Photo/IllutrationVisitors learn about the daily lives of residents in Sendai's Arahama district before the 2011 tsunami in front of a scale model of the lost town at Arahama Elementary School in 2018. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

An abandoned school building is the only structure standing on a vast expanse of flat ground in one part of Sendai.

Arahama Elementary School is a silent reminder of the town that was once there and the lives people used to lead.

The building saved pupils and neighborhood residents while their homes were being swallowed up in the tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.

Preserved and now open to the public as a monument to the disaster, the stark structure exudes an air of desolation.

On display inside is a scale model of the lost town. A tag, attached to each miniature home, identifies the owner. I understand that the owners themselves, and their surviving neighbors, marked the tags from memory.

Eight years after the disaster, the affected areas present a flat landscape as far as one can see, with some raised plots of ground where a new town is expected to eventually emerge. The town of the past now lives on only in residents' memories and pre-disaster photos.

Natsumi Seo, a young transplant to an Iwate Prefecture neighborhood that was devastated by the 2011 quake and tsunami, published a book filled with comments made by locals.

“The place where we lived is going to be buried underground,” one quotation goes. “I sometimes think that rebuilding means burying ourselves and the lives we used to live.”

Residents may be invariably feeling a sense of loss behind reconstruction.

A monument to the disaster amply conveys the ruthlessness of nature. It also provides clues to how the area’s scenery originally looked.

A considerable number of damaged structures were demolished because they brought back memories that were too painful, making the remaining ruins all the more valuable.

The building of Kesennuma Koyo High School in Miyagi Prefecture, which just opened to the public as a monument, was flooded to the fourth floor by tsunami waters.

What happened eight years ago can happen anywhere, anytime. This is what those still-standing structures remind us to bear firmly in mind throughout the devastated areas.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 12

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.