Omar Bustamente/FUSION

The festival of Obon, which marks the middle of summer, is sort of like a Japanese Day of the Dead. According to tradition, the spirits of the deceased come back to our world for a few days. People return to their hometowns, light fires at night, and remember their ancestors.

In Onagawa, a tiny fishing village in northern Japan, locals celebrated Obon in a gravel lot a stone’s throw from the sea. Gathering after sunset on a breezy August night, families sat on cushions around a dozen fire pits and talked quietly. The smell of smoke filled the air as kids ran around playing with sparklers. A local food truck sold shaved ice and hot dogs slathered with spaghetti sauce.

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Toshihiko Abe, a local government official with greying hair and a gravely voice, was one of the people tending a fire. “The people who have died return to the Earth for one day,” Abe explained to me. “We light the fires so the people returning don’t get lost on the way back.”

Obon has a special relevance here. Onagawa was one of the towns that was most heavily damaged by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011. The disaster destroyed 75% of the town’s buildings and killed 827 people here, almost one in 10 local residents. Many have still never been found, their bodies swept into the sea.

Omar Bustamente/FUSION
Omar Bustamente/FUSION

This gravel lot used to be the heart of downtown Onagawa, filed with houses and businesses. Now, like much of the town, it’s empty land—scars left behind by the tsunami.

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As the embers of the fire in front of him died out, Abe recounted that fateful day, March 11. The earthquake struck at 2:46 in the afternoon; the tsunami came about half an hour later. Emergency warning speakers told people to evacuate, but the tallest tsunami that anyone in the area could remember had reached only about five meters. People drove or climbed to somewhere that felt safe. It was an unseasonably cold day, with snow on the ground, so many just stayed in their cars.

“Once they reached a certain height, they turned around and watched,” Abe said. “And by the time they realized it wasn’t safe, it was too late.”

Abe was at a meeting in the local four-story hospital, which sits on a big hill, overlooking the town like a fort. He was safe as the water flooded the town, clawed its way up the hill, and even seeped into the hospital’s first floor—nearly 15 meters in total. Abe and the lucky survivors were stranded on the top floors of the building, but others on their way to shelter didn’t make it.

The hospital’s generator is above the first floor, so it still had electricity in the hours after the tsunami. “In the dark town, the hospital was the only place that had light,” Abe said.

That night, when most of the town was still underwater, victims floating in the dark could see the lights of the hospital above them. “There were a lot of people crying for help in the darkness,” Abe said.

Feeling utterly helpless, he shut the curtains so he didn’t have to see the people trapped below—but he couldn’t block out their cries for help.

Casey Tolan

Four and a half years later, Onagawa remains profoundly scarred by the earthquake and tsunami, simply known as “3/11” in Japan.

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It’s still a beautiful area. The landscape looks kind of like the Pacific Northwest, with big rolling hills blanketed in forests. Mountains cover most of the land in the region, leaving people to fit their lives into the spaces between the sea and the hills. The port is wide open and picturesque, framed by two peaks; it’s been a hub of the region’s fishing industry for more than a century.

I had the chance to visit the town in August as part of a summer school program for Japanese high school kids. I led a seminar on journalism, and interviewed survivors of the tsunami with students from around the country.

It’s hard to compare the town today with the one in videos of the tsunami. In the videos, you see water rising gradually, higher and higher. You think it will end, but it keeps going, with great torrents of debris sweeping along. That town is packed with people, buildings right next to each other—nothing that remains now. The only reference point is the hospital, which still looks out from its hilltop.

The town is now in the middle of an ambitious reconstruction project that is literally reshaping the land it’s built on. While other cities up and down Japan’s tsunami-battered coast are building taller and taller seawalls, officials here are instead cutting down parts of the mountains and raising the land of the town itself in the hopes of protecting it from future tsunamis.

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“This attempt at modifying the physical landscape and raising up the base level of the city, it’s pretty unique,” said Daniel Aldrich, a Northeastern University professor who studies Japanese disaster recovery. “Other countries haven’t used this level of spending to try to mitigate future disasters.”

