Surviving the tsunami: Coexisting with the power and wonder of nature

The International Coastal Research Center of the University of Tokyo’s Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute is located in the town of Otsuchi, Kamihei-gun, Iwate Prefecture. On March 11, the center was the only University of Tokyo facility to be hit by the tsunami. The members of the center are among the few people at the University to experience the tsunami firsthand.
Professor Tsuguo Otake, director of the International Coastal Research Center, spent several days following the disaster confirming the safety of the center’s staff despite experiencing the tsunami himself. We talked to him about the day of the disaster and the center’s plans for recovery.

Tsuguo Otake. Photo: Junichi Kaizuka.

Tsuguo Otake. Photo: Junichi Kaizuka.

Interviewer: Could you tell me about your experiences during the period from when the earthquake struck until you returned to Tokyo?

Otake: The earthquake struck at exactly 2:46 p.m…. at that moment I was talking with Kurosawa-san [Masataka Kurosawa] on the first floor of the center. It was a huge earthquake, so we evacuated immediately to the tennis court behind the laboratory building. The ground shook for so long and so violently it was impossible to remain standing and the hillside behind the center collapsed in places. After the first shock subsided, people started coming out from inside the center. There was a total of 16 people there that day.

At that moment the warning sounded for a major tsunami. Everyone started saying “We’ve got to get out of here!” and we decided to take refuge in the Akahama 3-chome evacuation center up on the hill behind the center. Our designated evacuation center used to be Akahama Elementary School, but on March 11 we went to Akahama 3-chome instead.

That choice turned out to be spot-on. The huge tsunami far exceeded anyone’s expectations, and water reached as far as the Akahama Elementary School evacuation center. Some people who evacuated to the school’s gymnasium were swept away. If we had evacuated to the school we’d have been in real trouble too.

While Kawabe-san [Koichi Kawabe] guided our staff to the Akahama 3-chome emergency evacuation area, Omori-san [Hiromitsu Omori] inspected the researchers’ dormitory and I checked every room in the center. At the time I didn’t imagine there would be such devastation, so the only thing I took from my laboratory was my cell phone. Omori-san and I together with a visiting student who had still been there left to catch up with the others. I think we arrived at the evacuation area at around 3 p.m.

Interviewer: Then the tsunami struck?

Otake: Yes… the first waves of the tsunami came sometime after 3p.m. They weren’t very big waves at all, and we were thinking “Maybe that’s it?” when the sea started to pull back with amazing speed and force. Just as we were thinking this was an incredible sight…it was the second wave that was incredible.

If we had evacuated to the school we’d have been in real trouble too

The breakwater extending out to Hyotan-jima [Ed.: a small island just in front of the International Coastal Research Center officially named “Horai-jima.” Following the usual custom, Professor Otake calls it “Hyotan-jima” because it is said to be the model used by Hisahi Inoue in his popular novel Hyokkori Hyotan-jima] was swallowed up by the tsunami, and in seconds, waves broke over the harbor’s five-meter high sea wall. A mass of water rushed towards the shore with extraordinary speed. The speed of that wave was really incredible. The water poured over the sea wall like a waterfall, and then rushed up the roads and between the houses. The houses broke up in front of our eyes with a terrible sound and were swept away. The waves reached just 50 meters from where we had fled. My own car came floating up at the forefront of the surge.

Interviewer: How terrible.

Otake: But it felt like a dream, we couldn’t believe it was real. We all stood rooted to the spot on the hill of the evacuation center, watching numbly, saying things like “Oh look, there goes my house.”

This clock here [points to a clock on the shelf], this clock was hanging on the wall of my lab in the center. I brought it back after the disaster...if you look, the hands are stopped at exactly 3:16 p.m. That means that’s the time my laboratory on the second floor was flooded.

The second and third waves of the tsunami were huge, and I remember seeing perhaps up to a fifth round of waves coming.

So… we had been able to escape from the tsunami, but in the evening it got colder and colder. We decided to evacuate somewhere else. Fortunately, Iwama-san [Minako Iwama] and Kurosawa-san’s younger brother lived close to the evacuation center so we split into two groups and went to their houses.

But unfortunately a fire started in Akahama 2-chome and gathered speed, and at around 7:00 p.m. sparks were flying our way. We had to move in case the fire spread. But where could we go now? Kurosawa-san, who had grown up in Otsuchi, told us that there was a nursing home for the elderly named “Sanrikuen” on the opposite side of the peninsula, so we started to walk there. At 7:00 p.m. it was already dark and starting to snow. It would have taken about two hours to get to Sanrikuen on foot. Luckily we found an abandoned truck on the way, so some of our group took that and drove to the nursing home while the others hitched a ride with a light truck that happened to be passing and we were able to reach the home a bit after 8:00 p.m. We asked the staff to let us take shelter there and they kindly agreed.

