!” They had practiced this before. Once a year they would review the evacuation rules. The roof of the two-story building ten meters above sea level was designated as a shelter area. They quickly went up the steps. Only one woman grabbed her bag and car keys. Instead of going up the stairs, she headed for the door and added, “I’m going to get my child!”
Nobody stopped her. An announcement was resonating throughout town: “A tsunami is approaching. Please evacuate to higher ground. A tsunami is approaching. Please evacuate. A tsunami is approaching. It will be six meters high. Please evacuate.”
From the roof, the bank employees saw the exposed beach and fishing boats, which had tipped to the side as the sea was pulled from under them. The bank building was only a hundred meters away from the coast. A few hundred meters further inland, on a hill, was the city hospital. A steep access road, a parking lot with an ocean view, and the building nestled up against the side of Horikiri mountain – the evacuation point designated by the local authorities. The bank employees were wondering if they shouldn’t walk up those few blocks. It would take only three minutes. The tsunami was supposed to be six meters high, though. The water would barely reach the second floor, it wouldn’t flood the roof. Yuko stood next to Emi and kept telling her that everything would be all right. She took out her phone and sent her husband a message: “Are you safe? I just want to be home.”
After the earthquake, low whirling clouds shrouded the sky. Gloomy gray. As if something had sucked all the light out of Onagawa. Snow started to fall. The men went back downstairs to get everyone’s coats. And then they watched from the roof as, off in the distance, the surface of the ocean started to swell. And bulge. And then it started to hurtle toward the coast.
At 3:10 p.m., the ocean spilled over the seawall. The dirty, foaming water lifted boats and filled the streets. There was no single giant wave that would spectacularly collapse above the city. Only surging water. As if somebody had thrown a giant stone into the ocean and the water was now flowing over its edge.
Lighter objects were swept off right away and taken further into the city with the wave. Five seconds later there was enough water to move cars parked on the street. Sirens wailed. More and more water. Higher and higher. Gray mass. Rapid stream.
One meter. Two meters. Three.
Trucks spun on the surface of the water like plastic toys.
Four meters. Five.
Over the course of five minutes, the water reached the third floor of the Shichijū Shichi Bank.
Six meters. Seven.
The water crushed walls, tore off entire floors of buildings with people inside and swept them away. Buildings collided with each other and shattered with a loud crash. The Japanese say: Goro goro. Goro goro. Goro goro.
From the parking lot in front of the hospital, you had a good view of the thirteen people standing on the roof of the bank. The men were helping the women in pencil skirts climb up the ladder to the top of the generator box. Another three meters of life.
Cars, beverage machines, roofs. The wave carried entire houses, as if they were torn away from an anchor. Yet not all the buildings were pulled from the ground. Those with stronger foundations were simply flooded with water.
The wave started to creep up to the hospital parking lot. People ran up to higher floors and up the side of Horikiri mountain. The tsunami flooded the reception and admissions areas on the ground floor of the hospital.
Nobody watched as the tsunami carried away the bank employees.
The tsunami in Onagawa was fifteen meters high.
Yasuo headed for the city right away. But the road was blocked by a collapsed building. Along with piles of smashed beams mixed with wall fragments. He saw a fire in the distance. He had to go back home.
He tried calling Yuko. But the phones were down. He assumed she had taken refuge in the hospital. After all, it was an official evacuation point and everyone in Japan knew those by heart. There was no other option, he thought.
He spent a sleepless night in a cold house. There was no power and no heat. There were only aftershocks that kept him up.
He tried to reach Onagawa again in the morning.
This time he was able to enter the city. Or rather, what was once the city. Gutted buildings, exposed steel structures. Boats perched on building roofs. Mangled remains. And dead bodies randomly strewn across the apocalyptic landscape. Dog. Fish. Human.
