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Remembering 3/11

INTERVIEW | The Tohoku Disaster, 12 Years On: How One Manga Museum Brought Hope to the Community

Twelve years on from the Tohoku earthquake, discover how the Ishinomori Manga Museum brought hope to Ishinomaki in the wake of the March 2011 tsunami.



The Ishinomori Manga Museum (© Machizukuri Manbow Co Ltd)

On March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan ripped through the Tohoku region. As a result of the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami, 19,729 people were killed, 6,223 were injured, and 2,559 are still missing in Japan. 

The city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture suffered the greatest loss of life with over 3,000 deaths.

Twelve years later, JAPAN Forward visited Ishinomaki to see how much the city had transformed. Among the landmarks we visited was the Ishinomori Manga Museum, a center dedicated to famous manga artist Shintaro Ishinomori and his legacy of Kamen Rider, a household anime in Japan.  

Seitaro Omori | General manager of Machizukuri Manbow Co Ltd. (© JAPAN Forward by Shaun Fernando)

We sat down with Seitaro Omori, the general manager of Machizukuri Manbow Co Ltd, the organization which manages the manga museum. Omori was working at the Ishinomori Manga Museum when the tsunami hit in 2011, and was a key figure in the city's rebuilding following the disaster. 

Excerpts of the interview follow. 

March 11, 2011

Like many who were in Ishinomaki on March 11, 2011, Seitaro Omori remembers exactly where he was when the disaster struck.

"I remember that it was a Friday, so we were getting ready for the weekend rush" as the museum tended to have more visitors on the weekends, explains Omori.

He recalls the moment the ground below started to shake. "I had never heard such a loud sound, a sort of rumbling. I knew that it was an earthquake." 

March 2011 | The Manga Museum's entrance a few days after the earthquake. (© Sankei)

The tremor caused roofs of nearby buildings to fall in, recalls Omori. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake was the strongest in recorded history.

Despite the force of the quake, Omori describes how locals were accustomed to carrying out safety protocols. In the months prior to the earthquake, Ishinomaki had experienced a typhoon warning, a flood, and a tsunami warning. The latter was following the 2010 Chile earthquake.

"Normally, I think that people would panic in this situation and prioritize themselves. But at the museum, we implemented safety protocols immediately, and everyone was ready to evacuate in about 10 minutes," he explains. 

The Calm Before the Tsunami

Although the residents of Miyagi Prefecture were prepared for an earthquake, Omori reflects that the same couldn't be said for a tsunami.

Many in the Ishinomaki community had heard stories of the Chile earthquake of 1960. The tsunami from that quake reached the coast of Japan, killing over 100 people.

But, as the memory faded with the passage of time, the idea of a tsunami increasingly felt like a foreign concept, says Omori.

"We had seen images of the tsunami in Phuket (Thailand in 2004). But we always saw them as events that hit other countries. We never thought that such a thing could happen in Japan." 

Even many of those who were prepared didn't realize the extent of damage a tsunami could cause. They believed that slightly distancing themselves from the coast was sufficient. 

"There wasn't a strong fear of tsunami, which is also why I think there was such a loss of life in the disaster," Omori reflects.

The Tidal Wave

Many who witness a tsunami report seeing a distinct phenomenon before the wave: the water level suddenly drops, as the wave pulls back before hitting the coast. 

Omori remembers this moment. "The river water level was lower — it had gone down about one meter compared to normal. I thought to myself, 'This isn't normal.'" 

Those who had not yet left the museum decided to stay, rather than risk being caught by the moving water. 

Communities were devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (© Sankei)

Just like in 1960, the tsunami arrived. As Omori recalls, it was more of an inexorable rising of the water that flattened everything in its wake, rather than a wave crashing on the shore. 

"There was a really loud sound, and the water pressure broke windows and pulled in the debris. I was afraid that I would be dragged away by the force of the water, so I went up to the third floor," he says.  

Escaping the Wave

As the tsunami hit the coast of Miyagi, the museum became a haven for those who miraculously saved themselves from the raging water. 

March 2011 | The museum's logo and sign. (© Sankei)

Omori recalls how a family of three managed to escape the water. Two of the family members escaped to a nearby hill, while the father paddled to the manga museum on top of a styrofoam sheet. 

While waiting for the wave to subside, Omori watched in horror and called out words of encouragement to those in the vicinity of the museum. "People would be climbing up electricity poles hoping to escape. I would shout at them from the third floor of the building, telling them to hold on until the waves receded, and they could come and seek shelter at the manga museum," he recalls.

But the waves kept coming. Although there were just over 10 people in the Ishinomori Manga Museum at the time of the tsunami, it became a shelter for more than 40 people.

From Museum to Shelter

The Ishinomori Manga Museum is situated on a small island in the Kyukitakami River. At the time, bridges allowed access to the island from both sides of the river.

March 2011 | The museum's exterior a few days after the earthquake. (© Sankei)

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the museum was completely cut off from the mainland, as both bridges were destroyed. The only option was to wait for the authorities to rescue those stranded there. 

Luckily, the museum cafe had provisions intended for the weekend rush. Between instant noodles and other foodstuffs, the museum became a shelter for five days until the Japan Self-Defense Forces arrived. 

Omori remembers that the museum provided some solace to those who were feeling anxious:

"The museum was damaged, and everyone was feeling uneasy and worried about their house and their safety. They were also stuck there against their will." 

"But the good thing about the manga museum was that it had a reading corner on the third floor with many manga books. So in the midst of all that worry, people could distract themselves, thanks to the manga."

Continues in: INTERVIEW | Tohoku Recovery: New Beginnings for a Manga Museum and Ishinomaki


Interview by: Shaun Fernando

Additional editing and information by Arielle Busetto.

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