1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Japan: Ishikawa earthquake survivors strive to rebuild lives

Sonja Blaschke in Wajima and Suzu, Japan
January 11, 2024

Landslides and bad weather continue to hamper rescue efforts in the remote rural region devastated by the January 1 earthquake. The magnitude 7.6 quake caused some of the strongest tremors on record.

Destroyed buildings in Wajima, Japan, following the quake.
A large swath of land in Wajima was reduced to nothing but charcoal, molten plastic and metal after a massive fire raged through the famous morning market Image: Sonja Blaschke

On New Year's Day, Shinngi Takesono was in his car when he felt a magnitude 5.7 foreshock. He stopped to call his wife Hatsue, asking her to turn off a heater at home — a potential fire risk.

The 58-year-old is the chief priest at a 500-year-old wooden temple in the center of the small town of Wajima in the northwest of Japan.

Shortly afterward, 59-year-old Hatsue, to whom he had gotten married only five years earlier, texted him back to say she had shut off the heater. It was the last time he heard from her.

When Takesono rushed back to the temple next to their 45-year-old house two minutes later, the main quake hit. The shaking was so strong he couldn't even get out of the car. Then, right in front of his eyes, their house collapsed, its ground floor completely squashed.

He called his wife's name many times. She did not answer. "I wish I had just told her to save herself," said Takesono, full of regret and choking back tears in the temple yard covered with broken roof tiles and debris.

The quake caused huge devastation and cracks in the streets in Wajima town
The extent of the destruction is on a scale rarely seen even in earthquake-prone JapanImage: Sonja Blaschke

In the afternoon, two police search units, including a sniffer dog, began taking turns climbing into the rubble, carrying out loose bits and pieces, and smashing obstacles with heavy tools. But after well over three hours they had to give up, coming out empty-handed.

Takesono now wants his story to be a cautionary tale to others. In a twist of fate, just a few meters across the street, a large swath of land was reduced to nothing but charcoal and molten plastic and metal, still smoldering four days later after a massive fire raged through the famous morning market and lacquerware quarter after the quake. It destroyed about 200 buildings and a legacy but left Takesono's temple unscathed.

Quake causes widespread destruction

Hatsue is one of 102 people in Ishikawa prefecture whose fate currently remains unknown since the magnitude 7.6 earthquake rocked the Noto Peninsula just over a week ago.

As of Tuesday, 202 deathshad been confirmed, 91 and 81 respectively in the most severely affected towns of Suzu and Wajima.

At least 565 people were injured. The tremors, which reached the highest levels of six and seven on the Japanese "Shindo," or seismic intensity, scale, destroyed at least 1,400 houses — not even counting the most affected areas. They also triggered tsunami warnings along the Japanese west coast, sinking boats and wrecking sea walls, cars and houses in Suzu.

Japan's earthquake-ravaged Wajima lies in ruins

On arrival in Wajima 72 hours later, the air was filled with blaring sirens from ambulances and fire trucks and the droning of helicopters. This soundscape was regularly pierced by the shrieking noise of yet another quake alarm pushed to mobile phones.

The extent of the destruction is on a scale rarely seen even in earthquake-prone Japan: entire quarters, especially those with many traditional buildings, have been turned into large heaps of displaced roofs, broken tiles, splintered wooden pillars, glass shards, scattered belongings and squashed cars. Power lines are dangling from tilted electricity poles, and maintenance holes are protruding from sunken streets.

In the town center, a modern concrete apartment block of seven stories, built under much stricter rules than older buildings, fell 90 degrees to one side. Despite that, a couple used a ladder to climb back inside four days later, trying to retrieve cushions from their kitchen. "Don't film this house," the woman said upset.

Another concrete building drilled itself into the ground, now leaning slightly over one of the main road arteries into town. Most streets have massive cracks and holes, and the pavement is covered in mud due to liquefaction.

Finding survivors is a race against time

"Seventy-two hours are considered the critical window, after which the chances of survival shrink rapidly," said Kuniyuki Kawasaki, general manager at the 175-bed Wajima Municipal Hospital. Its lobby was filled with Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, soldiers from the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, Red Cross workers and other rescue personnel from across the country.

Police searching through the rubble of a destroyed house in Wajima
Survivors have been fighting fear, cold, hunger and difficult sanitary conditions, with the quake cutting off the water supply across large parts of the Noto PeninsulaImage: Sonja Blaschke

Patients brought in after that crucial window were usually badly injured, Kawasaki pointed out. After being trapped under heavy structures, the victims' legs would often turn purple, and would have to be amputated to save their lives.

However, doctors knew from experience that patients in their 80s and 90s would not have the physical strength to survive the operation, Kawasaki said. So even if the patient was still alive, doctors could sometimes do nothing but watch them die, he noted.

"It is unbearable," he said, explaining several times how sad the tragic events made him feel, in a raw display of emotions not usually seen in Japan.

Survivors have been fighting fear, cold, hunger and difficult sanitary conditions, with the quake cutting off the water supply across large parts of the Noto Peninsula. "Finally, we got some portable toilets today," a female employee at the shelter near Takesono's temple said on January 5. They had been providing special plastic bags to people, which are either discarded after one use or left in the toilet bowl until full.

A day earlier, a major local supermarket was able to open its doors once again. A long line soon formed out in front, with many people eager to buy water and sanitary items like diapers, said employee Ryouto Sabu.

He greeted customers, holding up a sign saying, "only 10 items per household please." It had taken Sabu and his colleagues five hours to travel from their store's headquarters in Hakusan to Wajima, a trip that usually takes just two hours. The drive currently includes utterly terrifying sections with hundreds of landslides left, right and even above tunnels.

Ryouto Sabu, a retail worker in Wajima, holds up a sign saying, 'In order to protect as many lives as possible, please allow us to limit the number of items one household can purchase to 10'
Ryouto Sabu, an employee at a supermarket in Wajima, holds up a sign saying, 'In order to protect as many lives as possible, please allow us to limit the number of items one household can purchase to 10'Image: Sonja Blaschke

The trip is made even more complicated by rocks the size of a car blocking entire lanes, parts of the roads that have dropped by over a meter, deep fissures and fallen trees held back by power cables.

Added to that are the long traffic jams, with even rescue teams being stuck for hours.

'Some places are still cut off'

Rescue and relief efforts have been even slower in more remote places like hard-hit Suzu, a town of 12,000 people at the northernmost tip of the peninsula.

"Some places are still cut off, as roads are not usable. However, they have received some help from helicopters," an exhausted-looking Yukiya Ozawa said on January 6, one of his shoes only held together by tape.

The manager at of the general affairs department at Suzu town hall said that while food supplies had finally started to arrive, the lack of toilets, heating and gasoline was a major problem. Only very few places had electricity and there was no running water anywhere. "About 80% to 90% of the buildings are not inhabitable," he said. Ozawa estimated that 90% of the town's population were currently staying in shelters.

Nevertheless, a glimmer of hope is in sight for Suzu. Ozawa said they were promised that they would receive the first units of temporary housing on January 12. According to Ishikawa authorities, more than 28,000 people remain in about 400 shelters.

The weather has deteriorated since the weekend, bringing torrential rain and snow and raising the landslide risk even further. The meteorological agency has warned of further aftershocks, with a maximum seismic intensity of a strong 5 or higher within the next month.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru