On March 11, 2011, the entire coastline of the Tohoku Region of Japan was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Tohoku is comprised of several prefectures, including Ibaraki, Fukushima Miyagi, and Iwate on the Pacific Ocean. The earthquake of 9 Richter-scale caused no nuclear emergency at any of the four stations along the shore, including Fukushima Daiichi. It was the subsequent tsunami which triggered the Fukushima nuclear accident. While the impact of Fukushima has been a regular issue with the Japanese Press, little attention has been given to the severe plight rendered by the tsunami along the 400 kilometer coastline.

Recently, Nippon.com posted two reports on the situation with the town of Onagawa (1,2), which was the community closest to the earthquake’s off-shore epicenter. Onagawa nuclear station was the closest land-site to the epicenter at about 72 kilometers. (2) The typical wave depth measured along the 400 kilometer Tohoku coastline was between 5 and 7 meters. But, Onagawa town itself was literally demolished by the violent tsunamic surge, which reached the mind-boggling height of about 20 meters. It suffered the most massive water-rise of any community along the Tohoku coast. This was because the town is surrounded by a continuous ridgeline, causing the tsunami’s in-surge to literally pile up and raise its peak depth considerably. Further, the shoreline forms a virtual funnel into the Onagawa port area, further amplifying the wave’s intensity. All town residents were rendered homeless and 827 of the towns nearly 10,000 residents died.

On the other hand, the tsunami’s depth at the Onagawa nuclear station reached a peak of about 15 meters because there was no natural topography to swell the wave’s intensity. The nuke is roughly 10 kilometers southeast of Onagawa Town, and is actually located inside the border of Ishinomaki City. It is on a peninsula jutting some ten kilometers into the sea. Onagawa station had a 14 meter-high seawall surrounding it. While some of the tsunamic surge spilled over the barrier, it was sufficient to prevent severe flooding. All safety systems functioned perfectly and no nuclear accident occurred.

Onagawa station and Fukushima Daiichi both use Boiling Water Reactor technology. F.Daiichi was built more than a decade before the first unit at Onagawa and the GE design had been plainly copied by Toshiba, which built the Onagawa units. Thus, the technological similarities between the two nukes are considerable. In addition, both stations were hit by the same level of tsunami – ~15 meters. If is safe to say that it was Onagawa’s much more robust tsunami protective barrier kept it from having an accident similar to F. Daiichi.

With this all in mind, the Nippon.com article gives us what is essentially the first opportunity to ask a question; what if there had been no nuclear accident at F. Daiichi? What if Tepco had built a seawall of the same robustness as the barrier at Onagawa? The current situation with respect to Onagawa might provide at least part of an answer.

It is critical to be reminded that with Onagawa on 3/11/11, hundreds of local residents fled to the nuke station seeking shelter. They were given relief, allowed to stay in the station’s gymnasium, provided free bedding, and were given free food and water to sustain them for as long as they needed. Nearly all of these residents lost everything to the black water surge. Their homes and all belongings were swept away. Many too advantage of the station’s generosity for more than two weeks.

It is likely something similar could have happened at F. Daiichi, if their tsunamic protection had paralleled Onagawa. The Fukushima Prefecture coastline was pummeled by the tsunami, with many thousands of homes and businesses destroyed or swept away. There can be no doubt that F. Daiichi would have taken in all local residents seeking refuge, providing them with the same support as the refugees who fled to Onagawa.

What would the situation with Fukushima be like today, more than four years later, if there were no nuke accident? There is no reason to think it would be much different from what we find in Onagawa Town. At Onagawa, it took two years to cart away the mountains of debris left behind by the giant waves. Rebuilding of the town and the seaport could not begin until the tsunamic residuals were removed. The town’s main transportation artery, the JR Ishinomaki Railroad, was destroyed. It took four years to repair it and rebuild the Onagawa station on a massive artificial mound as high as other natural bluffs where buildings were flooded, but not swept away. The town’s fishing business has made a strong comeback, with 2014 being as lucrative as before the disaster. Perhaps the greatest boost to the fishing business was a $20 million cash influx from Qatar.

