Newly-minted Mayor Futoshi Toba was at work in City Hall when the tsunami devastated his community a month ago. Now he must find a way to balance his duty to his family and his town. WSJ’s Lam Thuy Vo reports from Rikuzentakata.

RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan—Minutes before a violent earthquake convulsed City Hall, Futoshi Toba was enjoying a quiet Friday afternoon after a month of nearly nonstop work since becoming mayor of this small coastal city.

Ruin and Rebirth

Chronicling the aftermath of the tsunami in Rikuzentakata, Japan

He called his wife, Kumi, at 2:40 p.m., March 11, to suggest they take their two young sons to a barbecue place for dinner. She promised that she’d email him soon to let him know.

The conversation wasn’t much, but fate doesn’t always allow for eloquence.

At 2:46, tremors from the magnitude-9 earthquake about 60 miles offshore shook Rikuzentakata, knocking out electricity and phones. Soon afterward, a wall of black water more than 12 meters high smashed through the six-meter-high seawall and poured into the heart of the city.

In Japan, Struggling to Survive

Swept Away

Mayor’s House

Japan Disaster’s Human Impact

More photos and interactive graphics

Some 2,300 people are dead or missing in Rikuzentakata and many small businesses were obliterated by the March tsunami. Survivors must make a heart-wrenching choice: Should they rebuild their town – or abandon it? WSJ’s Lam Thuy Vo reports.

Mr. Toba and dozens of residents scrambled up the stairs to the roof of the four-story City Hall, a steel-reinforced concrete building downtown. The tsunami sent water surging as high as the building’s top floor.

Trucks and buses were tossed end over end. Houses, pulled loose from their foundations, floated toward the sea, the people inside screaming for help.

“When I looked back in the direction of my home, I just saw all the houses being crushed,” Mr. Toba said. “The sound of the wood splintering was so loud.”

Mr. Toba’s sons, Taiga, 12, and Kanato, 10, were at a hilltop school, and escaped the tsunami. But his wife was at home, closer to sea level, as she usually was during the day.

“I considered just ignoring everyone, hopping in my car, and rushing to get her. But I really couldn’t do that,” he said, explaining that his duties as mayor required him to lead his colleagues to safety. “I was thinking the whole time: ‘I hope she was able to get away.'”

By the time the waves finally started to recede, Rikuzentakata had been reduced to a tangle of smashed cars, shattered wood and twisted steel. The banks were washed away. Gas stations, gone. Grocery stores, gone. Hospital, gone.

More than 2,300 people—a tenth of the population here—were dead or missing.

A month later, Mr. Toba finds himself in a role of bewildering complexity and responsibility, as Japan struggles to recover from the worst natural disaster of its modern history and its leaders debate how—and even whether—to rebuild a part of the country that was already in steep decline. The decisions Mr. Toba and other local politicians make now may well determine whether the hard-hit areas on the northeast coast survive and thrive, or never recover.

After past disasters—the 1995 earthquake that wrecked the port city of Kobe and the 1923 quake that killed more than 100,000 around Tokyo—Japan rebuilt quickly. But the situation in Rikuzentakata and other communities along the craggy shoreline here is far different.

The region had been in trouble long before the disaster: Many young people had gone in search of a better life elsewhere, leaving behind an aging population and dying industries. Pessimists question the economic logic of investing to rebuild its shrinking towns and cities.

“It’s hard to be a leader in a situation like this,” the 46-year-old Mr. Toba said one recent Saturday afternoon, as he worked from a temporary command post in the office of the city schools’ central kitchen. “We are going to have to start again from scratch.”

Dressed in borrowed clothes—a city-worker uniform with a beige windbreaker, matching pants and a pair of black Reebok sneakers—Mr. Toba can often be found pacing the pavement outside his command center, smoking a dwindling supply of Marlboro Ultralights and cajoling national and regional officials over a mobile phone that hangs from a strap around his neck.

His successes so far—like scrounging enough fuel to keep some of Rikuzentakata’s remaining cars running a few days more, or securing supplies for the 10,000 citizens who remain homeless here—in some ways only underscore the daunting scale of the task ahead.

Mr. Toba’s preoccupation with the town’s misery can’t completely obliterate what has happened to his own life with Kumi and Taiga and Kanato. The boys are staying with Mr. Toba’s uncle. The mayor sees them when he can, but most nights he sleeps on the floor beside his desk in the makeshift command center.

He hasn’t returned to his house downtown, either, aside from a quick glimpse soon after the disaster. He could only get close enough to make out that its shell was still standing, but the roof of another home had come to rest atop it.