Yasuo paid no attention to all of that. He just wanted to get to the hospital and look his wife in the eye. Tell her how worried he was about her. Let her know that the children were all right. That their parents were also safe. And that right after the earthquake, her father, who was living with them, cut off the gas and stood in a safe place, in the doorframe. That their house was still there, the wave hadn’t swept it away. Only the cupboard fell over and her beloved dishes were broken, European china kept for special occasions. But nothing happened to their collection of classical music. He listened to Chopin at night until the batteries in the player went dead. He was thinking about her. Is she warm? Was she soaking wet? Does she have anything to eat? He’d come to take her home.
The entire first floor of the hospital was covered in sludge. Strewn all over the floor were patient files, shattered bottles, broken stretchers. The patients had been relocated to higher floors, where doctors and nurses tried to keep them alive in spite of the lack of power, water, and medication. Along with them were half a thousand people seeking refuge and a roof over their heads. They were sitting on the blanket-covered floor. Older women gathered in the kitchen and cooked rice on a gas stove; not very nutritious, but at least it was hot.
Yasuo noticed somebody he knew in the hallway. He ran up to her. She looked away.
“Where . . . ?”
She glanced at her shoes. Streaks of mud on her soles, damp and squishy leather.
“You don’t know?” the woman whispered. He had to lean toward her to hear. “The roof . . . they all died . . .”
The woman said something more, but Yasuo didn’t hear. “Impossible, impossible . . . impossible!” he muttered. He turned toward the door. He put his hand on the wall, just above the brownish line that showed the water level. He left the hospital.
He went to the school, the stadium next to city hall, and the temple on the hill. All of them were designated evacuation centers. Yuko was nowhere to be found.
When the ground had started to shake, Masaaki was on his way home. He was returning from the hospital with his mother-in-law. He stopped the car on the one-lane road along the seaside. He waited a moment: maybe an aftershock will come? He continued on when he heard the tsunami siren. A traffic jam developed on the road leading up into the mountains. He saw the approaching wave in his rearview mirror. It stopped three cars behind him. I don’t know what you feel at such a moment. Your own heart beat? Masaaki doesn’t remember.
He went home. But there was no home anymore. And along with it, there was no bed, no closet, no table, no computer, couch, TV, or refrigerator; no pictures on the walls, no souvenirs from vacations, no dinnerware collected over the years.
He drove to work. But there was no work anymore. All that was left of the fish processing plant were the foundations.
He tried contacting his wife. She didn’t answer. The hospital where she worked was located far from the coast in a different part of Ishinomaki. He tried contacting his daughter. She didn’t answer her phone, either. They’re safe, he thought. He came from Onagawa, he was born and raised there and that’s where he had his first lessons in evacuation. He knew that the hospital in Onagawa was perched up high. He knew there was a hill behind the hospital. He knew that the Shichijū Shichi Bank was only a few hundred meters away from the hospital. He had peace of mind.
He left his mother-in-law at the school on the hill, another evacuation center, and went to see if anything happened to his employees. He employed fifty people at his plant.
He managed to contact his wife two days later. It wasn’t until Monday, March 14, that he learned his daughter, Emi, had been taken away by the tsunami.
Of the thirteen bank employees seeking refuge on the roof, only one person survived. The clerk was fished out of the open sea a few hours later, hanging onto a wooden beam and frozen to the bone.
The woman who ran off to get her child instead of going to the roof survived as well.
The families of the twelve missing employees found out about each other very quickly. They would pass each other every day in the place where the Shichijū Shichi Bank had once stood. They didn’t have to say anything to each other, they simply searched together. They waded in the sludge, picked up dirty boards, and tried to lever up fragments of smashed walls.
They would pass Japanese Self-Defense Forces units (the very next day after the tsunami, the government sent out one hundred ninety two planes and twenty five ships with one hundred seven thousand soldiers, who officially are not soldiers; that’s nearly half of the Japanese army, which officially is not an army), who were walking around with long poles, checking for bodies beneath the rubble.
