All along the Sanriku coast from Iwate Prefecture to Miyagi Prefecture, brightly colored flags are flying over the rubble of former fishing ports and villages.
In happier times, before the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake that devastated the coast, these flags signified large catches of fish.
Today, survivors of the disaster are hoisting the flags to mourn for fishermen and their family members who have died and to show their determination to rebuild their communities.
In the Oya-Motoyoshi district of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, about 80 percent of the 250 fishermen's households lost their houses on March 11. Three days later, fisherman Iwao Okoshi, 44, living near the fishing port there, found a red flag in the rubble and debris.
The flag read "Tairyo" (Large catch). It is a symbol of the glory of a local fishery cooperative association whose sales of fish exceed 1 billion yen ($11.7 million) a year, and tells of a full catch to the local community.
"You survived, didn't you?" he asked the flag. To show it off to local residents, he chose the biggest piece of driftwood and tied the flag to it.
A week later, Toshiaki Onodera, 53, director of the branch office of the fishery cooperative association, noticed the flag. He rushed to it and clutched it. Then, he felt sadness and thought, "Will the vigorous fishing community return in the future?"
Most parts of the fishing port collapsed in the earthquake and tsunami. Of the 800 fishing boats based there, only 23 can be used.
The number of local fishermen and their family members, who died or are missing, total 60. One was Onodera's superior, who was engaged in seaweed cultivation. Another was a coordinator of the local fishermen. The community lost people who were actively working and were supporting it.
"I want to make a port again where local people are excited about the flag," Onodera said.
The Utatsunotatehama district of Minami-Sanriku in Miyagi Prefecture also suffered devastating damage. Two weeks after the disaster, fisherman Koya Miura, 52, raised two flags where his house had stood.
One of the two was a flag that was presented to the best boat in the town. The flag, which has gold-colored selvages, was the pride of his family. The other flag, which has the kanji characters "Ryuo-Maru," was presented by one of his cousins when his boat was launched.
Immediately before the tsunami hit his town, Miura boarded the Ryuo-Maru along with his eldest son, Tatsunori, 20, following the teaching passed down through generations: "If tsunami come, go to the offing." They stopped their boat in the offing, a distant part of the sea, for two days. By doing so, they survived.
When they returned to the coast, however, they found that not only their house but also the fish market and the port had vanished. Many of Miura's competitors are still missing.
Miura has returned to the coast from an evacuation center. While removing rubble, he said he wants to rebuild his house on a hill.
However, he added, "Fishermen are the same as sea gulls. They have to go to the sea."
He is now determined to resume fishing, and catch the fish that should have been caught by him and his missing colleagues.
Meanwhile, in the coastal city of Shiogama, located in the central part of Miyagi Prefecture, Choei Ito, 79, has been running a boat for anglers since 1965 while operating "Ebisuya Tsuriguten," a fishing supply store.
He had about 50 large catch flags, including those made before World War II, on display in front of the store.
"When the bottom of fishing boats became full of fish, fishermen proudly entered the ports while raising the large catch flags," Ito said.
The first floor of Ito's store was inundated with water from the tsunami. However, he is now quickly repairing his store so that he can restart his boat business as soon as the port is rebuilt.
Meanwhile, dye craftsman Hideo Kikuta, 54, in Kesennuma was holding an uncompleted flag that was covered with mud.
"Probably, a fishing boat that should have raised this flag was washed away," he said sadly.
Many of the flags used by the local fishermen have been made by his factory, which has been in operation for 150 years. Kikuta is the sixth-generation owner of the company, which has produced more than 500 flags a year. They include gorgeous ones decorated in such colors as yellow and red, and flags on which kanji or other characters were all written in black so that the fishing profits would wind up in the black.
On March 11, the tsunami struck his factory, which is located more than a kilometer from the coast, resulting in dye compounds and tools being washed away.
Some walls and pillars were also lost. The clock on the factory wall stopped at 3:39 p.m.
Kikuta does not know when he can restart his business. However, he said, "I want to wait patiently for the day when the orders come."
After the waters of the tsunami retreated, only one flag remained in his factory. Kikuta vowed to make it the first flag produced after he restarts his business.
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