When the tsunami hit the northeast coast of Japan in 2011, the devastating effects were measured in numbers that were hard to grasp.
Waves 40 metres high that went 10 kilometres inland, thousands dead, tens of thousands hurt, hundreds of thousands homeless.
The earthquake that caused the tsunami was the fourth strongest in recorded history. It moved the main Japanese island of Honshu more than 2 metres to the east and shifted the axis of the entire planet by up to 25 centimetres.
From the economic perspective, it’s estimated the natural disaster caused about US$360 billion dollars worth of damage… and its effects continue to be felt today.
And it’s when you look at the effects that are still be felt today that you realise the real stories are not the big numbers, but the small figures. People like Hiroshi Sasaki.
Sasaki Sake Brewery, Miyagi, Japan
Hiroshi Sasaki is from the small town of Yuriage on the coast of Miyagi Prefecture. Before the tsunami, he was running a sake brewery there, making the traditional Japanese rice wine.
When the destructive waves hit in March 2011, they wiped out the infrastructure of his business, as you can see in these before and after photos.
The whole town of Yuriage was hit hard. Almost all the buildings were destroyed and about 750 of its residents were killed. It was devastating, in every sense of the word.
But Hiroshi was determined to get his Sasaki Sake Brewery back into operation quickly… somehow.
It wasn’t just about his business. In fact, that wasn’t the main motivation. For him, it was about giving Yuriage something to be proud of, to prove that not all was lost.
“After everything had been washed away and there was nothing left there, people were so desperate,” he tells me.
“People around town were saying that this area was over and we can’t ever revitalise it again. There was so much negative information at the time.”
“So I thought, well, we have a skill to make sake and to raise crops. So we have to show other people that we can do this, that we can revitalise this city ourselves!”
I meet Hiroshi at his temporary sake brewery in a small business park about three kilometres inland from the original site.
From the outside, it looks like the large nondescript temporary buildings you often see in industrial areas – aluminium frames with corrugated steel walls. Once you’re inside, though, it is full of activity with brewing equipment everywhere.
As well as the actual production, some sections are being used for bottling and packaging, others for business and administration. It’s open plan and, if you stood in the centre, you could probably witness the entire process just by spinning in a circle.
The temporary Sasaki Brewery took a little while to open but, in a relative sense, it was quite quick considering the damage.
They had lost all of their old equipment but they were able to buy new equipment because of donations that had come in from all across Japan – and the world. Some people were donating to general appeals for tsunami recovery but others made specific donations to the Sasaki Brewery because they could see the passion the company had to bring activity back to the region.
They’ve been operating out of this industrial park for about six years now. And the idea to inspire others to help revitalise the area has worked.
“The local young people especially responded to it,” Hiroshi says, “and they started new businesses around here.”
Although not directly a result of anything Hiroshi has done, the morning market at the Yuriage Port has also been rebuilt and it now has more visitors than it did before the tsunami. And the fishing industry, in particular, has rebounded and set up factories and processing facilities.
It’s interesting, because the fishing industry is one of the main reasons that the Sasaki Sake Brewery even exists. It was started in 1871 to make sake for all the fishermen who lived and worked in the town and along the coast.
Hiroshi is the fifth owner of the company and it has always been in his family’s hands, passed down through the generations. Hiroshi would help his father out when he was a kid and became full time at the business until about 16 years ago when he was 25.
That’s obviously another reason that he had such a motivation to get the business operating again. He has a family legacy to protect and he was not going to be the generation that broke the tradition.
The current temporary site is about a third of the size of the original brewery and the business is producing less than half of what it was previously. But this is still early days in the broader scheme of recovery.
The plan is to start construction on a new factory later in 2018 and have it open by the middle of 2019.
Hiroshi says he wants to build the new brewery on the same site as the old one. Not just for tradition, but as a symbol that Yuriage has not been defeated.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Visit Miyagi but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.