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After the Tsunami

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Matthew Komatsu | LongreadsMarch 2019 | 24 minutes (6,092 words)

This piece was supported by the Pulitzer Center. 

Ichi (One)

Obā-san tasted ash. Yes: ash and dust. Her youngest son’s kanji and hiragana on paper could not assuage the bitter news the letter delivered: that her youngest son would not return from America to his hometown of Kesennuma, Japan. He would stay to marry the American woman who carried his child. Dishonor. Shame. Betrayal. And I was the ash she tasted: the end of the pure line of the Komatsu name. Nothing more than an accidental flutter in the brine of my mother’s womb.

My grandmother would not have considered this metaphor of the sea, despite the proximity of her home to it, the wind-borne scent of the waterfront fish market and processing plants mere blocks away, burbling down the streets, seeping through the window and door cracks of her home. And beyond, the vast blue-gray of the Pacific Ocean, heaving and rolling the life it contained. She would not have thought of the sea’s power to both create and destroy.


A soccer ball washes ashore on Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska. On it, handwritten script in permanent marker that identifies its origin as a grade school in Rikuzentakata, Japan, 30 minutes north of Kesennuma. Its owner, Misaki Murakami, survived the tsunami but his family lost their home. It is a personal effect recovered from his home. On one of the panels are kanji characters inscribed by a classmate that read Ganbatte. Good luck.


I can only imagine what changed Obā’s heart. Perhaps it was my grandfather. According to my father, Ojī was more sympathetic. It was Ojī who responded to my father’s letter to say that he understood. Or maybe the simple need of a grandparent to hold her grandchild eroded her pride. But these are all, in a way, little fictions: my American need to emote in conflict with a Japanese inclination to accept.

Regardless, Obā and Ojī came to the United States. I wonder what they thought when they held this chubby black-haired infant boy, whether they struggled to pronounce my English first name. What it felt like to stare into the deep, brown eyes of a grandchild whose blood ran mixed. Or if any of this mattered at all.

What I do know: When Ojī and Obā journeyed halfway across the globe to the unlikely destination of Duluth, Minnesota, they didn’t know my parents arranged to leave me with a family friend at the beginning of a cross-country road trip across America that doubled as both honeymoon and getting-to-know-the-in-laws. When Ojī said goodbye to me, he wept. It was the last time we were together and the only time my dad saw his own father cry. My grandfather died in Japan, in 1987.

The only Japanese uttered in my home was spoken into the telephone on holidays. On those days, I rushed to answer the phone in the hope of hearing the voices of my Japanese relatives. Moshi moshi, came the greeting. When I answered in English, the caller usually responded, Ahhhhh… Toshifumi-san?

Dad, for you.

If my mother answered, the single phrase she knew: Chōttō matte, kudasai. One moment, please. I would sit on the brown shag carpet speckled with gold and red and yellow, my back to the heat vent, shirt lifted so the hot air blew up my skin and ruffled the black hairs on my neck. The book on my lap stayed open to the same page as I listened to one half of a conversation, mouthed words whose accented syllables I will never utter with any meaning. A pause for the delay, then the muffled return. A smile, a laugh, an imperceptible head bow from my father.


A Canadian finds the rusted hulk of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on the shores of British Columbia and traces its license plate to its owner, Ikuo Yokoyama. Photos of the bike reveal a year at sea: spokes rusting away and missing, corrosion widespread across a frame whose gleam has been replaced with a forlorn absorption of the light that reflects upon it. Yokoyama resists an outpouring of internet-fueled financial support to restore the bike and repatriate it. Instead he asks that it be preserved in a museum as is, a memorial to what was lost.


During a precious summer break from the Air Force Academy, I joined a family trip to Japan. Eager to show the Japanese I’d picked up over two years of college classes, I greeted Obā. My father told her that I knew Japanese now, that she should speak to me. We sat down in the living room of the small family home in Kesennuma. The air was heavy with the smell of the nearby ocean, mothballs, dust, and paper. But when she spoke, I could not understand.


Here is a list of Japanese words. Tsunami. Pronounced “tsoo-nah-mee.” Translation: “harbor wave.” E. Pronounced “a-ay.” Interrogative. Translation: “What?” Hayaku. Pronounced “hi-yah-koo.” Translation: “hurry.” Hashitte. Pronounced “hah-shht-ay.” Imperative. Translated to English: “Run.”