Searching on foot to confirm the safety of center staff

Otake: Evacuees from the shipyard in Kirikiri and from Akahama were also taking refuge at the Sanrikuen nursing home. On the morning of the 12th, the day after the disaster, I borrowed a car from a Sanrikuen employee and drove with Kurosawa-san and Hirano-san [Masaaki Hirano] to check on the situation near our center. There was debris everywhere… There was nothing left. It was a huge shock.

After that, we cleared fallen trees and debris from the drive connecting Sanrikuen to the national road so at least a light truck could make it through. I sent home four of our staff members who lived in Kamaishi, Otsuchi and Yamada. They were driven home by some of the shipyard workers going home that way and Sanrikuen staff going out to procure food.

I remember seeing perhaps up to a fifth round of waves

Interviewer: How were you getting information about the disaster at that time?

Otake: Our only source of information was the radio. We had our cell phones with us, but they were useless. The radio at Sanrikuen was all we could rely on. But we couldn’t get any information about Otsuchi even over that radio. As you know, the mayor and many councilors, the leaders of the local authority, had fallen victim to the tsunami and the city hall was in a state of virtual paralysis, unable to provide personal safety or other information to the media.

On the 13th, I was able at last to begin moving about to confirm the safety of the center’s personnel. On that day, an elderly dialysis patient was driven to Sanrikuen from the Ando Elementary School evacuation center. The people who drove the patient said that they were going on to Morioka to secure food supplies and so I asked them to take with them two of our students and a post-doctoral researcher, all of whom wanted to return to Tokyo. They kindly accepted my request and also drove me to Ando. When the earthquake and tsunami struck, there were 16 people at the center. In addition to Iwama-san, who was at her home near the center, there were five others in Otsuchi, Kamaishi and other places. I wanted to make sure these people were safe. I began my search for the five at the Ando Elementary School evacuation center and then moved to the Otsuchi High School evacuation center. While I was checking the list of evacuees at the high school, by chance I met Fukuda-san [Assistant Professor Hideki Fukuda]. I was also able to meet one other staff member who was searching for his family in Otsuchi. Later, returning from Otsuchi to Ando, I bumped into a student whose whereabouts had been unconfirmed.

Our only source of information was the radio

Interviewer: So at that time you were still unable to communicate by phone and had to walk everywhere yourself to confirm the safety of your staff?

Otake: That’s right. At the evacuation center in Ando, I met some municipal officials whom I knew well. They were going to Morioka to procure gasoline and so I asked them to take several people from our center. They kindly provided lifts to three people – a student who lived in Morioka and a student and employee who both lived in Miyako. The 13th was a lucky day for me because I bumped into the people I’d been searching for and was able to arrange for some of our team to be driven home.

I then returned to Sanrikuen again, which by then was housing three evacuees from Kitasato University in addition to Kawabe-san and me. I asked the head of Sanrikuen to help the three evacuees from Kitasato University get back to Ofunato City in Iwate Prefecture [where Kitasato University had a campus at that time; after the disaster it was moved to Sagamihara City in Kanagawa Prefecture]. Although the road was cut off, the director of the home kindly arranged to have them driven as far as possible. I hear that they were eventually taken as far as Kamaishi.

Sanrikuen was a comfortable place to stay but because it was not an evacuation center, we couldn’t get any information. The longer we stayed, the more isolated we felt. Also, I still hadn’t been able to confirm the safety of all our staff members and I felt that as long as we stayed here we’d never make any progress. I consulted with the director of Sanrikuen and he kindly provided a car again. Kawabe-san and I went to the Ando Elementary School evacuation center and asked the staff to let us stay there, but they turned us down because there were already too many evacuees at the center. So we decided to go to the Otsuchi High School evacuation center. It took us about 30 minutes on foot to get to the center which took us in. The International Coastal Research Center often sent staff to the high school to give special classes to the students so I knew some of the teachers at the school, and they kindly made arrangements for us at the evacuation center. We didn’t have enough blankets though, so Kurosawa-san, who was also staying at the evacuation center, borrowed some blankets for us from one of his relatives living nearby. Thanks to those blankets we managed to avoid freezing to death.

Then, very luckily, a truck from Tono City arrived at the Otsuchi High School evacuation center to deliver relief goods. I asked the truck driver to drive Kawabe-san to Tono City, thinking that from there he would be able to find his way back to Tokyo. The driver agreed and Kawabe-san was able to leave for Tono.

