The year was 1996. Four friends on the equivalent of an American post-college road trip — except this trip was in Japan. I had been traveling alone, by train, northward from Kyoto to Tokyo, where I met my college roommate, Hiroko. Two years before, we had graduated from a small liberal arts college in Indiana, where I had majored in Japanese.
We stayed with Hiroko’s family for a few days in Tokyo before meeting Mariko, a Japanese woman who’d been an exchange student at our alma mater some years before and remained a friend. The three of us got on the Tohoku Shinkansen and headed north to meet by another good college friend, an American named Pete. Pete was teaching English in Morioka for a few years, and he had a car and an apartment there in Iwate Prefecture.
The four of us piled into Pete’s car and drove into the mountains. Northeastern Japan is rugged and cool, with fall colors to rival New England’s. It was late summer, nearly September, and the smell of fall was creeping into the air. We visited small, out of the way tourist stops: A dairy farm, a cave, a hot springs resort nestled in the woods. We snapped pictures of ourselves at the tops of mountains, with the dark green hills in the distance. We took winding hillside roads down to the coast, where fishing villages were trapped between the mountains and the sea.
Pete drove us to Taro-chi, a small town clustered around a protected cove. A narrow inlet offered a view of the open ocean. The sun dropped and softened rocks along the shore. We took pictures. We read a plaque on a memorial at the docks.
Taro was destroyed by tsunamis in 1611, 1896 and 1933. In 1933, the village lost nearly half of its total population and most of its buildings. The town decided to build a protective tsunami wall, 26 feet in height. It became the largest such seawall in the world. The problem, aside from the earthquake-prone geology of Japan, was that narrow inlet, which protected the boats in storms but channeled powerful tsunami waves inland.
We were respectful, reading that plaque in Taro on a late August afternoon, but the thing about being in your early 20s is that the world seems full of unlimited, shining possibilities. The kind of destruction that comes from stories-high walls of water is unbelievable, an impossibility. A seawall seems like it could be enough. The bravery of those people who lived in Taro, some of whom remembered the 1933 waves, surely could not be tested again.
Taro was destroyed by tsunamis in 1611, 1896, 1933 and on March 11, 2011.
The Wall That Taro-cho Built. An article about Taro’s residents who remember the 1933 tsunami and about the building of their seawall.