They would pass the residents of Onagawa, who counted on finding the remains of their lives in the remains of their homes. Some of them stuck a board in the ground with their name written on it in marker, as if to say that “that pile of wood used to be my home.”
Yasuo and Masaaki would return to Ishinomaki when it got dark. And the next day they would start the search again. They went every single day. They didn’t care about the snow, wind, or rain.
One day. Two. Three.
In Onagawa, the water swept over five thousand buildings away; seventy percent of the city. Every tenth inhabitant of Ishinomaki died. The coastline – the narrow bays, small capes, steep cliffs, on which provident fishermen built temples for the gods of the seas – only intensified the power of the tsunami. The rushing water accumulated, reaching heights of up to forty meters and forging its way inland, as far as ten kilometers over a stretch of six hundred seventy kilometers, from the city of Erimo on Hokkaido to Ōarai in Ibaraki Prefecture, just above Tokyo. The tsunami hit the hardest in three prefectures: Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate.
Two weeks. Three.
Good news! The body of a bank employee was found. In the north part of the bay, under the remains of houses. If one body was found, maybe another would be nearby? They lifted boards, dug through rubble, picked through glass debris, anything to get under the ruins. In the evenings, Yasuo would stare at length at the screen of his phone with the last text message from Yuko: “I just want to be home.”
Four weeks. Five. Six. Seven.
They found another body! In the south end of the bay, directly opposite the spot where they had been searching. They moved there. They lifted boards, dug through rubble, picked through glass debris. They understood that there was no pattern here, the bodies could be anywhere.
They looked for three months. Those who could took time off. Others had no place to work, because the wave devoured processing and manufacturing plants, offices and warehouses. But after three months, their employers called. They were reopening their businesses. Time to go back.
Yuko’s phone was found in the parking lot next to the bank. Yasuo dried it and put it on a shelf. A keepsake, which would remind him of his deceased wife. Emi’s father received her business cards. In a transparent plastic case.
In June 2011, a hundred divers came to the Sanriku coast. Volunteers from all over Japan. They supported the dozen or so divers from the police who had been working since March. On the sea floor, they would find cars, refrigerators, vending machines, boats, trucks, fishing nets, harpoons, and buoys. And entire floors of buildings. The water took five million tons of garbage with it. Most of it sank near the Japanese coast.
The divers would comb through the underwater city, inch by inch. Anything that could be identified was brought up to the surface. Wallets, picture albums, personal name stamps, and collections of school essays ended up in government warehouses.
If they found a body, they wouldn’t touch it. They would mark the location, swim up to the surface and inform the police, who were waiting on the shore.
A corpse is a corpse. Not a pleasant sight. A beaten up body, softened by the water. Swollen, pale hands. Blue spots on the chest. Some of the divers refused to go back under water. Little by little, the volunteers would drop out.
Of the hundred divers, only one was from the region. Takahashi spent half of his life in Australia and Indonesia and didn’t come home to visit too often. Even after he returned to Japan, he lived near Tokyo and worked at a diving center in Kanagawa Prefecture. But his roots were in the north. As a child he would play on the beaches of Miyagi, go to Iwate for weekends, and even graduated from the university in Fukushima. The tsunami robbed him of part of his memories. He decided to stay. And train professional divers in this part of Japan as well.
He bought a house in Ishinomaki; he and his wife occupy the upper level, and there is a kitchen and living room on the lower level, where he holds dive briefings before going out to sea. He trained instructors. He put up advertisements. Seahorses and small fish with a comb imitating coral.
After a year, the last of the volunteers went back home. The government would send diving teams less and less frequently. So, upon the request of a few families from a town near Onagawa, Takahashi would dive once a month, looking for bodies. He found the last ones in July 2012. In 2013, even the most resilient families told him to stop. “It’s no use,” the mothers would sob.