Ni (Two)

At 2:46 p.m. on Friday, 11 March 2011, a 100-mile-long section of the Pacific tectonic plate 19 miles deep thrusted beneath Japan. Richter scale needles twitched. Japan shifted eight feet east. The Earth shuddered off-axis. The seabed rose, lifting the ocean above it by 25 feet. All that water had to go somewhere. And it did — away, in a series of waves that raced west at 86 miles per hour. The tsunami made landfall roughly 45 minutes later on the shores of my father’s hometown of Kesennuma in northeast Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture.

My 11 March dawned no different than any other. I woke up and checked Facebook over coffee. My sister posted something about a big earthquake in Japan, but the family was fine. Big earthquake, Japan: happens all the time. I didn’t think much of it during the 45-minute drive from Columbia, South Carolina, to Shaw Air Force Base, NPR now revising the magnitude, the Richter climbing. I paid it no mind during my 12-mile run before work. It was spring in South Carolina, flowers opening under a rising sun, the air heavy with their dewy scent.

The tsunami made landfall on the shores of my father’s hometown of Kesennuma in northeast Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture.

It wasn’t until after I showered and changed into my uniform that the narrative unraveled. I turned on the car and the radio cascaded breaking news of a large tsunami in Japan. But even then, I did not think of the risk to my father’s hometown, a fishing city in northeastern Miyagi Prefecture directly in the tsunami’s path.

At work, I punched a code into a keypad and walked through a door into the cubicled space I shared with close to 50 other officers. The room was quiet, all eyes glued to the televisions on the wall. I looked over my shoulder and from the second floor of the Air Forces Central Command Headquarters, I watched 22,000 Japanese die.


In the years that follow 3/11, I will often open my laptop to type “Japan Tsunami” into a search engine. In a half second, tens of millions of results cascade down the screen, many of them videos.


No phones were allowed in my office. I left to use the bathroom, checked my phone: a missed call and a voicemail from my mother: Matt, call home. My gut twisted.

My mother answered. They were driving from their home, nestled in the green pines and gray popple outside Duluth, to an aunt who had cable. My parents had never paid for cable television — considering it either unaffordable or unnecessary. Now, for the first time in their lives, a luxury became a necessity. The internet was too slow; they needed to see.

Yes, I’ve seen the news, I said. But Lauren posted something on Facebook. Everyone is fine.

No. Uncle Kazafumi called from his office in Kesennuma — it lasted eight seconds — to say he was okay. Then the call ended.

And he tried to call him back?



Nothing. Dad can’t get a hold of him, or anyone else.


11 March passed. Friday. 12 and 13, Saturday and Sunday. Monday, 14 March. Still nothing. I watched the same scenes looping on the office televisions.

A coworker blurted, “I’m just waiting for some Japanese person to show up on the TV and yell, ‘Godzilla! Godzilla!’” Someone nearby laughed mirthlessly.

The morning of the 15 March, my youngest sister, Lydia, received the news from our cousin in Tokyo. She spoke no Japanese and his English was broken but somehow he conveyed the news.

My uncle and aunt had survived. Tokuno Komatsu, our grandmother, was dead.


Sendai, a city two hours south of Kesennuma: Empty cars wash across the airport tarmac. The reporter flying above an ocean-covered Minami-sanriku: Where have all the people gone? Rikuzentakata. Ōshima. Ishinomaki. Miyako. Natori. And finally, Kesennuma, now burning an orange horizon of flame into the black pall of night.


Ten days after the tsunami, I boarded a flight to Japan. The U.S. military mobilized a relief effort called Operation Tomodachi. Friend. I called in every favor I had to deploy as a Tomodachi rescue planning officer.

Before the flight, my father told me that he was proud that a member of the family would be in Japan to help. He asked what I’d be doing there, but I didn’t know. I told him I sold my language abilities hard, maybe oversold them. That I was worried. Don’t worry, he said. It will all come back.

