On Japan’s Coast, Survivors Fear the Fate of Their Towns

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The 300-year-old Daiou temple is the last thing left standing in its neighborhood of Minami Sanriku, perched over a tangled sea of what were once greenhouses, cars, houses and lives. A delicate bronze Buddha statue, just feet away from a trailer that has been tossed on its side, observes the destruction from behind a barrier of trees planted when the temple was built on this hill centuries ago. Before that, Daiou-Ji used to be across the valley, in an area that came to be known as Obune, or Big Ship, after a tsunami carried boats inland. Wisely, the priests decided to relocate.

This is not the first time that Minami Sanriku, a small fishing town on Japan’s east coast, has had to face the process of recovering from a major natural catastrophe. But many here, where the devastation is almost complete, are wondering if it will be the last. Though the official death toll for the city was 330 on Tuesday, over half the town’s population of 18,000 is now living in evacuation centers, and the rest are still missing, presumed either to be staying with relatives outside the city and unreachable, or to be dead. As incalculable losses are being tallied up and down the coast of Japan, people here are now beginning to face the prospect that after this, their town simply might not exist.

On Tuesday, Koujin Ojima, the temple’s priest, presided over the his first funeral since the tsunami hit on March 11. Next week, both for efficiency and because many families do not have bodies to mourn, he will hold a group funeral. Since it’s a fishing town, Ojima says he’s used to organizing funerals for missing fisherman whose bodies have not been recovered. But, he says, “This is like the Titanic. The whole town has sunk.”

Ten days into this catastrophe, residents are only now beginning to make their way back to their homes and businesses to absorb the magnitude of what has happened to them. Until two days ago, most roads leading into the city were still blocked with debris, and there was no way for people who had evacuated to move around. In the gray drizzle of the afternoon, Michiyo Takahashi and her husband wander around the empty cement foundations of what used to be their bento shop, trying to piece together the scene they once knew. There was the hospital. There was the road. “A lot of people are saying we will not live here anymore,” says Takahashi, who is 69. “How can we live here?”

It’s a question that Jin Sato, Minami Sanriku’s mayor who is now running the city from the town sports arena, is scrambling to try to answer. Sato was in a meeting in city hall, which is now gone, when the earthquake struck. He and his colleagues, 30 in all, evacuated to an emergency center on higher ground, where Sato began to notify the city over loudspeaker that a tsunami was on the way. But they were not safe either: 20 of their group were swept off the roof. The 10 who were not, including Sato, survived by holding onto poles and fences. Most of the 20 who perished were young — the next generation who would help usher this small, aging town into the future. “It will be very, very difficult to rebuild the economy here,” says Sato, standing in the gymnasium of the sports arena as weight-lifting equipment is being moved to make way for more supplies. “Without the support of the government, it won’t be possible.”

In addition to functioning as the de facto city hall, the sports arena has become the morgue, the dental clinic, the emergency room and the home for hundreds of evacuees who have carved out small spaces for themselves demarcated by cardboard-box walls. It’s also the gathering point for organizations like the local fishermen’s cooperative, whose members sit outside in the parking lot, keeping their hands warm over an open fire of driftwood. Nobody is certain when or how the fishing and aquaculture industry will recover here, both because so many of its members died or are presumed dead, and because its infrastructure, like that of other port towns up and down Japan’s east coast, was wiped out in the wave. “The question is, How many people are going to stay? That’s what we don’t know,” says Shigero Sugawara, who grew up in Minami Sanriku and worked in the offices of the cooperative that were swept away. “My personal hope is that people will stay and try to reconstruct together … This is not a matter of whether we can rebuild or not. We should.”

Even for an outsider, it’s hard to visualize how that will happen — and who will be here to do it. A large proportion of the surviving population of the isolated town is elderly (all but one of the city’s elderly homes were, in rare good news, on higher ground). Many residents have already left to relatives’ houses in nearby cities where the wreckage was not as complete, and will probably not return. Shigeru Tsukamoto, a 75-year-old retired school principal who survived the tsunami by clinging to a window frame as the water surged through his home, says as soon as the roads opened his children came from the nearby city of Sendai to take him with them. He refused to leave. “I wanted to stay and find out what was happening and if the government will build temporary housing,” he says.

So far, there has been no official word on what happens next in Minami Sanriku. Younger people are not sure how long they can wait. Sitting around a fire at the temple, refugees listen to each other’s stories in the dark, drinking hot tea. For the past week, they have all been stuck in their own kinds of limbo. One woman, who preferred not be named, is still looking for her husband, a fireman. “I go every day to the area to find the body. I still don’t have any information,” she says, staring into the flame. Osamu Katsukura, who is 48 and has lived all his life in this town, says he doesn’t want to leave here to live with relatives outside the city, but he doesn’t know what else to do. He would move into temporary housing, but it’s unclear when it’s being built. “To go somewhere where I don’t know anyone is a little bit scary,” he says. “But I can’t just stay here and wait. I can’t do that.”

With reporting by Ken Daimaru

More from TIME.com: Full coverage of the earthquake and its aftermath