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Tsunami Spares Japan's Pine-Covered Islands

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

In Japan the epicenter of last month's earthquake was located just off Matsushima Bay. Its pine-covered islands are considered one of Japan's scenic treasures. The tsunami destroyed nearby cities, but amazingly Matsushima was spared. NPR's John Burnett explains why in this postcard.

JOHN BURNETT: Over the ages, the deep-blue waves of Matsushima Bay have sculpted these rock islands into fantastical shapes, on top of which grow miniature forests of pine trees. Each year, three million people come from around the world to behold the islands of Matsushima. Pleasure-boat skippers make a good living ferrying sightseers out to the islets. Sai'ichi Aizawa should be more upset that the tsunami sunk his cabin cruiser, but when he looks around he feels grateful.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: The tsunami reached frightening heights elsewhere along the coast - 30 feet and higher. But here in Matsushima Bay, they say the sea only rose three to five feet. According to the village website, 13 people died here and in outlying areas. Businesses that face the bay in Matsushima Town took water, to be sure, but the damage is relatively minor. Here, the tsunami was more a gentle flood than an onrushing bulldozer. The islands acted as a buffer.

MONTAGNE: ((Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: A 60-year-old oyster fisherman named Shigeru Watanabe climbs the stairs to a tall hill that offers a commanding overlook of the islands of Matsushima.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Watanabe squints at the green islands that he's known all of his life. He explored them as a boy, and today he harvests oysters from their azure waters.

(SOUNDBITE OF GONG)

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: When you live in the bay, he says, you don't worry as much about tsunamis. We're fishermen and we understand the ways of the sea. We know how tsunamis behave here.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: In fact, the islands probably look much as they did when their splendor inspired the famous haiku in 1689, which is attributed to the great Japanese nature poet, Matsuo Basho, and recited here by the oysterman Shigeru Watanabe.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLEARING THROAT)

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.