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The flight from Dulles to Narita International Airport was all but empty. Once aboard, I reviewed old Japanese textbooks and watched Harry Potter once in English, then twice in Japanese. I tried to sleep, but nightmares woke me with linguistic versions of the naked dream: Me, aside the American general to whom I’ve been assigned as a translator. His Japanese counterpart speaks a torrent of Japanese, then pauses to look at me and await the translation. The American nods intently, casting ever-increasing looks my way. I recall one word in 10, try to divine meaning from inflection and posture. My mouth works, but the words do not come.

The bus ride from Narita to Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tokyo bore no witness to the quake and tsunami. No billboards hung precariously, no cracks split the roadways, and the lights were on. It was as if nothing happened at all. At Yokota, I disembarked to a cold, snowy night and entered a hangar to process into the Tomodachi task force. Airmen, clad in multiple layers, walked between different stations in the hangar, pausing at powered space heaters to warm themselves in the frigid night. I thought of the thousands of Japanese shoved into tiny makeshift evacuation centers. I imagined how they huddled, warmed only by blankets and each other.


Yokota fell away from my window of an Air Force HH-60G helicopter as it lifted off and flew east. I needed to see affected Japan for myself. It wasn’t until we were out over the ocean, flying outside an imaginary bubble around Fukushima that I did.

Rivers of debris from the tsunami appeared on the surface of the Pacific and streamed to the horizon, a flotsam road of shattered wood and plastic. We flew low, eyes out and scanning for life. The last survivor had been pulled from the water a week prior, but we hoped despite the odds, knowing we were far more likely to spot the dead.

A crew member saw something, and the helo banked hard. Over the intercom, he admitted it was probably nothing but worth investigating. Lower, slower, we orbited until the rotor wash beat the sea into mist over what turned out to be a white sheet rippling into the depths.

The farther from Japan, the larger the debris. Refrigerators and freezers. Orange tiled roofs bobbed in the blue and gray, impossibly buoyant. The wall of a home, the glass of a window somehow intact, offered a view into the saltwater beneath. All of it surrounded by a mass of splintered wood.


The shivering woke me again. I blinked into the darkness of the Sendai Airport first class lounge and pressed a button on my watch. 0300. I retreated further into the insulation of my puffy coat. Snores came from airmen off-shift from their post on the airport roof. Periodically throughout the night one would return and hand off a radio the size of two stacked laptops, then pop a sleeping pill while the other ran air traffic.

It was supposed to be a short visit, an hour or less. Just enough to make contact with the senior officer on the ground and determine what, if any, help I could provide as a planner. But the sound of the helicopter was only audible long enough to make radio contact with the airman on the roof: Tell Major Komatsu that we have to return to Yokota. We’ll be back when we can.

The cold shook me awake every 15 minutes until I stood up at 0600 and crept out of the dark room and into the daybreak of the terminal. Behind glass windows stories high, I wandered the vacant space, pausing at the vendor stands. The airmen were initially ordered not to take any food, but soon after they arrived, vendors themselves showed up and told them to take what they wished. The stacks of dried cuttlefish and shrimp-flavored crackers vanished, leaving only inscrutable books of manga and the assorted comforts required to heel the modern traveler. I lifted one of the books and perused a few of the oddly colored pages, taking in black and white lines of manga from back to front. I set it back in its place and looked out the glass.

Refrigerators and freezers. Orange tiled roofs bobbed in the blue and gray, impossibly buoyant.

In between the east end of the runway and the coast, a road once connected Kesennuma with Sendai; I’d made the drive twice during family trips. Now, I thought about packing my ruck, stuffing it with MREs and walking north, picking my way through the detritus until I reached my father’s hometown. My grandmother lay in the freezer of a morgue. The old family home, gone. Dozens of extended family — great uncles and third cousins and aunties once-removed — missing.


The morning of 27 March, I sat in my room back at Yokota alone after a run inside the confines of the base perimeter, under the pink-white beginnings of the cherry tree bloom washing the country from south to north. A rebirth of spring, of hope, of all things green and full of life.    

Three hundred miles away, my relatives cremated Ōba’s remains.


Our rescue helicopters and crews went home, the work of finding and extracting the living long over. Only the dead remained missing, and the Japanese government politely declined U.S. military support to the search. My job as a rescue planner turned to playing games of what if. What if an American aircraft transporting radiation measurement crews crashes inside the Fukushima no-fly zone? Who will rescue them and how will we coordinate between Japanese and American operations centers?

