In the last moments of World War II, a few days after Hiroshima and just hours before Nagasaki, a Canadian airman named Robert Hampton Gray was shot down over Onagawa, a small town at the northeast limit of Japan’s main island, Honshu.

Decades later, a monument to Gray was erected there—the only such honor for a foreign combatant on Japanese soil and perhaps Onagawa’s only claim to fame outside the country. Even domestically, the town was mostly unknown until the ocean rolled over it on March 11, 2011.

Located where thickly forested mountains drop into the Pacific and submerged river valleys form a landscape of deep bays and narrow inlets, Onagawa is a relatively new port, founded in 1926, incorporating older fishing hamlets. For centuries, human settlers have been feeding off two fertile ocean currents that converge just offshore, carrying saury and silver salmon practically into their mouths. Less than 50 miles out, there is also a volatile section of seismic fault plane in the trench between the Pacific and Okhotsk plates.

In 1896 a major earthquake displaced seawater through the contours of the surrounding terrain, pushing waves inland and upward to the surrounding slopes. It happened again in 1933, seven years after Onagawa was established.

In both cases, devastated towns and villages were reconstructed at slightly higher elevations, and memorial stones were carved to warn future generations not to build so close to the waterline. But in minato machi, Japanese harbor towns, residents consider themselves people of the sea, and have always been inclined to return. And mountainous volcanic islands don’t leave developers much land to work with, except for low-lying coastal plains.

On May 22, 1960, an earthquake near Valdivia, Chile—still the most powerful ever recorded—sent destructive waves across the Pacific. When they reached northeast Japan the next day, they rose to heights of almost twenty feet, swamping Onagawa.

Town officials who lived through the “Chile tsunami” based disaster planning on that event, and assumed that twenty feet was about as high as tsunami waves would ever get. Breakwaters, seawalls, and evacuation shelters were configured accordingly.

But the earthquake that occurred in the offshore fault plane at 2:46 pm on March 11, 2011, was the most powerful in Japanese history. And the waves that followed 40 minutes later were the largest to strike this coast in more than a thousand years.

There were four or five waves, according to some witnesses, but just one, according to others—a possible effect of separate waves piling up and over each other. They rose to heights of 50, 60, 65 feet, depending on which post-tsunami survey you read. They drowned and dragged away almost 10 percent of Onagawa’s population—close to a thousand people—and destroyed more than 80 percent of its buildings. Tsutomu Yamanaka of the on-site relief agency Japan Platform described Onagawa as “the most damaged town on the coast.”

I went for the first time to Onagawa five weeks later. By then, the disaster was already dropping off the international news agenda. Reactor fires and failures at the crippled, flooded Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had not sent radiation clouds across the Pacific, though it turned out that initial fears of meltdown were valid. Across the world, the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of 2011 is now remembered by the name “Fukushima.”

Some 70 miles northeast of Fukushima and 30 miles closer to the epicenter, Onagawa had its own nuclear power plant. Its three reactors were “remarkably undamaged,” according to a study by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the main port was effectively wiped off the map that afternoon, along with any number of smaller fishing villages. I wanted to see this for myself—a place in the modern world that had suddenly passed from existence. Like Pompeii, or, more fancifully, Atlantis.

“I can’t believe the truth,” said local teacher Ikuo Fujinaka, standing in the ruins near the waterfront, at the former center of town. Consider this, he told me: there was nowhere we could walk within a few blocks, or a few minutes, that had not been at the bottom of the sea on March 11.

He showed me the impossible sights that a tsunami leaves behind—not merely disorder, but a new and weirder order of its own making. Cars flipped upside-down onto the rooftops of four-story buildings. Trucks teetering over each other like seesaws. Trains rolled sideways into graveyards. Motionless fishing boats cresting solid waves of debris, a mile or more from the shoreline. Fujinaka’s own house was not much more than a floor plan on a plot of wasteland. He pointed out where his kitchen had been, his living room, the study where he’d been working when the earthquake hit.