But Onagawa faces more immediate dangers than the next tsunami. Like many other small, rural towns across the country, especially in the disaster-struck Tohoku region, its population is decreasing and aging rapidly. According to local officials, the population is down from 10,014 before the tsunami to 6,930 today. Even fewer people are probably living here full time. By 2020, more than 36% of residents will be senior citizens. And a lack of jobs and economic opportunities is making young people leave for bigger cities.

There’s still hope for Onagawa. Some newcomers who originally came here to volunteer have decided to stay, and are now launching new businesses and nonprofits aimed at revitalizing the town. And even as they sculpt the land and adapt for the future, locals are determined not to forget what came before.

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A bout a week after the tsunami hit, the leaders of Onagawa gathered to plan the future of their town. Some of them were still searching for lost family members; others had lost their home and all their possessions.

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Yoshiaki Suda, a government official who was born and raised here, was in the nearby big city of Sendai when the tsunami hit. When he came back a few days later, he remembers looking out over the destroyed town and doing math in his head, wondering how long it would take to rebuild. Five years? Ten?

Yoshiaki Suda
Shen Qiu

Now, Suda is the mayor. Forty-two with the face of an actor, he has a strong presence and a loud, enthusiastic voice. Every few minutes, he mops his face with a checkered handkerchief. “We had to rebuild this town from scratch,” Suda told me, sitting in a community center at the heart of the future downtown. “Now, we have a chance to create a new Onagawa.”

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They decided to start rebuilding right away, and consolidate buildings near the downtown area. Locals say that quick decision-making has paid off. A lot of the town still looks empty, but the rebuilding process is actually going faster here than in other tsunami-stricken municipalities, according to researchers who have studied recovery efforts in the region. Unlike in other cities where some people lost everything and others were unaffected, almost everyone in Onagawa lost a house or a friend.

The first challenge was removing the 440,000 tons of debris that covered the town after the water receded: scattered wood and metal, totaled cars, skeletons of houses, and even reinforced concrete buildings flipped on their side. The debris was broken down, sorted out, and checked for radiation before being shipped to scrap dealers and landfills around the country. (Onagawa is 100 miles north of the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster; its own local nuclear power plant survived intact.)

Now, locals have turned to address the land itself. After the land raising project is finished, no houses will be allowed to be built below 15 meters above sea level (high enough to protect them from the 2011 tsunami). Most public and commercial buildings, including the downtown area, will be five meters above sea level, the height of a tsunami that hit the town in 1960. Only fishing facilities will be allowed at sea level. Residents will be able to reach high ground within 30 minutes from anywhere in the town.

Onagawa government

“The most important thing we think about in rebuilding the town is how to avoid the damage if the same tsunami came again,” said Hisashi Kii, a policy coordinator from the national government who’s leading the rebuilding work.

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Construction is scheduled to be completed in 2019, and is now about halfway finished. In all, it’s expected to cost more than $1 billion, with funding from the national and local governments.

Construction equipment at work on the land-raising project.
Casey Tolan

While other communities in northern Japan are also raising their land, Onagawa’s rebuilding plan is one of the most ambitious efforts. And it’s different from the typical tsunami response in Japan and elsewhere: build a higher seawall. Seawalls guard more than 40% of the country’s coastline, but experts say that seawalls just aren’t that effective at stopping tsunamis: they can only guard against waves as tall as they're built, and can lull people into a false sense of security.

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But not everyone is convinced that the land-raising project is the best idea. Aldrich, the Northeastern professor, said while it’s a unique solution, it’s expensive and has downsides. “Landfill-based products are very susceptible to liquefaction during seismic activity,” he said. In other words, if there’s a really bad earthquake, it’s possible that some buildings could sink into the newly moved land. (Local experts say they’ve made extensive calculations and claim the new land will be safe.)

Until the work is done, huge swathes of the town remain off-limits to permanent development. That means that most people are still living in temporary housing, in rows of simple, metal housing blocks squeezed into just about anywhere there’s room. One housing block is built in the middle of the town’s baseball field—a ring of bleachers surrounds it, as if the residents’ lives are the game.

Rows of temporary housing stand in a former baseball field.
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The housing tends to be hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and there isn’t much in the way of amenities inside. Especially for locals used to living in single-family homes, moving into such a small space has been an adjustment. “We can hear our neighbors’ voices really well,” said Takashi Ito, 47, a construction supervisor. “There’s next to no privacy.”