These questions could only be answered in conversation with my Japanese counterpart at the Japanese Rescue Coordination Center, located 53 minutes down the Ome train line, on Fuchu Air Base. When we met in the lobby of the Japanese Air Self Defense headquarters building, a fellow American officer acting as my linguist introduced Okahashi-san. We smiled and bowed, then he presented me with his meishi (business card) in the manner I learned in my sophomore Japanese class at the Academy: Both hands present, both receive. Study the card, then place it only in a chest pocket; never, ever in a disrespectful pants pocket.

Fatigue lined his face and eyes — Okahashi-san has worked twenty hours every day since the tsunami. Lt Col Okahashi said something, smiled and gestured toward an imaginary flat surface a few feet off the ground. He sleeps on a cot in the back of the Rescue Coordination Center.

As we ate pork katsu at the Japanese dining facility, I attempted Japanese the best I could. I explained my last name, and when I said Kesennuma, he said, haltingly, “Your daddy. From Kesennuma?” Yes, I said. He simply frowned, lowered his eyes, shook his head and said no more.


Cell phones document the tsunami’s arrival in Minami-sanriku from ground level. A woman’s voice reverberates across the town, alternating with sirens to warning the residents over a citywide loudspeaker system. Impossibly, it continues even as the tsunami piles into the streets and people scream to those who’ve not yet made it to high ground, continues even as the ocean continues its inexorable rise. Until it falls silent. And all that remains are the cries of the Japanese who have survived.


When I met my Japanese cousins for dinner, I’d been asking my father for weeks to arrange for me to visit Kesennuma at the end of my deployment. I missed my stop on the train from Yokota, had to double back at the next, then wait at the eki for the only cousin who spoke any English to walk from the restaurant. All around me, life streamed through automated ticketing gates amid the wall of sound that is a Tokyo train station during evening rush hour. And yet, not so far away, their countrymen were digging through rubble with their bare hands. Posting desperate signs for missing persons.

We did our best to converse around our sukiyaki. They showed me pictures from Kesennuma. The old family home, gone. My uncle’s two-story office, first floor hollowed by the tsunami. My uncle, passed out on his floor with an empty bottle of whiskey nearby. Uncle drink lot now.

When I asked my cousins about my request to visit Kesennuma, their eyes dropped and they picked at their food. Mizuki — the English speaker — pulled out his phone. We call your daddy. He dialed, spoke Japanese when my father answered. I could not interpret Mizuki’s body language. He handed me the phone. My father talked around the question — his mother’s death, the family shock, the loss of the business and deaths of two employees, the destruction, how his brother wouldn’t say no to my visit but wouldn’t say yes either — until I interrupted him.

“Dad, what’s the bottom line?”

“Culturally, they would lose face if they said no. But the timing is bad.”

“I’d be a burden.”


“But I have to make the decision.”

“Yes. You will have to tell them you do not want to go.”

“OK, then. I’m not going.” I handed the phone back to my cousin, and the relief on his face told me everything I needed to know.


Of the 12 million tsunami videos, I will not watch them all. And yet it will be too much, as well as somehow not enough.


On my last day in Japan, I sat with the Air Force colonel who led my shift. He was a pilot without a cockpit anymore, his jet long mothballed. He’d flown a desk for years now, he said as he smiled and removed his glasses; this was his last hurrah. Then he asked about what drew me to volunteer for this. When I told him, he fell silent.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “We should have found a way to get you to Kesennuma.” Then he handed me his card, thanked me for what I’d done, and I walked out of the operations center for the last time.

Before boarding the bus to Narita, I walked to a nearby cherry tree whose branches drooped under a blooming mantel. It stood above a patchwork of dirt and a browning white carpet of fallen blossoms. I found a living flower within reach and pinched its green stem, careful not to disrupt the delicate petals above it. Once free, I carried it two-handed; one pinching its base, the other cradling the bloom in my palm until I was back in my room. A book of devotions lay open on my desk, a gift from my parents. I placed the flower in the book, closed it.