Four days after the disaster, the first phone call to Tokyo

Interviewer: So Kawabe-san left for Tokyo via Tono on the night of the 13th and you remained at the evacuation center with Kurosawa-san.

Otake: On the 14th, using the Otsuchi evacuation center as a base, Kurosawa-san and I split up and visited other evacuation centers as we still hadn’t confirmed the safety of some of our staff. Hearing that cell phone coverage was restored in Kamaishi, we tried to get there but couldn’t because the road was blocked due to a terrible forest fire in the mountains.

The 13th was a lucky day for me

Interviewer: You also mentioned a fire in Akahama 2-chome. Did the forest fire continue for long?

Otake: Yes. The forest fire had continued the whole time. Despite the intermittent firefighting conducted by helicopters dropping water from above, they couldn’t extinguish it. On the 15th, heavy snow finally put it out. But on the 14th the forest fire was still burning strongly.

On the 15th, we heard that NTT had installed some wireless phones at the Ando Elementary School. Hoping to be able to make a call, I got a lift to the school on a truck that had delivered relief supplies from Morioka. At the school I was finally able to talk by phone with Professor Mutsumi Nishida, then Director of the Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute.

Interviewer: That was also mentioned in the special tripartite talk in this magazine that the University had no means of communicating with the Center for three days after the disaster and that Professor Nishida finally received his first telephone call from you on the 15th.

Otake: During the three days, we really had no means of communicating with the outside world at all. In that first phone call, I remember endlessly reading aloud a list of relief goods that were needed at the evacuation centers in Otsuchi. The list completely filled up a whole A4 sheet. Iwate Prefectural Otsuchi Hospital had transferred its operations to Otsuchi High School and was running out of medicines. The list covered the huge range of the supplies they needed. It took ages for me to finish reading them all.

So, I was finally able to get in touch with the Research Institute, but as of the 15th I was still unable to confirm the safety of the two remaining center members.

On the 16th, I got wind that the two were staying at another evacuation center and went out to search for them. By chance I bumped into one of them, who worked part-time at our center, and could confirm that he was safe. When I questioned him, I was relieved to hear that he had driven the remaining center member, a female student, to Morioka. At that moment, I was at last able to confirm that the last two members of the center were safe, and was finally certain that all of the members of the center were well.

Interviewer: In the midst of that terrible disaster, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that you were able to find all the members of the center in such quick succession.

Otake: I think my luck was really in during those three days. Wherever I went, I always seemed to bump into the people I was looking for.

Interviewer: And finally you had fulfilled your responsibility as the director of the Research Center. was a great relief to know that no one on our staff died in the disaster

Otake: Yes, it was a great relief to know that no one on our staff died in the disaster. The University of Tokyo’s emergency headquarters promptly prepared the relief goods I had asked to be sent to the evacuation centers by phone on the 15th and, at around 7:30 p.m. on the 16th, a van loaded with relief goods arrived at Otsuchi High School. As requested in a message sent by the university administration, I got in the van and was driven back to Tokyo. We drove right through the night, and arrived at the Administration Bureau building at the Hongo campus just before 9:00 a.m. on the 17th. I then talked a little with Executive Vice President Masafumi Maeda and then returned to my home in a taxi called by the Administration Bureau.

Interviewer: You did a great job. So in a way the morning of the 17th was the end of a chapter.

Otake: Yes, I think so.

No retreat: relief and repair of the devastated Otsuchi Center

Interviewer: Fortunately, no one working at the Research Center was lost but the center itself has suffered tremendous damage, including to its research vessels.

Otake: Let’s have a look at the damage caused to the center [pulls out a document].

In a word, the damage is catastrophic. According to the results of a survey conducted by Professor Kenji Satake of the University’s Earthquake Research Institute, the tsunami reached 12.2 meters in height. Our center is a three-storey building and was flooded up to just below the windows of the third floor, so all the research equipment in the building is totally unusable now. The building itself is completely ruined, except for the reinforced concrete structure. The two-storied researchers’ dormitory was also completely flooded and is a complete mess inside and the roof of a different house is sitting on its rooftop. The outdoor water tanks were also flooded and can no longer be used. Even the ground collapsed in places and half the outdoor concrete water tanks were either flooded or broken. The three vessels were swept away. We watched the newest and largest—the 12-ton “Yayoi”—sinking under the water before our eyes. The remaining two ships, “Challenger II” and “Challenger III,” were found in the debris in Otsuchi in May but are irreparable. We have nothing other than the devastated buildings.

