On a Mission with Japanese Soldiers in the Quake Zone

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When Koji Haga looked toward the shore and saw the massive earthquake shuddering through his village of Akaushi on March 11, he knew what would come next. After all, every school child in the area is taught that roughly every 50 years, a seismic seizure triggers a giant wave that engulfs this tightknit fishing community. It had been a half-century since the last tsunami. Akaushi was due for another deluge.

Gunning the engine of his 20-meter fishing boat, the lone captain did something that might seem counter-intuitive; he headed further out to sea. The surface water was choppy and tossed his boat around, but the force was nothing like the killer tsunami that churned below. By the time the giant wave flooded over northern Japan, at least 10,000 people were feared dead, including five from Akaushi. “It was like the movie The Perfect Storm,” recalls Haga, his wind-chapped cheeks reddening his face. “I had a starring role.”

For two days, the 41-year-old fisherman stayed at sea, a tiny spot on the distant skyline, waiting for the tsunami alert broadcast by boat radio to subside so he could return to shore safely. As he peered at the coast, he could see that his home near the shore had been washed away. When I came across him, barely 24 hours after coming ashore, he was knee-deep in the wreckage of his home, excavating yearbooks, stuffed animals and sodden rice from the debris.

This was the fourth day after the earthquake, and the TIME team had come to Akaushi with the 20th Infantry 4th Division, part of a 100,000-strong Japanese armed-forces rescue effort that is fanning out across northern Japan. As the fresh-faced soldiers marched through the utterly destroyed village, residents rushed over to meet them. Each bowed deeply and numerously—a ritual of gratitude that felt incongruous in this ruined landscape. “It’s been four days, and we haven’t really seen many people,” said Haga, his eyes welling up, bowing again and again. “I’m so glad someone’s finally come.”

The soldiers canvassed the area, poking bamboo sticks in upturned cars and peering into houses sheared of walls like dollhouses. The roof of Haga’s house had settled about 20 meters away from the foundation. Much of the rest of the building had ended up 300 meters away around a forested corner. Surveying the apocalyptic landscape, the 20th Infantry’s Yoshiyuki Hishinuma shook his head. “We want to do so much, but look at this, what can we do? If we had dogs, it would be easier to find bodies.”

Still, they pressed on, climbing higher into the hills, and hopefully asking the residents who came out to meet them whether there were any trapped survivors who needed digging out. Instead, they fielded more prosaic but vital needs. One woman had no water. Another needed adult diapers for her elderly mother. Infant formula had run out. Hishinuma took down the requests carefully, promising to radio them into headquarters and dispatch relief supplies as soon as possible.

But across the area affected by the quake and tsunami, basic supplies were running out, a potent reminder of how quickly chains of delivery can break down, even in a place as highly advanced as Japan. Indeed, even as the country mobilized an unprecedented number of armed forces and volunteers to help with the rescue and relief effort, many of the roads in the area were devoid of any relief vehicles at all. I saw none of the bumper-to-bumper aid convoys that often crowd disaster scenes. Separately, ships from the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, which had been traveling toward the affected city of Sendai as part of the American relief effort, diverted because of radioactive material detected over the ocean from a damaged nuclear reactor in Fukushima Prefecture. Continued tsunami alerts and aftershocks also hampered relief efforts. Meanwhile, Haga put aside his family mementos for a more serious task: transferring sodden, unhusked rice from a metal barrel to sacks and boxes to take back to his family. Food was in short supply, and this ruined grain was better than nothing.