San (Three)


2018. The shinkansen pitches us north from Tōkyō, picking up speed until the bullet train hits 200 mph and the endless series of the Tōhoku region’s ubiquitous rice paddies visible through my window blur green, flickering as dike-top roads come and go. I have returned to hear, yes, but also to touch. Taste, smell, and once again: see.   

We strategize. Three of us: my father, the linguist I’ve hired, and me. A cousin produced the name of the rest home where my grandmother perished: Shunpo. A classmate worked at Shunpo on 3/11, but my cousin is unwilling to connect us. So the linguist puts on her fixer hat and determines the former manager not only survived, but rebuilt Shunpo in a new location and now speaks internationally on tsunami readiness. It’s as good a lead on determining how my grandmother died as we’re going to get. Anticipation builds as we get off the bullet at Ichinoseki for the drive to Kesennuma until I’m straining against my seatbelt and we finally get where I could not go seven years ago.

I have returned to hear, yes, but also to touch. Taste, smell, and once again: see.

Kesennuma. No longer confined by glass or screen, I step from a cousin’s car in front of the vacant lot that was once 2-13-16 Nakamachi-cho. My father and he speak quietly in Japanese. The home I remember. His home. From where I stand, I could have reached over the street’s gutter and touched the house’s wall, perhaps taken in that odd mothball scent that seems to accompany my few memories of the texture of the place. But there is nothing but the tang of salt air in between me and the violet dusk of a sun long since set behind the hills of tall pine that mark Kesennuma’s western edge.


The tsunami is everywhere.

Blue placards on buildings show its maximum height with typical Japanese simplicity: a horizontal line and measurement in meters, in white lettering. Buildings still slated for demolition next to the orange-brown of cleared earth. Construction signs and workers and new roads unimpeded by human artifice. Signs along the sides of the road that undulates up and down through the endless series of ria (“bay”) that pocket the Sanriku coastline mark the tsunami’s maximum inundation points. Dystopian reconstructed landscapes behind massive seawalls that stretch across the horizon. The “Dragon Tree” of Kesennuma — a gnarled pine that survived the tsunami only to later die and be preserved where it stands on the cape of the Iwaisaki area of the city. The “Miracle Pine” of Rikuzentakata: the sole remaining tree of an estimated 70,000 that made up a coastal forest, eventually felled by the saltwater left in the ground by the tsunami, then preserved in detail at an estimated cost of 150 million yen (close to 2 million dollars based on the exchange rate at the time). O-tsunami, the survivors say, applying the honorific “o-” prefix because they cannot adequately capture in words a full integration of all senses. It roared. Smelled of salt. It burned, pulled, swept.

It was incomprehensible in a way that can only be assembled by a comprehension of  what it left behind.


We climb a path beneath old-growth pine and cedar until a panorama of the city reveals the tsunami’s reach, still clear, even now. Gray and green mark the untouched. Yellow earth, the scar of the destroyed, the still-being-rebuilt. My cousin guides my father and me to the family gravesite. A light breeze, cool with the ocean across my skin, the sound of traffic. The smell of needle and ocean. I grasp at the sensory through the mantle of jet lag and culture shock, hoping to hold on to this moment. My father stands in front of a polished granite marker, brings his palms together and lowers his head to offer a silent prayer.

It’s been a decade and a half since I last saw my Aunt Fumiko, but her face remains cherubic, her skin pale and smooth. She apologizes for not having the snack she recalls as a favorite: a mix of salted peanuts and chili-flavored rice cracker crescents. She looks thin but well. I show her pictures of my family. When I produce an app on my phone that lets her see my infant daughter at that very moment sleeping halfway around the globe, she smiles.

Kawaii, ne. So cute.

She tells me that the earthquake found her in the midst of shopping. When the world ceased shaking, she felt an overwhelming urge to immediately head home. Something horrible was going to happen. She followed her instinct and drove straight to the new house, three miles inland from the old one that no longer exists. Her son called at about 3:15 p.m. after seeing tsunami warnings on the news. Obā was at Shunpo, but my aunt thought it would be safe. It had two floors, a good flat roof, was a fair distance from the ocean. She worried about my uncle, whose office was on the downtown waterfront at the tip of Kesennuma Bay.

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