The disaster areas seen from the ocean The disaster areas seen from the ocean

10 years since the Great East Japan Earthquake

The tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake caused major damage not only to inland areas, but also in the ocean, leaving behind huge amounts of rubble and destroying fishing grounds. How has that once bountiful ocean changed over the past 10 years? To find out, photographers dived to depths up to 35 meters.

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Iwate on that day Tsunami that hit such coastal municipalities as Rikuzentakata, Otsuchi and Ofunato took the lives of many residents and destroyed homes. According to the National Police Agency, the number of dead and missing in Iwate Prefecture was in excess of 5,700 and about 20,000 buildings were totally destroyed. Some buildings were swept away by the tsunami and the rubble that remained on land caught fire, burning central parts of municipalities as well as nearby forests.

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Miyagi on that day Tsunami caused major damage to a wide area facing the Pacific, such as Ishinomaki, Kesennuma and Minami-Sanriku. Tsunami reached as far as six kilometers inland and one tsunami in Minami-Sanriku reached a height exceeding 23 meters. At the Onagawa fishing port, waves reached 34 meters upstream and scallop farms offshore were devastated. At Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, 84 students and teachers either died or were reported missing.

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Fukushima on that day Major damage from tsunami was caused in such coastal municipalities as Minami-Soma, Soma and Namie. According to the National Police Agency, more than 1,600 people died in the prefecture. A triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant led to the spewing of large volumes of radioactive materials into the atmosphere, the soil, the ocean and groundwater. As many as 160,000 living in surrounding communities were forced to evacuate.

Diving into the ocean

Between June 2011 and January 2021, photographers of The Asahi Shimbun periodically dove into waters off the coastal areas affected by the natural disasters. About 30 locations were chosen for the dives in order to learn how the tsunami had affected the marine environment. We begin our report from the ocean surface.

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Soma, Fukushima Prefecture

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Recovery of clam harvesting

April 2016

Matsukawaura is the only location in Fukushima Prefecture where clam digging is possible. Before the natural disaster, the annual harvest of clams there was 80 tons. But the Fukushima nuclear accident forced clam fishermen to refrain from digging. While they experienced a difficult period, test operations began from 2016 after it was learned that radioactive materials were not found in the clams.

Hiroshi Kikuchi, clam fisherman

Words cannot describe my feelings. I only supply to the market shellfish confirmed to be safe.

During reporting in 2016

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Clam harvesting resumes at Matsukawaura in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, for the first time after the Great East Japan Earthquake. (April 20, 2016)

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Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture

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Fishing suspension puts salmon ground in bind

November 2016

The Kidogawa River, which runs through Naraha, used to be a major salmon breeding ground on the main Honshu island, but fishing was suspended because of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima nuclear accident. Artificial hatching of eggs and the release of hatchlings was also suspended. While fishing resumed in 2015, the catch is nowhere close to the levels from before the natural disaster.

Kentaro Suzuki, fisheries cooperative official in charge of the salmon hatching farm.

I realized the importance of artificial hatching once again after the salmon numbers decreased. I want to return the river to more than what it was before the natural disaster by securing enough hatchlings for release.

During reporting in 2016

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The peak in salmon runs upriver (Nov. 4, 2016)

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Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture

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Trying to resuscitate seaweed beds

January 2021

Once the tsunami receded, a huge amount of rubble was found floating in the water so the first step in recovering the ocean was to remove the rubble. At the time of the natural disaster, Hiroshi Sato, originally from Iwate Prefecture, was a diving instructor in Thailand. But he returned home when he learned about the damage to his hometown. He began helping clean up the bay while also delivering relief supplies to disaster victims.

Three years later, he began working on resuscitating the seaweed beds that had been damaged by the tsunami. Such beds are very important because it is where fish feed and live. In speaking to reporters in January 2021, Sato said he wanted to foster young people who would be capable of carrying on his mission.

Hiroshi Sato, owner of a diving shop in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture

I myself do not know how long I can continue diving. We have to cultivate the ocean in our hometown. I want to foster such “ocean activists.”