Inside, his home is filled with painful reminders: A mud-covered jacket and some ties hang in a first-floor closet. The floor is littered with photos, including pictures of a younger Mr. Toba in a gray suit with Kumi on their wedding day. In another mud-stained picture, his wife—in a white T-shirt with turquoise sleeves and black shoulder-length hair—wraps her arms around one of the children and laughs.

For weeks, Mr. Toba had been too busy to visit the morgue to see if Kumi was there. He also dreaded what he might find.

“As a husband, I’d like to go search for my wife, but I need to lead the way on the recovery effort,” the mayor said late last month. “Many people here are in the same situation.”

Rikuzentakata has been inhabited for 1,000 years. Spread out across a plain surrounded by mountains running down to the sea, it drew fame for its scallops, sea urchins and a special breed of oysters that sold for as much as $5 a piece in Tokyo restaurants. A wooded area with pine trees along its sandy beach was once declared by the government to be one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful sights.

The city also has a history of tsunamis. One touched off in 1960 by an earthquake in Chile killed eight people and inundated parts of the city near the beach.

But there had never been anything remotely like the waves that struck on March 11.

City officials who had rushed out to warn residents were washed away. One of the mayor’s advisers tried carrying an elderly woman, but quickly realized he wouldn’t be able to run fast enough with her on his back. He left her behind on a second-floor stair landing in City Hall. “Sorry grandma,” he said, before dashing up to the roof. He never saw her again.

The tsunami blew out the rear wall of a downtown sports center that had been designated as an emergency refuge, drowning nearly all of the dozens of people who sought shelter there.

Two firemen clung to a watch tower atop a fire station. Helicopters eventually rescued the men and pulled some other survivors to safety from downtown rooftops before darkness fell. Exploding gas cylinders sent up plumes of flame.

At around 7 p.m., it started to snow. Some survivors gathered up debris and started a bonfire for warmth and to provide a beacon for any rescuers. The mayor and his aides huddled around a radio, listening to news bulletins.

Aftershocks continued through the night, and roiling waves swept in and out. Mr. Toba said he feared the entire building would collapse. “We were just praying for daylight.”

At dawn, Rikuzentakata began to assess the staggering human toll. It was one of the worst-hit Japanese cities. Of its roughly 23,000 inhabitants, more than 1,100 are confirmed dead. Nearly 1,200 are missing and presumed killed. Hundreds of bodies in the temporary morgue set up in a gymnasium remain unidentified.

The police chief, two members of the city council and the three top school officials perished in the tsunami. One-third of city workers have died.

Many of the survivors are questioning whether to stay. Akira Suto, a 55-year-old construction worker, said he can’t forget the wall of icy ocean water as it pitched him head over heels, breaking his grip on his 82-year-old mother as the pair ran from their home, trying to flee.

“It’s over,” his mother gasped, before she was dragged away by the waves, he said. Her body still hasn’t been recovered.

Mr. Suto, who is staying with his wife and two children at an emergency shelter in a school gym, said he’d like to remain in Rikuzentakata. “In reality, I don’t know if it will be possible,” he said.

Even pillars of the business community are wavering.

Yasuhiko Konno, president of the Suisen sake brewery that was one of Rikuzentakata’s biggest employers, said he hasn’t decided whether to rebuild his company’s factory on the downtown site. Waves punched holes in the brewery and scattered its giant green metal sake tanks as far as three miles away.

“We are here to make a profit, and I have to wonder if Rikuzentakata can come back from this level of damage,” said Mr. Konno, a 64-year-old native of the city. “It doesn’t make sense to build a sake factory with nothing else around.”

Mayor Toba sees it as an essential part of his job to persuade people to stay. He hopes to wheedle enough support from the national and prefecture governments to show progress rebuilding before leading citizens move away.

He has been trying to persuade civil servants set to retire this year to delay stepping down to ensure he has enough manpower to rebuild.

“The city might be smaller than it was before,” Mr. Toba said. His wife was missing, but his sons were alive, and he wanted to be sure Rikuzentakata would still be there when they got older.

“When I see the faces of my sons, I know I just have to keep going,” he said. “This is my destiny, and I just have to do what needs to be done.”

None of this is what Mr. Toba had in mind when he came to Rikuzentakata 18 years ago.

Japan Real Time

Mayor’s Aide Tells Story of Loss and Choice
Born near Tokyo, he moved to the coastal community when he was 28. Tough economic times had made it hard for him to earn a living as a computer programmer in the capital. He chose Rikuzentakata because it was his father’s birthplace and home, and he said he quickly came to love its natural beauty and laid-back feeling.

