When I met him, Otsuchi city administrator Kozo Hirani, a substantial, balding man in a brown pinstripe suit, was on the upper floor of a warren of small-scale temporary buildings that now house the town’s administration. To reach him I had flown to Tokyo, taken a train more than three hundred miles north to Morioka, the capital of Iwate Prefecture, then got into a van with seven people from Tokyo’s International University who’d decided to see the disaster zone for themselves and help me while they were at it. Two were continental Europeans, five were Japanese, including one young man with the face of a warrior in a 19th-century Japanese print. His only job was to hand over exquisitely wrapped boxes – almost certainly containing some kind of sweet – in pretty shopping bags to everyone we visited, starting with Hirani. A huge cardboard carton of these items had been loaded into the van in which we travelled through the disaster zone.
March 2011, leaving him with the burden of responsibility for the recovery of his town. ‘I lost five of my subordinates. One sank in front of me. It was 24 hours before the helicopters came,’ he told me through an interpreter. ‘I was rescued by helicopter and when I saw the city from the sky I thought everything was at an end. It is very tough. My subordinates were in their twenties and thirties – I am 55. Why did I survive?’ Almost 10 per cent of the town’s population of about 15,000 died in the tsunami, one of the highest per capita death tolls in the affected area along the north-east coastal prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima (which is the name of the prefecture as well as the inland city).
As we approached Otsuchi through mountainous countryside, we saw heavy equipment dismantling wrecked buildings, their twisted steel girders exposed. I thought we must be near the coast, but we kept going for a long time through wreckage and neat hills of debris; in the flatlands nearer the sea not much was left besides foundations. Some buildings were standing here and there, but they didn’t look as though they would be rehabilitated. A few brightly illuminated drink vending machines stood like crazily cheerful sentinels in the ruins. There and elsewhere along the coast, I saw many buildings whose first storeys were utterly destroyed, their second storeys damaged, and the rest increasingly intact the higher they went. I had been to New Orleans six months after Katrina, before the real clean-up began in many neighbourhoods, but the deluge there now seems gentle by comparison. A long double row of cars – hundreds of them; in Japan even wreckage is made neat – was lined up in the dirt of Otsuchi, twisted and crushed by the extraordinary force of the sea. In one of the houses, still standing but torn open, I saw a family’s pretty blue and white china dishes, a stack of five-sided bowls, flowered side plates, a little oval dish, unbroken and unclaimed.