During reporting in 2021

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Sunlight shines into the ocean where a project is continuing to resuscitate seaweed beds. (Jan. 21, 2021)

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Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture

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One change from tsunami—large number of sea urchins

March 2016

Shizugawa Bay in Minami-Sanriku was known before the natural disaster as an area where high-quality abalone and sea urchins could be collected. But the tsunami changed everything. The seaweed bed where fish lay their eggs and where fry grow was heavily damaged, upsetting the ecosystem.

A large number of sea urchins emerged and it ate up all the seaweed bed that was on the verge of recovery. But the sea urchins also did not grow very large because of the insufficient feed. Yukio Agatsuma, a professor emeritus of fisheries at Tohoku University, looked into the situation as one way of resuscitating the seaweed beds.

Yukio Agatsuma, professor emeritus at Tohoku University (He was still a professor at the time of reporting.)

Seaweed multiplied on the seabed surface that had been swept clean of any attached items by the tsunami and the survival rate of sea urchins likely increased greatly because it had feed early in its life.

During reporting in 2016

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Sea urchins removed from seabed and collected with nets (Feb. 4, 2016)

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Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture

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Tsunami scars even on seabed

January 2021

A photographer dove off the coast of Kirikiri fishing port in January 2021. On the seabed were huge metal plates and parts of ships being built. The articles all came from shipyards and factories that were located close to the port.

The diving area was expanded to include Funakoshi Bay which covers waters off Otsuchi and Yamada. That led to the discovery of fishing equipment and cars. The photographer felt the scars of the natural disasters turning up even in the ocean.

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Metal plates believed to have been swept out from a shipyard litter the seabed. (Jan. 20, 2021)

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Yamada, Iwate Prefecture

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Sunken homes left intact

June 2011

More than 800 residents of Yamada died due to the tsunami. A photographer dove in waters off Yamada three months after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

The seabed was sticky mainly because the feel of dirt swept there by the tsunami remained. Visibility was poor as it was difficult to make things out even a few meters away. Among the floating objects were futon, shoes and judo uniforms.

Intact homes had also sunk to the seabed. Laundry pins and hangers attached to laundry poles were found floating. There was even a truck nearby tangled up in fishing nets.

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A home still in much of its original form was swept away by the tsunami (June 4, 2011)

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Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture

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Recovery of coho salmon farms

January 2021

About 4,000 residents of Ishinomaki either died or went missing due to the tsunami. Although coho salmon farming was popular in Ogatsu Bay, heavy damage was caused by the tsunami. After the natural disaster, Yuichiro Abe, 50, quit his job as a senior high school English teacher and took over the coho salmon farm started by his younger brother and wife, who perished in the tsunami.

He rebuilt the cage after purchasing a used boat and was able to resume farming in 2011. He is now raising about double the number of coho salmon in comparison to before the disaster.

Yuichiro Abe, coho salmon farmer-fisherman, Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture

Not only my younger brother and his wife, but also my mother, who was also killed by the tsunami, are likely worrying about my nephew. I have continued with this work because I wanted to pass on to the next generation what their parents did.

During reporting in 2021

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A school of coho salmon swim in a farming cage. (Feb. 17, 2016)

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Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture

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Curtain of scallops

April 2015

In Onagawa, tsunami in excess of 34 meters swept in up a river and more than 800 residents were killed or left missing.

While scallop farming was popular off the coast from the town, the tsunami swept away the farming rafts used to grow scallops and caused devastating damage to the sector. But due to the major effort made by fishermen, the scallop harvest two years after the natural disaster was about 2,600 tons in comparison to the almost zero catch in 2011. The 2,600 tons was about 70 percent of the catch prior to the tsunami.

Diving in 2015 led to the discovery of a veritable curtain of scallops as ropes lowered to more than 10 meters from the ocean surface contained growing scallops that measured 10 centimeters or more.

Kazuyuki Ito, a committee member at the time of reporting for the Onagawa branch of the Miyagi prefectural fisheries cooperative

We want to recover catch volume to the level of before the disaster and one day pass on the business to my son.

During reporting in 2015

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Scallops grow to a considerable size before harvest. (Nov. 19, 2020)

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Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture

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Large structures lying underwater

October 2020

October 2020. Diving to depths of about 15 meters in Okirai Bay led one photographer to find huge concrete chunks piled on top of each other on the seabed. That was part of the coastal levee for Okirai fishing port that was located toward the back of the bay. The tsunami destroyed the levee and sank the concrete chunks.