On the other hand, most other Onagawa infrastructure remains in the recovery condition. Few homes have been rebuilt and the main shopping plaza has only begun construction recently. Many lots that had held homes and other buildings remain empty. Only 7,000 of the town’s residents have stayed in temporary living conditions in the hope of going back. Government-funded temporary homes have been built for only 2,100 people. Mayor Suda Yoshiaki says permanent public housing projects could take more than four years to complete. Much of the delay has been due to landowners being reluctant to sell their property. For all intents and purposes, the town’s rebuilding has only just begun, spurred by the railroad’s reopening in March of this year.

Asu e no Kibō, a nonprofit organization whose name means “hope for tomorrow,” has been coordinating the restart of businesses and running employment training for two years. Its leader, Komatrsu Yosuke, says “Onagawa has strong community ties and a culture where veterans boost the younger generation. This has been very heartening.” This has much to do with why Onagawa is one of the foremost communities in the tsunamic recovery along the Tohoku coast. Most other communities lag far behind.

The recovery of Onagawa Town has been slow and agonizing. Mayor Suda Yoshiaki was asked if his town’s path to recovery was coming into focus. He said,” No, that’s still to come,” largely due to delays in building public housing and lack of money.” Suda explained that the town’s annual budget during recovery is about $300 million; six times what it was before 3/11/11. He said the tax money from the Onagawa nuclear station would be a big help if it were operating. If Tokyo shifts the financial burden for reconstruction to local communities, which is being considered, restarting Onagawa’s nuke will be even more important.

Many of Onagawa’s on-going issues virtually mirror those regularly reported in Japan’s Press concerning Fukushima. One positive difference is the recovery of the Onagawa fishing business. However, there are many difference that are stark and disturbing. While it is true that the homes of several thousand Fukushima residents were swept away by the tsunami, most of the residences of Fukushima’s more than 70,000 mandated evacuees are still there. Some are in disrepair, but the majority are ready to welcome their people home. The only exceptions are with the F. Daiichi host towns of Okuma and Futaba – a combined population of 17,000 – which remain under the no-return restriction ordered by Tokyo, and the hundreds (thousands?) of homes swept away by the tsunami within the 20 kilometer-radius exclusion zone.

In addition, temporary living quarters are provided free for all mandated evacuees, at government expense. More importantly, more than $45 billion has been paid to these people in individual and property compensation, not to mention the $1,000 per month mental anguish rewards paid to every man, woman, and child. Free rent subsidies continue to be given to the ~25,000 voluntary Fukushima evacuees scattered all over Japan. These compensations will run through March, 2017.

However, the typical Onagawa refugee receives less than five hundred dollars a month in government-funded subsistence, and this is due to run out next March. Across the vast expanse of the tsunami-flooded Tohoku coastline, more than 18,000 were killed and roughly 250,000 refugees made instantly homeless by the giant waves. 230,000 remain estranged to this day. In Fukushima Prefecture, more than 1,500 were killed by the massive sea-surge, and there is no doubt that the thousands made homeless by the tsunami would still be dispossessed if the nuclear accident had never happened. The exact number of tsunami-spawned homeless in Fukushima has not been posted by Tokyo or Fukushima Prefecture.

While there are many similarities between Fukushima-today and Onagawa-now, there are also important differences. A major difference is that Fukushima evacuees are being treated far better by Tokyo than those in Onagawa Town or almost everyone else in the Tohoku region displaced by the tsunami.

In addition, the road to repopulation for the majority of mandated Fukushima evacuees is shorter than the one facing Onagawa refugees, because the restrictions will be lifted for some 50,000 by March, 2017.

The bottom line is this – if there had been no nuclear accident, the future faced by Fukushima’s tsunami refugees would probably be little different than those still displaced from Onagawa. This fact should always be kept in mind.


1. – A Tohoku Town Returns to Life; Nippon.com; June 19, 2015. http://www.nippon.com/en/in-depth/a04302/

2. – Rebuilding Onagawa; Nippon.com; June 29, 2015. http://www.nippon.com/en/in-depth/a04305/

3. – Japan Earthquake & Tsunami of 2011: Facts and Information; Live Science.com; May 7, 2015. http://www.livescience.com/39110-japan-2011-earthquake-tsunami-facts.html