Hanōkizawa-san tells me to stop the car, and from the backseat points at an anonymous granite cliffside ten meters away. “There,” he says. “That’s where it came from.” We are driving south along a paved road built against the cliffs that fall into the Pacific outside the Japanese village of Yoshihama. He wants to show Yu Wada-Dimmer, our interpreter, and me the origin of the tsunami ishi, or “tsunami stone” that appeared on Yoshihama’s beach when the high waters of the 1933 tsunami receded. The stone, once used as a warning to low-living villagers, was then buried by man in the sixties, only to be unburied when the ocean surged inland once more on the afternoon of Friday, March 11, 2011.
I can just barely discern the scar of a large boulder ripped clean from the crag, but it could be the former home of any rock that has since tumbled to a saline grave. Eighty-five years have passed since 1933. Hanōkizawa is now 89, which means he was a child, four or five, when it happened. “How do you know this is where it came from?” I ask. “Because my father told me,” he replies.
The ocean defines Japan’s Sanriku coastline, from the lush green pine cascades into the blue Pacific to the maritime livelihoods that coalesced humans into the hamlets, villages, and cities dotting the coast of the modern-day northeastern prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate, and Aomori. But the same sea that sustained these communities also destroyed them. In 869, and then again in 1611, Sanriku shook and the ocean roared across land to claim lives. The apocalyptic power of the latter event birthed a new word to describe it: tsunami (“harbor wave”).
In 1896, an 8.5-magnitude earthquake touched off what was then the tallest tsunami in the known history of the island nation. Measuring as high as 125 feet, it devastated Sanriku. More than 22,000 Japanese died, 204 of them in the low-lying village of Yoshihama in what is now Iwate Prefecture. Having seen nearly twenty percent of his people die, the community’s leader, Buemon Nīnuma, decided Yoshihama should relocate to higher ground. By the time the next tsunami struck Yoshihama, in 1933, the majority of the village had moved, and only seventeen died.
But as the waters retreated, a curious artifact appeared: a thirty-five-ton granite boulder, ripped from a seaside cliff and deposited a few hundred meters away, on the upper reaches of the beach at the head of Yoshihama Bay. The stone was a grim symbol of what would happen should the community return to lower lands. Yoshihama understood. Its residents etched the facts of how it came to be into the tsunami ishi’s surface. They completed their relocation, and rice paddies replaced their abandoned homes. Time passed, and with it, the lives and memories of 1933 and the meaning of the stone itself. It became simply an erratic object, carven with the story of a forgotten danger. An obstacle to a new coastal road. And so it was buried beneath the loose earth, paved over, and forgotten.
Yoshihama’s was not the only stone to inscribe the lessons of history upon the landscape. There are now thought to be hundreds of tsunami stones and markers along the Sanriku coastline. The oldest is a small rock that recorded a tsunami in 896 A.D. But they are, with the exception of Yoshihama’s, man-made. Which is to say that locals in tsunami-affected areas either built markers or used a stone with no physical connection to oceanic cataclysm. To Hanōkizawa’s knowledge, Yoshihama’s is the only one both tsunami-borne and man-inscribed.
When Yu and I pulled into the vacant parking lot of the Yoshihama train station one morning this May, we weren’t sure we were in the right place. We verified that the nondescript building, which doubles as a municipal office and community gathering place for the roughly 1,500 village residents, was in fact the location where we had arranged to meet Masao Hanōkizawa, the local octogenarian who seemed to pop up in every post-2011 report that mentioned Yoshihama and its stone.
Then, Hanōkizawa appeared through the glass doors. Stooped, shuffling, he wore a bucket cap and gold-rimmed glasses with squared lenses. He had on a light jacket to break the chill of a layer of maritime fog, and a leather belt held his slacks above some kind of slip-on walking shoe. Jowls pulled his mouth into a permanent frown over a jutting chin. He walked us to his home to talk. I seated myself at his horigotatsu, my legs stretching into the recessed floor beneath the low table. Masao Hanōkizawa covered himself with a blanket, offered us green tea, and told me the story of the 2011 tsunami and the unburied stone.
Most afternoons, he walks for an hour. But on Friday, March 11, 2011, he walked in the morning. Descending from the village, across the rice paddies at the mouth of Yoshihama Bay, he found two friends near the road built on top of the tsunami-ishi in 1961. They spoke about the history of Yoshihama, and the buried stone. One of the three, Kakizaki-san, made an off-handed comment, according to Hanōkizawa, “Perhaps someday a tsunami will return to uncover the stone.”
