The Wind Phone of Otsuchi

Japan is a place of staggering natural beauty. It’s one of the many reasons people across the globe wish to visit this magnificent country. Whilst tourists marvel in the fantastic scenery the country has to offer, it’s geography sadly comes with great dangers.

On March 11th, 2011, Japan suffered it’s most powerful earthquake ever, registering in at a magnitude of 9.1. It triggered a devastating tsunami, reaching heights of up to some 40m in the Iwate prefecture. The total damages were estimated to be about $360 billion USD, with an estimated 20,000 people sadly losing their lives or deemed missing.

The town of Watari, a day after the tsunami (Yasuaki Sako, 2011)

10 years on, Japan is looking back at the progress it has made to repair the worst affected prefectures, through hosting virtual exhibitions and memorial ceremonies. This also includes numerous articles from global news services looking back at what was deemed the world’s costliest natural disaster.

Watching the scenes that were shared across the world of the widespread destruction, it could be said that no one could imagine how these towns and cities could ever return to how they once were.

Workers inspect a control room in the Daiichi Power Plant (Akira Kodaka, 2019)

One of the worst events of the disaster was the meltdown of the nuclear reactor at the Daiichi Power Plant in Fukushima, which continues to release radiation in the area to this day. The cleanup effort has been a massive logistical challenge to the Japanese Government, bringing up many ethical questions as to how to remove and store contaminated soil, or how to flush away the now tainted cooling water, with one option being to simply dump it all into the Pacific Ocean (read more here).

Stories from the people who lived through the disaster are haunting yet moving to read and listen to. The spirit of the communities to return to their homelands is inspirational. I am moved by the attitudes of the people that will not let disaster take away their memories of their societies, their livelihoods and their family and friends.

A new viaduct built further from the shoreline, serving the JR Senseki Line (Akira Kodaka, 2015)

I mentioned how I would like to visit these areas in a future visit to Japan, as some of the repair work to these settlements has been nothing but astonishing. Since the disaster, there have been international rugby matches held in new stadiums, community fishing events and amazing firework festivals. Infrastructure has also improved for the better, incase of future disasters, such as bigger flood defenses and better protected evacuation zones.

The reason I enjoy reading into Japanese culture and their way of life is mostly due to the fact that everything can simplified into their purest forms. I admire seeing how they embrace harmony and balance into a world that can throw chaos and extreme challenges at any turn. There is a lot of admiration to be had for the Japanese people, and I certainly love the way that memories of lost loved ones live on in spirit.

In one of the worst-affected prefectures, Iwate, there is a town called Otsuchi.

In a hilltop garden above the town, stands a white phone box. In the three years after the tsunami, it is believed that 10,000 people made the journey to this phone box.

Inside the Wind Phone (Mikinee, 2019)

They call the phone number of a lost loved one.

People experiencing grief make the journey to the phone box and make a one-way call, to update their friends and relatives who passed away, on things going on their lives, or to express the feelings they believe they need to share in order to move on.

Set up by Itaru Sasaki in 2010 to deal with the loss of his cousin to cancer, the townspeople of Otsuchi, where 10% of the population lost their lives in the flood, began to use it too. Word spread across the land, and people from all over make the pilgrimage there to use the Wind Phone.

Japan suffered it’s greatest natural disaster, creating scenes that shocked the world. A decade later, lots of progress has been made to bring back these thriving communities along the East Coast of Japan.

The rebuilt streets of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture (Eugene Hoshiko, 2021)

There is however still a long way to go, yet the spirit and determination of the Japanese people to regain what was lost, and the unique and beautiful way they deal with their grief, is something of which I have great admiration for.

If you wish to learn more about the stories relating the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake, I highly recommend the well produced and sensitive documentaries created on the Abroad in Japan Channel, which you can watch here.

To learn more about the Phone of the Wind, I recommend this lovely video available on the BBC World Service, check it out here.

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