As 2:46 p.m. approached on the afternoon of March 11, 2011, thousands of people in east Japan had no idea that, within an hour, many of them would be displaced or dead.

The 9.0 earthquake that struck a 250-mile stretch of coastline – and the tsunami that had arrived by 3 p.m. – killed 15,883 people, injured 6,146, left 2,654 missing and caused $235 billion in damage. It was the largest quake ever measured in Japan and the fifth largest ever recorded.

In its aftermath, roughly 16.3 million tons of debris had piled up on the Japanese coast, and 220,000 tons found its way to America’s West Coast.

That was the subject of Kensaku Tanaka’s presentation, “The Japanese Tsunami: Before, During and After,” delivered at Cannon Beach City Hall and Seaside Public Library Sept. 11 and 12, respectively – exactly 2 1/2 years after the event. This reporter attended the Seaside version.

Tanaka, a photographer and university assistant in Japan, has been documenting the debris cleanup effort on the Japan and Oregon coasts and shared his reflections on the disaster. His translator, Makoto Okamoto, a retired professor of socio-linguistics, touched on the tsunami’s continuing impact along Pacific coastlines and weighed in on the state of tsunami preparedness in Cannon Beach and Seaside.

“Where I live is 700 kilometers away (from Tohoku), so people even like me, since the distance is so far, I felt particularly nothing on that day,” Okamoto translated.

Tanaka chose to deal with his apathy by photographing the sites of Tohoku and making his photos public so that others would keep the event in mind, he said.

Both Tanaka, 26, and Okamoto, 73, are Japanese natives who originally traveled to the North Coast to participate in Solve, an Oregon nonprofit devoted to cleaning up the state’s rivers and beaches, including the removal of tsunami debris.

When they arrived on the North Coast, however, they noticed something heartening: There was no debris in sight.

“The beach is very clean,” Okamoto said.

Jenee Pearce-Mushen, a Solve coordinator, persuaded them to deliver a lecture and slideshow featuring Tanaka’s own photographs taken throughout the debris field at and around Tohoku, the region hit hardest by the earthquake and tsunami.

In addition to stock aerial photos taken of the country’s coastline before and after the tsunami – photos which show entire towns either wasted and browned by salt water or entirely submerged beneath the ocean – Tanaka offered more personal glimpses of the devastation seen through his own lens.

The more haunting images included a Coca-Cola vending machine standing upright and alone in the middle of a muddy rice field; a large upright fishing vessel cast ashore on its hull, which stood as an uncomfortable reminder of that day before the locals decided to remove it; two gravestones, a husband and wife, still intact and side-by-side while the rest of the cemetery lay in ruins; and an empty preschool that had been repeatedly pummeled by the tsunami waves.

Okamoto recounted a story about that preschool.

After the earthquake, the teachers led the children to higher ground, and all 240 of them survived. Earlier in the day, however, seven children had gone home, and they were all killed.

“We often used to say, ‘On this very day, what were you doing?’ in Japan – just as American people would have said, ‘What were you doing on 9/11?” Okamoto translated.

Okamoto listed six helpful rules to follow in case of an impending tsunami.

• When the quaking stops, evacuate immediately.

• Evacuate away from the inundation area and toward a higher elevation.

• Avoid rivers, which may flood and overwhelm you.

• Remember that tsunamis come in waves, so do not return to lower ground until all waves have subsided.

• When you evacuate, walk; using vehicles is likely to cause congestion and you may become stranded.

• Finally, evacuate only yourself, but be sure to yell “Evacuate” to others as you do so.

Okamoto gave an idea of how easily and quickly one can become helpless during a tsunami.

Between 30 centimeters to 1 meter of water depth, you can’t move around easily. Between 1 to 2 meters, you drown. Between 2 to 5 meters, most houses are destroyed, some pushed off of their foundations. And between 5 and 10 meters, two-story houses are submerged.

“I hope you understand the metric system not only during the time of the Olympics,” Okamoto joked.

Pearce-Mushen said that what audience members should have taken from the lecture is that a tsunami can happen in any coastal area, and “we can never be too prepared.”

“We should just try to do the best we can because the more we know, the better we are,” she advised.


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