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Japan earthquake: Once-bustling town has quite simply ceased to exist

Koichi Tsuto returned to the tsunami-battered town of Minami Sanriku yesterday to see what — if anything — remained of his family home.

Like almost everything else in this town of 17,666 people, it was washed into the sea.

“The water was 10 metres high,” recalls Mr Tsuto, who watched in horror from the surrounding mountains as Friday's tsunami roared into |Minami Sanriku and took away everything he had in a giant muddy deluge.

“It was like a mountain of water,” says Mr Tsuto. Beside him, his wife Fujiko looks shattered, defeated. They have come to see if there is anything left — and come away empty handed.

The tsunami has left this town in ruins, reducing wooden houses to matchsticks, twisting metal girders as if they were strips of liquorice. Cars, along with everything else, were pushed two kilometres inland before coming to a muddy stop. Gas cookers, children's toys, photograph albums and trucks are among the detritus deposited all along the tsunami's trail. And an estimated 10,000 people have simply vanished.

“I've come to look for my mother and father,” says Yuki Sugawara (25), who took two days to reach this town from Sendai City, about 50 kilometres away. His ruined home town is almost completely silent apart from the caw of crows and the distant hiss of a sea that erupted with such terrible, unexpected violence three days ago.

His old schoolfriend Makoto Ishida, also 25, is from the same town. “I haven't been able to contact my mother or grandmother,” Mr Ishida says. “I just came to see what's left.”

Viewed from the mountains that ring this once-picturesque farming and tourist town, the devastation is almost total. A house, tottering on its side, somehow survived the deluge. The post office, no doubt bustling on Friday, is recognisable only by its battered sign.

A car lies on its back in a landscape of still-smouldering steel and chopped wood. Power lines and telephone cables have disappeared. Underneath, the rescue workers say there may be bodies — those that haven't been carried into the Pacific.

In one of the world's richest countries, it is a shocking sight: a once-thriving town flattened into the ground, its modern |infrastructure stripped bare, |its people — office workers, |students and farmers — reduced to walking in search of homes that are no longer there. |Minami Sanriku has effectively ceased to exist.

Japan is ageing, its economy past its peak, its government struggling with huge debt. How will it pay for the recovery of towns like Minami Sanriku?

“Right now, we're just thinking of tomorrow and saving people,” says community spokesman, Jin Sasaki. “However long it takes, we will rebuild. People are depending on us to bring the town back.”

But Mrs Chiba, huddling with her daughter and waiting for her husband to come home, will not be among the rebuilders.

“I could never go back. I can't even think about it. I can never feel safe in that town now.”

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