The shaking had lasted for about a minute, throwing all his books from the shelves, and his roof slates into the street. When it stopped, he went outside and started cleaning up, until the tidal gauges fell and the alerts sounded from the waterfront. Fujinaka and a neighbor ran to high ground at the Dai-Ni elementary school.

Fujinaka thought himself comparatively lucky. His three grown daughters in Sendai and Tokyo had been shaken but unhurt. His ex-wife survived the tsunami in the neighboring port city of Ishinomaki. His elderly mother had been safe at the Eirakukai care center on the inland edge of town. By his own count he had lost much less than others: five close friends, his home, and all possessions, including three motorcycles, two of them vintage. One, a 1968 Yamaha DT1, he mourned in particular. He was also grieving for the town itself.

“I wish you could have seen it before,” he said. “It was the most beautiful place in the world.”

I’m not sure I would have agreed. Most modern Japanese towns, including the one I lived in, were pretty in their green spots but grey and ugly everywhere else, all concrete blight and rusting sheet metal. In a country so prone to seismic violence, architectural aesthetics are considered almost beside the point.

The building codes developed in response to past disasters are designed to help structures withstand the ground force of earthquakes, and they worked pretty well in Onagawa. As far as anyone could tell me, the quake itself had caused limited damage and very few deaths, even this close to the epicenter. But the same structures hadn’t offered much resistance to the horizontal force of the tsunami. At the waterfront, only the Marine Pal—a fish market, maritime museum, and seafood restaurant that had been the town’s lone tourist attraction—was still standing, and it had been flooded to the fourth floor.

The Enoshima Ferry terminal was lying on its side near the remains of a small police station and a diet supplement outlet, two more ferro-concrete buildings that were ripped out at the foundations. These three would stay where they lay even when the rest of the debris was removed. They are still there today, serving as memorials that most remaining residents don’t want to look at, and as objects of study for engineers and researchers in fluid dynamics.

Orbiting the ruins were the mountains and pines and the calm sea that had caused all this. The water in the bay is so bright blue that Onagawa’s soccer team was named Cobaltore. Fujinaka, unlike some others I would meet, did not come to fear the ocean. His attitude was more or less that of Hemingway: a town can be destroyed, but not defeated.

Through repeat visits and long stays as a volunteer relief worker, I would come to know Fujinaka and post-tsunami Onagawa well. Most of my fellow volunteers that summer were Japanese from undamaged prefectures—students with time on their hands, retirees, people in their early-to-middle years who were so casually employed that they could get off work or quit altogether. Many of these were what you might call “dropout” types—musicians and the like. Few of us could say that anything had happened to us on March 11. But we all came to feel we had a stake in Onagawa. We planted that stake there ourselves, and it allowed us to claim that we loved the place too. Some of the younger ones said they wouldn’t leave until the town was fixed, however many years that might take.

The work was hot, tough, and often unpleasant, but also mentally and morally straightforward. Sometimes, it was fun. We loaded little Japanese “k-trucks” with debris and drove them to the huge piles in the former Shimizu-Cho district. The earthquake had caused major subsidence at the waterfront, where streets were submerged with each high tide, so we shoveled sand into bags for flood defense. We mixed hundreds of bottles of sake, sugar, and vinegar to catch the flies that swarmed all the dead fish in the rubble.

We spent weeks clearing out the Marine Pal, filling wheelbarrows with black mud and other stinking matter from the seabed. I assumed that we were salvaging the building as part of the general recovery. I only learned much later that the volunteer center was just giving us something to do.

One afternoon out on the roof, months before the Marine Pal was torn down anyway, a local volunteer told me, “I think this town is finished.” Yoshiaki Miura was the only one among us who had been born here. “There’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “They can rebuild but there won’t be much point. Almost everyone I know is leaving, and they’ll only come back once a year for Obon,” Japan’s annual festival of remembrance for the spirits of dead ancestors.