There was another levee at the mouth of Ofunato Bay facing Ofunato city, but this was also destroyed by the tsunami. That levee was constructed in the wake of the 1960 Chile earthquake. The tsunami triggered by an earthquake in a location 17,000 kilometers away reached Japan and 53 residents of Ofunato died or went missing. As a measure against tsunami, the central government poured in huge amounts of money to construct coastal levees.

The new successor levee was completed in 2017. It measured 11.3 meters above the ocean surface, making the levee the tallest in Iwate Prefecture and double the size of the levee that was in place at the time of the disaster. But even with that height, there is the possibility that a tsunami on the same scale as that in 20111 could destroy the new levee. The Kamaishi harbor office of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is urging local residents to evacuate to higher ground in the event of an earthquake.

Hiroshi Sato, owner of a diving shop in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture

I have watched organisms begin living in the rubble from right after the disasters. I felt the hardiness and strength of nature.

During reporting in 2020

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Pieces of the coastal levee remain underwater after being toppled by the tsunami. (Oct. 6, 2020)

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Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture

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Even now, cars on the seabed, floating rubble

January 2021

A photographer dove about 1 kilometer off the coast of Ryori fishing port in January 2021. On the seabed 16 meters deep lay a single motor vehicle.

The car roof was bent in and tore into the passenger’s seat. The top of the back seat was removed, revealing the seat below.

The tsunami swept away homes and fish farming facilities and the bay was littered with such debris. After the disaster, volunteers gathered from around Japan and most of that debris has been removed, but there are still occasions when ship parts and rope are found floating in the water.

Koichi Watari, a director with the Ryori fisheries cooperative

(Right after the disaster) The bay was so filled with debris that there was little room for boats to maneuver.

During reporting in 2021

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A badly damaged car lies sunken on the seabed. (Jan. 19, 2016)

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Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture

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A fishing boat becomes home to fish

January 2017

In January 2017, close to six years after the disaster, a photographer dove about 400 meters off the coast in Okirai Bay. A fishing boat 12 meters long had sunk intact to the seabed.

Approaching the boat led to confirmation of scallops, sea squirts and sea urchins around the vessel. Swimming above the boat were rockfish, fat greenling and octopus. The boat had turned into a form of fish reef.

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Fish swarm around boats and cars lying on the seabed, turning it into a fish reef. (Dec. 16, 2016)

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Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture

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Still searching for the missing

January 2020

A cold winter wind blew over Onagawa Bay in January 2021. Wearing a diving suit, Masayoshi Takahashi dove into the ocean.

He sought out the seabed about 30 meters deep. The water temperature was 10 degrees and visibility was poor. Floating to the surface, Takahashi held a bag.

Takahashi and his friends are volunteers searching for the missing and their belongings.

Masayoshi Takahashi, a volunteer diver at Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture

Last year and this year, we found cars that had sunk in the ocean. There are still many places to search. I want to foster local divers and continue with this activity.

During reporting in 2021

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Bubbles blown out by the divers searching for the missing rise from the seabed. (Jan. 27, 2021)

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Photo found on the seabed in Yamada Bay, Iwate Prefecture (June 5, 2011)

The tsunami greatly changed what was in the ocean by taking away fish beds and destroying fish farming facilities. It also took away the ecosystem and the daily lives of local residents. But the people continued to rise up, clearing away the rubble and recovering the fishing industry. They struggled mightily to return their lives back to normal. The circle of people supporting such efforts also expanded.

At the same time, lying on the seabed are the structures destroyed by the tsunami. Divers continue to search for the missing. While ten years have passed since the disaster, for the areas most affected, there is no time break. People will continue living with the ocean and we will continue reporting on their activities.

The disaster areas seen from the ocean
10 years since the Great East Japan Earthquake

Released March 4, 2021

Reporting
Takuya Isayama Ryo Kato Kotaro Ebara Tetsuro Takehana Hiroyuki Kobayashi Gen Hashimato Taku Hosokawa Satoshi Sekiguchi
(Asahi shimbun Media Production)
Movie
Photo & Multimedia Section
Editing
Kazuhiro Sekine
Translation
Roy K. Akagawa
Website production and design
Masayuki Shirai Makoto Une Ryusuke Terashima (Asahi shimbun Media Production)