But despite this devastation, we decided to restore the labs to the minimum required level for them to be temporarily useable. With the cooperation of the University’s Office for Relief and Reconstruction Assistance, we were able to clean up and remove debris from inside the building and around the grounds, a job that took us 10 days starting from May 20. Given the risk of another disaster we decided not to use the first and second floors, but readied the third floor so we could use it right away. Even so, we still had no research equipment. All we could do was to reconnect the electricity and water and replace the broken windowpanes. Really all we’ve done is create a useable space with lab tables. Even so, little by little, we have already started to resume our research.

Interviewer: The University of Tokyo has chosen to rebuild the Research Center in Otsuchi.

...little by little, we have already started to resume our research

Otake: The Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute Faculty Council have decided to do so, and University President Hamada declared so when he visited Otsuchi in April. Many people in Otsuchi also want the Research Center to resume its operations in the town as a symbol of hope for their future. While I was visiting the local evacuation centers trying to confirm the safety of our staff, several townspeople asked me, “You’ll keep your center here, won’t you?” From long ago, the people of Otsuchi have been very cooperative regarding our research activities. I hear the center was located in Otsuchi not only because the environment was suitable for research but also because of the full support of the local community. Personally, I would do absolutely whatever it takes to rebuild the center here.

The magnanimity and greatness of nature

Interviewer: What themes will you focus on in conducting future oceanographic research in Otsuchi?

Otake: The disaster has disrupted the ecosystems of Otsuchi Bay. The most important theme in our future research will probably be how local ecosystems recover and what new ecosystems emerge through that recovery. This is a deeply interesting theme to us, and researchers around the world are sure to be paying attention as well. I believe it is our duty to conduct this kind of research as scientists at facilities located in the affected area. A tremendous amount of data has already been accumulated on Otsuchi Bay, which can be compared with future findings. Issues concerning the Otsuchi Bay ecosystem will directly impact the local fishing and aquaculture industries and are therefore among the most important for the recovery and revitalization of the town. It is just such issues that require a “Renaissance” in thinking.

Interviewer: The devastating tsunami indeed showed the terrible power of nature. As a natural scientist, did the tsunami change your perspective on nature?

Otake: Yes, I felt the tremendous power of nature in that tsunami. Many close friends lost their lives in an instant, and I watched as it destroyed everything in its path right before my very eyes. The disaster has made me think that it is hubris for humankind to attempt to control nature. I believe a more humble approach will help us prepare better against further disasters.

On the other hand, starting to conduct new investigations, I have recently begun to appreciate the wonder of nature as well. I have a sense of both the power and wonder of nature. I study the ecosystems of fish that migrate between rivers and oceans, such as salmon, Japanese ayu and eels. After the disaster I investigated the local rivers in the affected areas and surprisingly found a great number of ayu living in them. This was a huge surprise.

Ayu hatch in the autumn and, after spending six months maturing in the sea, swim upriver the following April or May. When the massive tsunami hit Otsuchi, a large number of tiny ayu fry must have been living in the sea off Otsuchi. Thinking logically, the fish should have been hugely impacted by the tsunami, but somehow the local rivers were full of ayu, as if nothing had happened. How on earth did they manage to survive the impact of the tsunami?

Interviewer: That’s incredible. But how did they manage to survive?

Otake: That is what I’m planning to investigate now. I’m very much looking forward to finding the answer.

In my career as a researcher, I have never felt the profound depth of nature’s mechanisms more deeply than I have since this disaster. Observing the ayu after the disaster has changed my perspective on nature and my perspective on living creatures.

The species now living on the Earth have survived disasters like this many times over many hundreds of millions of years. Understanding how they survived past disasters will surely give us important insights into the mechanisms of evolution. This latest disaster was so big that it wouldn’t have been surprising if no fish survived at all. But even so, the ayu survived the tsunami and migrated up local rivers as usual. It’s just astounding. The magnanimity and greatness of nature… If we can understand its wonders, it will show us the way to a better coexistence with nature and more sustainable use of the valuable resources that nature provides.

Interviewed at the Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute at the Kashiwa campus on June 28, 2011

Interviewer: Osamu Shimizu (University of Tokyo Public Relations Office)

Professor Tsuguo Otake. Photo: Jun'ichi Kaizuka.

Professor Tsuguo Otake

Professor and Director of the International Coastal Research Center, Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute, the University of Tokyo. Earned a bachelor’s degree in 1976 and a PhD in fisheries science in 1986, both from the University of Tokyo. Became a research associate at the University of Tokyo’s Ocean Research Institute (later, Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute) in 1983. Joined the Department of Bioresources, Mie University as an associate professor in 1997 and became professor in 2001. Returned to the University of Tokyo to become director of the International Coastal Research Center Ocean Research Institute in 2004.