He was halfway gone himself, even before the disaster. He lived in Onagawa but worked at the paper factory in Ishinomaki. Some of his friends had commuted much further. None of them had wanted to work in the local fisheries, and the nuclear power plant, the other main employer, mostly hired from outside the town.

Miura was 32 years old at the time, which put him squarely in the town’s smallest demographic. Onagawa has long been aging even faster than the rest of Japan. At the time of the tsunami, almost 40 percent of the population was over 65, as compared to 24 percent nationwide. The majority of those now registered dead or missing had been among the oldest residents. I heard many accounts of elderly relatives and neighbors who had not been able to run for high ground, or to hang on when they were engulfed. Some had told their children or grandchildren to save themselves. A sad irony of Japanese disaster awareness, and an oversight in local emergency planning: those old enough to remember the last tsunami may also be too old to easily escape it, even given 30 minutes warning. Another, bigger issue: many younger people had not even tried to run, or climb any higher than their second floors, because they thought they knew what to expect.

‘It’s too much, and it’s too complicated. It’s like trying to rebuild Troy after the siege.’

But there had not been a tsunami like this one, on this coast, since the Jogan Event: a “tsunamigenic” earthquake of proportions similar to March 11, occurring in the same offshore fault plane, in the year 869 CE. Japanese forecasting science is based on known patterns of recurrence, and there’s an argument that a repeat event was predictable, if not inevitable.

It’s been further argued (most vocally by Robert J. Geller, a seismologist at the University of Tokyo) that this latest rupture shows the limits of that system. But if Japan’s most advanced computer models and seismic risk maps could not anticipate this disaster, then the victims can hardly be blamed for forgetting, or never even knowing, what happened here ten or fifteen lifetimes ago.

“If you live your whole live in Onagawa, you will probably experience a tsunami,” said Tabayashi Tamura, a 70-year old survivor I met toward the end of the summer. “If you’re lucky, it will be a fairly small one. If you’re not, well. . . . There’s no way to stop it. You can’t go up against nature. You can’t win. All you can do is rebuild, and rebuild again.” But you could also move, I suggested—perhaps a moot point in Tamura’s case, since his house was one of the few still standing, amid tall pines on the rearward slope of Shimizu-Cho.

He had built it himself from those trees a few years earlier, as a kind of retirement project. He showed me the point on the porch that the tsunami had reached on March 11, and invited me in for cold tea. His living room still smelled of fresh wood, and of the books stacked on his hand-made shelves. He was very thin and walked with a cane, but was stylishly dressed in an Italian flat cap, loose linen trousers, and a crisp white shirt.

Tamura said he had no reason to move, especially now, having just lived through his second tsunami, which he felt sure would be his last. But he didn’t feel as safe as he used to, even in a house far enough from the ocean that we couldn’t see the water from where we were sitting. “I find the beach quite frightening now,” he told me. At this point the debris had been mostly cleared from Tamura’s area, and the scene reminded him of what Onagawa looked like when he was a boy, especially here in the interior—all forests or rice fields, no cars or concrete buildings.

At the same time, he could remember when the port itself was full of boats and people, and the population was almost twice what it had been even before the disaster. That was a smaller, busier town of 18,000 or more. “People started disappearing a long time ago,” he said. “The young people, anyway.” Tamura had been a career commuter himself, working an administration job at the University of Tohoku in Sendai. He understood why people wanted to avoid the business of Onagawa: “Catching fish, processing fish, sending fish to market.”

But he suspected that the future Onagawa, in whatever form it might take, would be even smaller, emptier, quieter, and older. “I know they’re making plans, but it will take years for them to build it. By the time they do, I’ll probably be gone.” I didn’t know then that Tamura had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and I was not in Onagawa when he died in December 2011.