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Suda, the mayor, is one of the people living in temporary housing. He’s sharing a housing unit with his wife, mother, and two children. “It’s about eight meters per person,” he said. “It’s very small.” But he’s not complaining. “I wouldn’t get re-elected if I left temporary housing before most people,” he said, laughing.

The centerpiece of the town’s reconstruction—and what many hope is a sign of things to come—is a new, modern train station building designed by the renowned architect Shigeru Ban (who also built one of the nicer temporary housing blocks). The white roof stretches over the station like the wings of a bird. Inside, there’s a gorgeous public bath, lined with blue and white tiles, where locals come to relax and chat. The original Onagawa station was swept away like most of the downtown, so when the trains started running again this March for the first time since the tsunami, it felt like a victory.

The new train station and public bath building.
Casey Tolan

“Designing temporary housing, designing a train station, it’s the same,” Ban told me in a phone interview. “After the mental damage of a disaster, people should see something beautiful.”

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With the downtown raised to a safe height, officials are moving forward with landscaping. Suda likes to show off colorful designs of what the downtown will look like: a tree-lined promenade down to the sea, with businesses filling the now-empty lots.

“I want people who left Onagawa to regret not staying,” he exclaims, slapping his hand on his knee. “There’ll be a new generation coming after mine, and we need to be responsible for them.”

Casey Tolan

Of course, there’s no guarantee that that next generation—the one that local officials are spending more than a billion dollars to keep safe—will want to stay in Onagawa. The biggest long-term challenge for the city is perhaps not rebuilding its physical infrastructure but preserving its social fabric.

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Across Japan, young people are moving out of small towns like Onagawa. Even before the tsunami hit, the best and brightest here would decamp to Tokyo, Sendai, or other big cities. Now, when faced with uncomfortable temporary housing and a job shortage, it’s no wonder that the population has declined by almost a third since before 2011.

At the same time, newcomers who have moved into the town since the tsunami are some of the leaders working hardest to revitalize Onagawa. While most of the government officials and business owners directing the rebuilding tend to wear suits—or at least the typical Japanese salaryman outfit of a white button-up shirt and black slacks—Yosuke Komatsu, 32, is more fond of colorful graphic T-shirts and cut-off jean shorts. He has shaggy hair and a quick grin.

Yosuke Komatsu
Nippon Foundation

Originally from Sendai, Komatsu was a star employee at Recruit, a high-profile advertising firm, when the tsunami hit. He took time off work to volunteer in the Onagawa area, coming back weekend after weekend, and quickly realized that government recovery funding could “construct new buildings but not bring the town back to life.”

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So Komatsu, uninspired and unfulfilled in his corporate job, quit and relocated to Onagawa. He launched a nonprofit called Asu e no Kibou, which means Hope for Tomorrow. It’s a business incubator aimed at restarting the town’s small business community.

“I’m most excited when I feel like I’m needed by someone, when I can help someone,” Komatsu said. “This is my mission.”

The first project he helped start was a hotel called El Faro, which opened in December 2012. The tsunami washed away four family-run inns in the area, which had all been operating for years, and Komatsu helped the four owners pool their resources. The city government offered them free land, but because the land raising was still in progress, they weren’t allowed to construct permanent structures.

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So the innkeepers came up with a novel solution. From a distance, El Faro—“lighthouse” in Spanish—looks like a colorful little village, several dozen pastel-colored cabins clustered together. In fact, each cabin is a trailer house, built on a wheeled bed that can be driven around. Some day, they’ll have to move, but for now, it’s surprisingly homely. Many guests don't even realize they're living on wheels.

El Faro hotel looks like a little colorful village.
Casey Tolan

Since then, Komatsu’s organization has helped start other businesses, like a local restaurant and a tile-painting group run by local housewives. He has plans to attract freelancers and other people who work online.

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Komatsu says he’s been inspired by multiple trips to see the post-Katrina recovery in New Orleans. He talked to city leaders in government, nonprofits, and businesses, and was most impressed by how many volunteers—like him—ended up staying permanently. “People who came to New Orleans for volunteering came back to live there, or start businesses,” he says. “It was an important part of their recovery cycle.”