When he first arrived in town, he found work at a local poultry-processing company. It was there that he met Kumi, a native of another small city up the coast.

She was seven years his junior, with delicate features and dark black hair, and looked younger than her age. When they were picking out engagement rings in a jewelry store, Mr. Toba recalled, a clerk asked if he was shopping for his daughter.

“Even now, she looks like she’s in her 20s,” he said.

She collected vintage American Fire-King glassware and enjoyed making handicrafts, Mr. Toba recalled. She made leather trinkets with embossed designs to hang on cellphones, which she sold at temporary shops with her friends.

She never questioned her husband’s decision to become a politician— though she didn’t really like it. “She put up with it,” he said.

It wasn’t really even Mr. Toba’s idea, he said. His father was in politics, and when a city council election came up several years ago, his father helped organize efforts to draft him. He came home one day and there were about “150 old folks from the neighborhood who turned to me and started clapping—I didn’t know what was going on.”

The elder Mr. Toba, who died about a decade ago, promised his son he wouldn’t need to do much, just put up some posters. But before he knew it, the son was campaigning and talking to crowds.

Once he was on the city council, he spent his free time walking through neighborhoods, chatting with people and looking after their needs.

He soon realized, though, that as long as he was just another council member, his ability to get things done was limited. “I always thought that one day, even if it’s being just a village head, I wanted to be able to shape a town in the way I thought best,” he said.

For years, he served as deputy mayor. Then the mayor became ill and decided not to run again. When Mr. Toba told his wife he wanted the job, “she just said, ‘OK, I understand.'”

Mr. Toba’s campaign called for reducing the city’s debt after years of heavy spending. He hoped to turn Rikuzentakata’s beachfront into a popular resort and retirement area to attract more of Japan’s affluent older residents.

After his victory in February, he got busy preparing the city budget and making courtesy calls on local dignitaries. He wasn’t spending much time his wife, he knew. But there would be time for that later.

Mr. Toba’s mayoral agenda went by the wayside when the disaster struck. In the first few days, he just tried to stay calm. He didn’t know where his wife was, but given the scale of the destruction—and the hundreds of missing people buried beneath the rubble—he couldn’t do much about it.

So much wreckage blocked his home that he couldn’t get near it, and government search-and-rescue teams were combing the area.

There was no electricity, few relief supplies. With thousands of people in desperate need, the mayor decided to focus on what he could do: help survivors.

Mayor Toba pleaded with friends to make as many rice balls as possible and give them out. He asked soldiers to clear roads so more supplies could get in. Looking back several weeks later, he’s not sure what he did some of the time: Much of it was a blur.

A week after the disaster, food and water began arriving more regularly along with troops to distribute aid. But basic needs, for such things as toothbrushes and diapers, still weren’t being met.

Any talk of reviving the city’s fishing industry or other rebuilding efforts was “far, far off,” Mr. Toba said, a week after the disaster. The most pressing needs were getting gasoline and making sure the elderly had enough medicine.

To persuade government officials that he needed more help, Mr. Toba invited lawmakers from Tokyo to spend the night in one of the city’s emergency evacuation centers. He complained about how slow national relief efforts were. When asked about a visit by the prime minister to Rikuzentakata three weeks after the disaster, he rolled his eyes and said: “Now, he comes.”

As the days passed, a routine set in. Every afternoon, Mr. Toba somberly briefed reporters on the city’s latest casualty numbers, and handed out updated lists of dead citizens whose bodies had been discovered. There wasn’t much time to think about his wife, or even his kids, though he spoke to the boys sometimes on the phone.

The surviving members of his administration set up their command post in a school kitchen using commandeered computers. Temporary quarters for the fire and police departments were set up across the parking lot. Since there was no running water, a trench latrine was dug out back.

Mayor Toba burned up the phones calling and pressuring prefectural officials to begin construction of temporary homes—critical to keeping citizens from drifting away. At one point, Prime Minister Naoto Kan told Mr. Toba he might as well plan to temporarily move his people to less damaged cities inland—but Mr. Toba refused.

“We have very tight-knit communities. We need to keep people together,” Mr. Toba said.

On March 26, construction finally began, making Rikuzentakata one of the first cities to start building temporary homes. The first 36 modular apartments with indoor plumbing and heating were hammered together by an army of construction workers and went up quickly in front of a middle school that served as an emergency shelter. More than 1,000 people entered the city lottery to receive a home.