I returned for the one-year anniversary of the disaster in March 2012. By that time the town had been further erased, and the former center was an empty snowfield running down to the sea. There were new roads and streetlights in place, but no one was around—the remaining population had since been dispersed to cramped and prefabricated short-term housing units around the edges of town and beyond.

The only activity was at the waterfront, where the leading local fisheries had pooled resources and installed replacement processing and cold storage facilities. In a temporary office to one side of the harbor, Tatsuo Hayashi chain-smoked and fretted about the future of his company, Kyodo Seafoods.

Hayashi had lost two of his three factories in the tsunami, and he could just about afford to build a new plant for producing kamoboko (fish cakes). “But then what?” he asked. The national government in Tokyo plans to establish a “special fishing zone” in the waters off Onagawa, which would merge the various local companies into a kind of super-cooperative.

“Let’s say we rebuild the harbor, and try to develop a big industry here, instead of lots of smaller, separate businesses like before,” Hayashi said. “We’d need more boats, more money, more equipment, and more people. We would have to make a bigger Onagawa. But after this disaster, I can only see it getting smaller. And the town is still deciding what it wants to do.”

By “the town,” Hayashi might have meant its government, public, or both. From what I could gather, the relationship between the two had always been much the same as elsewhere in Japan: generally defined by apathy, bad faith, and a mutual agreement to uphold the appearance of consensus. The disaster seemed to negate this, exposing anger and ambivalence on every issue.

Most pressingly, the town could not agree about Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant. Even relatively minor damage and a slight spike in local radiation levels had spooked many into changing long-held views on the subject. “If these reactors are so safe, why don’t they build them in Tokyo?” asked Toshihiko Sato, a carpenter and calligrapher I met at the shelter in the Shogen-ji temple. “All the power they generate is going [to Tokyo] anyway.”

He never liked the plant, he told me, but it had not actively worried him until March 11. His son worked there, and they argued about it after the tsunami. The reactors had been in cold shutdown since then—along with every other reactor in Japan—generating no power for Tokyo, and no money for Onagawa. Before the tsunami, taxes and subsidies from the plant had provided up to 60 percent of the town’s revenue. The plant’s owners, the Tohoku Electric Power Company, had bankrolled the construction of all of Onagawa’s latter-day landmarks: the Marine Pal, the municipal hospital, and the Sogotaikan sports center. Nobutaka Azumi, the mayor at the time of the disaster, had insisted that the plant would help to fund the recovery if and when the power was switched back on.

But Azumi had never been especially popular. He had another home, outside Onagawa, and was seen as an infrequent presence after the tsunami. He was defeated in the local elections of November 2011, and the town council was largely replaced with candidates who were less openly supportive of the power company. Three new councilors are card-carrying members of Japan’s Communist Party, and they actively oppose the plant.

When I visited on the first anniversary, Hiroshi Takano, one of those Communist town councilors, told me that even if the plant were reactivated, its revenues would not “scratch the surface” of the costs from the tsunami. More to the point, he said, the public does not believe it is safe. “Not any more.” A new and much younger mayor, Yoshiaki Suda, promised a “thousand-year plan” for the future of Onagawa, which prompted some of his elders to joke that even a two-year plan would do.

There had, in fact, been an abundance of proposals since the disaster, and the Onagawa Reconstruction Design Committee—a select panel of local planners and outside consultants—had slowly advanced a simple but logistically daunting master plan to clear and level ten sites for new residential areas on surrounding mountainsides. The extracted earth would be used to raise the lower town and waterfront, for commercial and industrial use only.

The design firm Urban Renaissance was drafted to oversee the project, and the construction giant Kajima was later contracted to perform the engineering work. But that process hadn’t even begun yet, for reasons that Urban Renaissance Chief Architect Masunori Kusaka took hours to unload, when I asked him in his office at the new town hall—another prefab building, the original having been destroyed. For one thing, he said, the town couldn’t afford it. The estimated cost of even basic reconstruction was 300 billion yen (over $3 billion)—more than twenty times Onagawa’s annual budget. Post-disaster funding from Tokyo was capped in such a way that most of that burden would fall back on the town.