Deng Chou
Shen Qiu

Some people, like Deng Chou, are coming to Onagawa from even farther away. Deng, who is from Wuhan, a city in central China, works at a tourism business promoting the town’s fishing industry. Visitors experience shelling their own seafood, and learn about how fishing works. “I have very high hope for the recovery of the fishing industry,” Deng told me, sitting outside near the visitor center, not far from the port. The smell of recently-shucked scallops hung in the air, and a white cat with sky-blue eyes padded around the lot.

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Deng, 33, came to Onagawa for love. He met his wife, a Japanese woman from the town, while they were working at a call center in China. The couple came back to Onagawa for the birth of their first daughter, in February 2011, two and a half weeks before the tsunami. He went back to work in China on March 8, three days before it hit.

A thousand miles away, Deng didn’t know if his family was alive or dead. He desperately scoured the internet for news, but he couldn’t read Japanese and Facebook was blocked in China. Finally, after a week, he got a call from his wife—she had escaped, climbing to the third floor of the town hospital.

Deng moved to Onagawa permanently last year. Now, he’s taking classes to improve his Japanese and living with his wife and in-laws. Adjusting to the corporate culture has been challenging, he said—people here are more cautious than he’s used to, and not as willing to take risks. But he’s been pushing them forward, helping the tourism company develop its website, for example.

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“After the earthquake, the fishing industry was devastated,” Deng said. While the number of fisherman and the total catch is still down, fishing revenues in 2015 topped the year preceding the tsunami. There’s also a new fish processing facility, paid for by a grant from the Qatari government. The industry is critical to the town’s future success; about 70% of the jobs here are connected to fishing or fish processing.

Deng says he felt like he had to give back, had to help his adopted hometown rebuild. “I feel an attachment to Onagawa—not just because that’s where my wife is from, but because my family survived the tsunami,” he said. “I want to play a role in the town’s future.”

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No one remembered the last time Onagawa had suffered such a devastating tsunami.

The magnitude of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami shocked seismologists, who had believed that nothing of that scale was possible in the region. They went back and examined sediment samples, using carbon dating to conclude that an equally titanic wave had flooded a similar area more than a thousand years ago. The archives in Kyoto, the imperial capital at the time, briefly mention a strong earthquake in what is now Tohoku on July 9, 869:

The sea surface suddenly rose up and the huge waves attacked the land. They raged like nightmares, and immediately reached the city center. The waves spread thousands of yards from the beach, and we could not see how large the devastated area was. The fields and roads completely sank into the sea. About one thousand people drowned in the waves, because they failed to escape either offshore or uphill from the waves.

Onagawa during the 1960 earthquake.
U.S. Geological Survey

But before 2011, no one knew how strong that ninth century tsunami actually was, or the extent of damage possible. The tallest tsunami to hit Onagawa in living memory, which came in 1960 after an earthquake near Chile sent waves across the Pacific, reached only five meters. A lot of the locals who were alive then assumed tsunamis couldn’t possibly tower any taller, so they didn’t bother to climb higher when the warning sirens started ringing in 2011. The problem, as Kathryn Schulz explained in a New Yorker article about the possibility of a tsunami in the Pacific Northwest, is that the recurrence interval of huge earthquakes and tsunamis lasts longer than a human lifetime, and the recurrence interval of the worst disasters lasts longer than many civilizations survive.

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So while it seems like everyone in Onagawa is focused on the future—the rebuilding, the repopulation plans, the opportunity to create a new town—there are also those who are working to make sure that no one living here ever forgets what happened four years ago, even after hundreds of years have gone by.

Of course, it's hard to do that when the past has been destroyed. Our memories are rooted in places: the playgrounds you went to with your parents, the street corner where you met your best friend, the restaurant where you shared a first dinner with your spouse. For the people of Onagawa, all of those references, all those memories, were washed away.

For the Obon celebration in 2012—the first after the tsunami—locals lit the traditional fires in the foundations of their old homes, going back to where they lived to remember those they had lost. Now, even those foundations are gone, buried under new land. Kumi Aizawa, a journalist from Tokyo who runs a news website about natural disasters, put it to me best: “The tsunami takes your memories, all the good memories and the bad memories,” she said. “After the tsunami, you start to lose the memories, and it hurts.”