Hanōkizawa was alone in his home that afternoon, watching television, when the earthquake hit. He thought the shaking would stop, but when it did not, he struggled outside through the worsening temblor. He could barely stand. When the power lines stopped swinging and the world stopped moving, he knew a tsunami would follow. He walked to the train station and looked to the bay. Hanōkizawa called it o-tsunami, attaching the honorific prefix, as so many Japanese in the Sanriku region do when describing what they witnessed. He saw the sea dropping before the appearance of three distinct waves, the second reverberating around Yoshihama Bay before pitching the third into a massive wall. The wave looked stories high. Ships rolled and the ocean roared. “Bashan,” he said. The sound of water.
When the sea retreated, his friend Kakizaki returned to the beach. Acres of rice paddies had been wiped clean from the earth, as if they’d never existed. The seawall lay scattered in sections, some of them meters from where they’d once guarded the fields. And the road—only pieces remained. The part where he’d thought the tsunami stone might be buried was gone. There, in what was once a gentle, paved curve, he saw what could have been mistaken for just another rock in a landscape scoured and reeking of salt.
He returned a few weeks later with Hanōkizawa, some shovels, and a bucket. They excavated as much of the stone as they could. As it emerged from the earth, it seemed to match their memories of the tsunami stone’s shape. They filled a bucket from the nearby river and washed away the dirt. Kanji characters appeared in the rock surface: tsunami ishi.
Yoshihama, which suffered only one death in the 2011 tsunami, has since rallied around the stone as a community. Led by a descendant of Buemon Nīnuma, Hanokizawa and other locals raised 900,000 yen (~8,000 USD) to supplement a government grant of 1.2 million yen (~10,000 USD) to fund the partial excavation of the thirty-five-ton rock. A local author wrote a tsunami awareness book that features a hand-drawn children’s story about the stone alongside adult-oriented material, and it is not uncommon for schoolchildren to make field trips from across Sanriku to see “the miracle village” and its stone. But the word miracle occults the decades it took for just a few hundred residents to complete what would seem like a common-sense move to high ground in a tsunami-prone area. It conveniently obscures the fact that the stone, the only enduring symbol of the lesson of 1896, reinforced once again in 1933, was forgotten by the very people who had inscribed meaning into its surface. It was paved over, lost to the comfort of a nationwide warning system and the swell of technology that supported it, and engulfed by that most human fallibility: memory.
It’s hard not to contrast Yoshihama with Tōni, a village one stop north on the singular rail line that winds up the Sanriku coast. The 1896 tsunami killed eleven hundred out of twelve hundred residents there, but the village didn’t relocate until after the 1933 tsunami. For a few decades, no one lived low. Then someone built among the rice paddies once more. Then another and still one more and again until the village had repopulated the once-abandoned ground. In 2011, history inevitably repeated itself. I can find no record of a tsunami stone, man-made or otherwise, in Tōni prior to 2011. Several have been built since.
We step from the car upon the surface of what I suppose is a parking lot, but is really nothing more than the littoral hardscrabble of driven-upon beachhead: weeds, gravel, dirt. To our east, the sea; to our west, the rebuilt road upon its thirty-foot embankment; to the north, the river that separates us from the reconstructed seawall gleaming white-gray.
The village had initially sought to completely excavate the stone and move it to high ground, but the cost was prohibitive, so they settled on preserving it in its place. A small concrete pad littered with rocks and dirt surrounds it. The signpost nearby tells the story. Gulls keen while an onshore breeze pushes wisps of the persistent offshore fog over the ground. And here is the thing itself—an enormous boulder whose base rounds into the earth. Its lines suggest movement, as if interrupted mid-roll. I feel the cool friction of granite crystal against my palm and fingertips, and I cannot comprehend the force that rent this immoveable thing from its home eighty years ago. I am made breathless by its gravity.
Yu cranes to place a hand atop the stone, and asks Hanōkizawa something. He nods. This is where he sat. As children, he and Kakizaki would gather rose hips from the wild bushes nearby, then clamber up the stone to dangle their legs over one side. Kakizaki is now dead, leaving Yoshihama with one fewer resident who remembers the stone’s arrival. Hanōkizawa will someday die as well. Before long, the stone will cease to exist as a physical thing anchored in the memories of the living and pass into the ambiguous terrain of interpreted landscape. A history lesson, up for revision.
The risk of collective memory, unmoored—this is what I see in the barren surroundings of the Yoshihama stone. For if there is a surety, it is this: the tsunami will return. The stone, the story passed from father to son, even the newly constructed markers nearby that record the Yoshihama tsunami ishi in verse and prose: they all must compete with the massive inertia of human memory and behavior, a tide rising in slow motion to remake the world around it.
Matthew Komatsu is an Alaska Air National Guardsman whose writing was recently anthologized in The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers and The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Essays from The Normal School. This essay was one of a series of stories about the 2011 Japan tsunami made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, and does not represent official policy or position.