In any case, Tokyo had been chronically slow to make decisions and allocate funds. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan paid for that perceived inaction, which effectively forced his resignation in August 2011. But even a full year after the tsunami, the branch of the newly formed national Reconstruction Agency nearest to Onagawa had only three full-time staff to consider and approve plans for hundreds of towns and villages. The issue of outstanding mortgage payments on destroyed homes had not yet been settled. (The banks would eventually agree to drop 5 million yen, about $55,000, of each outstanding debt.) Inheritance rights have created further delays; the government can’t buy the land those houses once stood on if owners’ families don’t want to sell.

According to Kusaka, the town’s planning department—having suffered their own losses on March 11 and having no experience of reconstruction on such a monumental scale—is not well placed to solve these problems. “I am not sure they can do this job,” he said. “But I’m also starting to doubt that the job can actually be done. We are talking about altering 236 hectares of land. It’s too much, and it’s too complicated. It’s like trying to rebuild Troy after the siege.” Most fundamentally, he told me, “Many people here don’t want the place to change.” I had heard this confirmed by a lot of local fishermen, and fisherwomen too. “No boats, no equipment, no work,” said Chikako Kimura, a former kakimuki, or oyster-opener, in one of Onagawa’s smaller hamlets, Oura.

Her house had survived March 11. But even if it hadn’t, she told me, she would not have gone along with the town’s proposed consolidation of fifteen separate hamlets into three new villages at a higher elevation. “We don’t want to live where we can’t see our boats,” she explained, those boats being purely figurative at this point. “The tsunami was scary, but the sea hasn’t changed.”

On March 11, 2012, the official memorial ceremony was held at the Sogotaikan center, but I stayed down at the waterfront with some other visitors and ex-volunteers. Coast guard crews were still looking for the bodies of more than 300 missing residents. One of their boats sounded a long blast on its siren at 2:46 pm, the moment of the earthquake. A freezing wind blew in off the bay, and I tried to imagine how cold that water must have been a year ago.

I was last in Onagawa in October 2012. Autumn is the best time to be in Japan, and Ikuo Fujinaka, the teacher who first showed me the ruins of the town, had invited me for a walk in the mountains above. He was still living in the grim prefabricated unit he called his “rabbit house” and still waiting for construction to begin on new public housing, now scheduled for 2014. Like most of those still left in Onagawa, he didn’t have much of a choice.

Between the compensation, the compulsory purchase of his land, and a minimal payout from Japan’s government-underwritten disaster insurance system, he received less than half of what he needed to rebuild privately. Those who could afford it, or couldn’t wait until the town had new homes and jobs to offer, were leaving to make new lives elsewhere. The most recent count had put the population at about 6,000, but Fujinaka guessed that the real figure was below 4,000.

He was teaching again, at his own classroom, made from repurposed shipping containers, on the high school grounds. I sat in on a couple of his English classes and asked the students if they had any ideas for the future of Onagawa. They all said that they wanted it the way it was before. When I asked them if they wanted to join the fisheries, they laughed and admitted that they didn’t.

On a warm and cloudless morning Fujinaka and I hiked to the summit of Kuromori Yama, “Black Forest Mountain.” He marked our route out with a GPS and took pictures of the native flowers and plants. The town hall had asked him to help develop local nature trails and eco-tourism as a strand of the ongoing recovery. He hadn’t been up this way for years, and it didn’t look like anyone else had either.

The trail was so overgrown that we had to cut our way through with machetes, and the view from the top was obscured by almost primal forest. We didn’t talk about the tsunami, though I asked about his mother, who had moved in with his sister in Tokyo after the disaster. She was 97 years old and suffering from dementia. Some days, he told me, she could not remember that she ever lived in Onagawa. And some days she forgot that there ever was an Onagawa.

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