More and more people believed that there is no way any more bodies would be found. Any organic material had already decomposed, they would claim. Those missing must be declared as dead and, against tradition, funerals without bodies would have to be arranged. Those left behind need to make a fresh start. When Takahashi asked for funding, a local politician gazed at him as if he were a madman and replied “just stop it.” Takahashi didn’t even try to explain to him that he was still finding bones. Animal bones, to be honest, but if we’re finding the remains of dogs, cats, and cows underwater, human remains have to be there as well. And really, it’s not the remains that matter. It’s the searching that does.
The months passed and reconstruction was started in part of the bay. The place that was once the port was carefully cleaned and leveled. It became an empty, flat plane now occupied by bustling workers and riding trucks.
After three years, the debris was no more. The only souvenir of the tsunami was an empty site where Onagawa once stood. And the brown line on the first floor of the hospital.
The city was coming back to life.
But for Masaaki and Yasuo, it still was 2011.
Every day, Yasuo would wake up, hoping to hear familiar bustling sounds in the kitchen. Yuko would get up early to prepare his lunch. They would eat breakfast together, the six of them, with their daughter, son, and in-laws. Yuko liked to cook nearly as much as she liked classical music. In the afternoons, after she came back from work, she would reach for her CD collection and iron while listening to Bach. But although Yasuo wore down record after record on lonely evenings, Yuko never came home. All that was left were memories of skiing trips together or of their trips to Lake Izunuma, where hundreds of thousands of geese and swans would pass overhead in the fall and winter.
Yasuo tried to turn on his wife’s salvaged phone. He wasn’t counting on much. The phone had been underwater for a several hours. He was surprised when the display lit up. March 11, 2011 at 3:25 p.m., Yuko sent a message to her husband that he never received: “The tsunami is enormous.”
That’s when Yasuo made a decision. He does not want to depend on the government and sporadically organized diving expeditions. He would learn to dive himself. And he would finally bring his wife home.
Time does not heal all wounds. Time in itself does not have any healing properties. The only thing it can do is pass. It’s up to us how we use it.
Masaaki and Yasuo’s favorite weekends are those when they are alone with the instructor. No looking for fish and little snails, just the tedious job of combing through the ocean.
They have flashlights, diving knives to cut through lines, and mesh bags to store small items. They dive and they look. They keep looking. Forty, fifty minutes. They methodically move their line of sight, record every pebble and each shell. In winter, their cheeks sting – the only exposed part of their body.
Takahashi relaunched his search efforts when Yasuo contacted him in summer of 2013. They go out searching once a month. During three weekends in the month, he lets Yasuo and Masaaki join the tourist group and stay on the sidelines. He knows that they do not like diving with people who come to take pictures of the sea after the tsunami. It’s not at all enjoyable for them.
They divided the bay into squares, they zig-zag across it or swim along a spiral. Usually, carried by currents, remains gather in one place. These are the places they look for. Four years after the tsunami, they find only fragments rather than entire objects. These are covered by a thick layer of mud, plant growth; sea urchins or crabs live inside them. The sea is recovering.
The deepest part of the bay reaches forty meters; they can be there for just under ten minutes. They have so far searched one-third of the bay. They’ll finish in two, maybe three years.
But they don’t give that a thought. They sweep across every stone with their flashlights beams. They take care not to touch the sea floor with their fins. Calm breath, slow movements, neutral buoyancy. Each breath is hope that they will finally find bones.
When Masaaki is done diving, he calls his wife. It frightens Emi’s mom when her husband goes diving. She firmly clutches her phone in her hand the entire time. But when Masaaki comes home, he is always a bit more cheerful. Sometimes he even smiles.
Masaaki does not like diving. He does not like the ocean. And he can’t stop.
When underwater, he feels he is closer to his daughter.
“What Lies Under the Water?” is an excerpt from “Ganbare!” by Katarzyna Boni, translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon (forthcoming 2021, Open Letter Books). Excerpt published with permission of Open Letter Books.