Mr. Toba scored other small victories: After he met with the owner of a local clothing-manufacturing firm, the town received a donation of women’s underwear, desperately needed by women living in emergency shelters.

As the immediate tasks of emergency assistance started to fade, the scale of challenges facing Rikuzentakata became painfully apparent.

Bridges, roadways and the city’s rail connection were damaged or destroyed by the black waves. The power grid downtown was wiped out. A waste-water treatment plant—built a decade ago for about $200 million—disappeared without a trace. The massive, and expensive, tsunami defense wall that once shielded the city was reduced to ruins. It will likely have to be replaced to protect the sea-level sections of the city before they can be rebuilt.

Nearly all of the city’s paper records, stored in City Hall, were destroyed. Contracts, blueprints and recent city-tax payments were all swept away. Officials have to rely on maps ripped from tourist brochures as they assess damage and repair city roads and bridges.

Some city-owned buildings—including City Hall, a fire station and a sports center—remain standing, but are so badly damaged that they will have to be torn down. Mr. Toba is trying to find money for the demolition. If the city has to pay itself, there won’t be any money left to build new facilities, he said.

Rikuzentakata’s population had already been shrinking steadily since 1970, and more than a third of the city’s residents are over 65 years old, compared with about 20% in Japan as a whole. Any reconstruction plans will be limited by debts from past spending on schemes to attract more tourists. One such project, a seashell museum, was demolished by the tsunami.

Local officials haven’t begun to calculate the total cost of the damage. And while it seems likely that Tokyo will help foot the bill for reconstruction, the timing and amount of any money remain distressingly unclear.

Rebuilding will take creativity. “We will need to do something drastic,” Mr. Toba said one Saturday afternoon, running his fingers through his thinning hair, his face sagging with exhaustion.

One option, he said, would be to bulldoze the top of one of the mountains that ring the downtown to create more hilltop residential areas, and then use the extra earth to raise the level of the city center by about 18 meters. But it’s unclear who would pay for that.

Mr. Toba’s earlier big idea for Rikuzentakata—tourism—seems especially unlikely. The tens of thousands of pine trees that once lined Rikuzentakata’s white sandy beach, making it a tourist destination, were destroyed by the tsunami. Only one remains standing.

In his quest to get residents to stay, the mayor has found some allies. One is 35-year-old Takashi Sasaki, who abandoned Rikuzentakata years ago to work in Tokyo as a computer-systems engineer. Unlike most of his peers, he decided to return home last year and help his father run a family printing business.

On March 11, Mr. Sasaki was using his digital camera to stream video of the tsunami to the Internet. When he saw the size of the waves, he and his father, Matsuo, raced into City Hall, where they spent the night on the upper floors along with the mayor.

Mr. Sasaki’s mother, aunt and grandmother died. Despite days of searching, Mr. Sasaki said he hasn’t found any trace of his home or the family print shop.

Even though they lost everything, Mr. Sasaki said he’s committed to staying in the city. “I want to stay here and rebuild,” he said.

A month after the tsunami, the fruits of Mr. Toba’s efforts are evident, as a growing number of citizens follow his lead, picking up the pieces of their lives. Last week, the town reopened its first koban, a small neighborhood police station, which is a staple of most Japanese communities.

Nearby, the Bank of Iwate has opened a temporary branch in a trailer for four hours a day. Around the corner, in a prefabricated shed, the city’s Chamber of Commerce has opened an office to help local businesses. The lucky few who won a slot in Rikuzentakata’s temporary homes started moving in on Saturday.

In the town’s lower basin, though, a staggering amount of work remains. Mounds of rubble have been plowed aside to create roads for cars and earth-moving equipment. But much of Rikuzentakata still resembles a massive landfill.

On Tuesday, the mayor got a call that would push all that into the background. There was a body in the morgue that resembled his wife, whose 39th birthday had been the day before. The woman’s body had been found about 600 meters uphill from their home.

For several hours, Mr. Toba couldn’t get away from the office. At last, he made his way down to the morgue. The body was badly damaged. But it was Kumi.

He debated what to tell his sons, and thought he didn’t want to let them see her like that. It wasn’t how he wanted them to remember their mother. “She was like a friend to them,” he said. “Since I was always so busy, they always ran to their mother.”

Standing before her body, he apologized to his wife for not coming to find her. His responsibilities as mayor, he told her, kept him away.

“When I think about that,” Mr. Toba said afterward, “it really makes me question what kind of human being I am.”

— Hitoshi Koreeda contributed to this article.
Write to Gordon Fairclough at and Daisuke Wakabayashi at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s