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People preserve those memories in different ways. Kieko Hiratsuka, a 70-year-old store owner with a single gold tooth, has lived in Onagawa her whole life. She runs a tiny convenience store, its shelves stuffed to bursting with snacks and sake bottles, protected behind bars in case there’s an earthquake. The regulars—mostly construction workers and old men—are most interested in the cigarettes behind the counter.

When newcomers come by her store, Hiratsuka takes out a black photo album, the kind that other people put photos of their kids or their wedding in. Her album is full of photos of debris, of wrecked buildings, one shot after another of the destruction the tsunami left behind.

On the day it hit, she climbed up a mountain to escape. “I looked down, and everything was destroyed,” she says. “It was like a dream.” She remembers seeing a fridge balanced perfectly on the top of a house, left there by the wave.

Temporary housing blocks in Onagawa.
Casey Tolan

Memories like that are a frequent topic of discussion at a small senior center in a temporary housing block down the road. About 10 older women gather there for tea every few mornings. The center is bright and airy, with cheery handmade posters on the wall.

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Taniyo Shizukuishi tends to be the center of attention, and at 94 years old, she deserves it. A tiny woman with a deeply lined face, wearing a white, faded robe with a pink flower pattern, she launched into her story as soon as I sat down across from her. She’s experienced three tsunamis in her life, but 3/11 was by far the worst. “It was such a big tsunami,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut. “We couldn’t understand what was happening.”

She thinks Onagawa will be back to what it was in 10 years, but she wants to leave the reconstruction up to the younger people. When her husband built their home in Onagawa, he told her it was safe. After all, the worst tsunami in recent memory never reached there. So when they lost everything, she says, she was shocked. “Disasters happen when we forget,” she said. “Those are the most important words.”

And then she walked off, by herself, into the sunny morning.

Shunya Kimura, center, and a monument he helped build.
Makoto Shinzo

I t’s not just the older people who are thinking about how to keep people from forgetting. Town officials fret about the younger generation packing up and leaving for big cities. But many of those who were kids when the tsunami hit are now only more determined to serve their community.

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Shunya Kimura was 12, a student in sixth grade, when the tsunami hit. He remembers hiding under desks with his classmates, how it felt like “the shaking continued forever.” Windows fell and shattered in his homeroom, and “I thought I would die here,” he said.

“Of course we had training for when a tsunami comes,” Kimura said. But in the moment, he didn’t need it—“we ran without thinking.”

He trod up a snow-covered hill to the municipal gymnasium. It was a bustling center of activity, with kids of all ages clustered together and teachers trying to keep them calm. They called students’ names when parents arrived to pick them up. But Kimura waited and waited, and his name wasn’t called.

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As the hours went by, he thought about how close his mother lived to the ocean. He listened to the sounds of the building trembling in the small aftershocks. That sound terrified him; he couldn’t sleep. Kimura went outside into the cold, where people were burning bonfires of newspapers. He sat by a fire, and spent the night wondering what he would do without his parents.

Finally, the next morning, they arrived, safe. But he lost his grandmother, the relative who he thought had the best chance of surviving—she lived in a four-story apartment building.

“When I heard it at first, I didn’t cry,” Kimura said. “Days and days later, I cried because I realized the days I had before were not coming back.”

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Now, the boy scared of sounds is a 17-year-old who has grown up fast. He has a buzzcut and glasses, a serious disposition and a clear, confident voice. In elementary school, he says, he liked to play by himself or read books, but now, he’s focused on making a difference. “I think it changed me,” Kimura said of the tsunami. “It made me strong.”

In the past few years, he and a group of his classmates have embarked on a project to build a series of memorials around the town. They’ve raised money to build seven so far, big stone blocks telling people to get to as high ground as they can. “People didn’t evacuate because they thought the tsunami wouldn’t reach them,” Kimura said. “We thought we had to record this tsunami so it doesn’t happen again.”

On a late summer afternoon a few weeks ago, one of those monuments stood solemnly on a hill next to the middle school. It looked down on the bay and the construction work in the city center below. Etched into the stone was a message in Japanese, English, French, and Chinese, telling people to drag their friends to higher ground if they refuse to come.

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Kimura hopes it's a message that will last until the next big wave hits—even if that isn't for another thousand years.

"Nature is very strong, very big, so I couldn't win against this tsunami," he said. "I couldn’t help people. But if people remember this tsunami, more people will survive in the future."

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.