His city had excellent access to the sea.
That morning, Toshikatsu Kumagai, a 34-year-old newspaper reporter, set off in the same direction, stopping in a nearby town to get details about a local council budget meeting. It was shaping up as a slow news day. Kumagai’s paper, circulation 5,000, would hit the streets that afternoon with a front-page story about an elderly councilman who had died of an ulcer and an article about children who had performed well in an abacus contest.
A few miles away, on the other side of Ishinomaki, Taylor Anderson, a 24-year-old English teacher from Richmond, rode her bike that morning to Mangokuura Elementary School. She needed to work on plans for a graduation ceremony the next day.
Spring was close at hand, but the fields were still brown. The forecast called for a late-winter snow. The ocean was cold, gray and calm.
Out at sea, beneath the floor of the Pacific, immense and chaotic geological forces were at work. They were invisible to humans, save for the suggestion in the rugged landscape that this is a place shaped by ancient compressions and upheavals.
In this land of volcanoes, earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis, the Japanese people have overcome natural catastrophes and a terrible world war to create a highly advanced, technological society. They pride themselves on disaster preparation. Their buildings can roll with seismic waves. Their coastal cities have seawalls and tsunami sirens.
In Ishinomaki, loudspeakers dangled from lampposts, ready to broadcast the warning that a wave was coming and everyone must run for higher ground.
Mayors, journalists, teachers, schoolchildren — they all knew how to take cover under a desk when the earth began to shake. They were fully prepared for a disaster.
But no one could have been ready for the one they got.
Taylor Anderson taught English to Japanese students in a program that assigned her to eight different schools in this coastal city. She had been in Japan 21
2 years, working on contract with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET). She loved the country, loved the language, loved reading Japanese authors and had begun to play taiko, the Japanese drum.
She hung out with other American teachers, organizing their trips to karaoke bars. The American schoolteachers in Ishinomaki called themselves the “Ishi crew,” and many lived in the same apartment building in an older part of the city.
Ishinomaki, population 162,000, wasn’t anyone’s first choice for a teaching assignment. It wasn’t as exciting as Tokyo or even Sendai. And it had a certain smell. That was one of the first things many Americans noticed. Fish processors made pink paste that the Japanese plopped onto ramen noodles. Miso factories made paste from fermented soybeans. Another factory made paper, and another made soy sauce.