Richard Halberstadt shows Dublin, Ga., Mayor Phil Best and a Global Atlanta reporter scenes of the devastation at the Ishinomaki Community and Info Center. Photo by Trevor Williams

For Richard Halberstadt, the earthquake and tsunami that pummeled the coastline of Japan’s Tohoku region in 10 years ago brought about a stark choice: flee to safety of his native England, or stay for the place that had been his adoptive home since 1993.  

The British professor in the port city of Ishinomaki decided on the latter, and he knows he was lucky to be alive, let alone have a choice to help. 

“Eventually I decided I just couldn’t leave my friends here,” he said, after conferring with British consular officials in the city of Sendai.  

At stake was not only the devastation wrought by the disaster, but the ongoing threat of fallout from the flooded Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor more than 80 miles down the coast. He spent a sleepless night considering his future.  

“I came back to Ishinomaki, and that really sort of cemented my position in the city,” Mr. Halberstadt said, describing how he waited out the tsunami initially at the Ishinomaki Senshu University and then at a nearby hotel converted into a shelter. Food was hard to come by for days, and power and communications were severed, forcing people to seek news by word of mouth.  

Still he remains, now running the Ishinomaki Community and Info Center, which is dedicated to documenting both the trauma of the destruction and the resolute rebuilding of the city that suffered the worst string of casualties from the tsunami that struck March 11, 2011.  

“Ishinomaki is a city of many sad number ones,” Mr. Halberstadt said, noting the “dark tourism” that draws many delegations there to learn about the devastation and recovery efforts. 

A city of about 163,000 before the disaster, Ishinomaki weathered about 3,300 of the more than 18,000 deaths and disappearances Japan has attributed to the disaster. Hundreds of residents are still missing. The names of the dead are inscribed on a cenotaph recently installed at a memorial park set to be opened March 28. The toll includes not only those who lost their lives by horrible means such as drowning or the impact of stray debris, but also all who died after the fact from stress-induced suicide and other health-related causes. 

Global Atlanta spoke with Mr. Halberstadt in 2019 during a visit to the city as part of a broader examination of Georgia’s ties with the Tohoku region.  

Thanks in large part to YKK, the Japanese company that makes both zippers and architectural products in the state, the disaster’s ripple effects were felt as far away as middle Georgia within hours.  

In May 2019, Mayor Phil Best visits the YKK AP factory in Dublin’s sister city of Osaki, exchanging cards with Mayor Yasushi Ito and former Mayor Buichiro Sato, seated with an American flag, who signed their sister-city partnership more than 20 years before. Photo: Trevor Williams

Phil Best, the longtime mayor of Dublin, Ga., is an early riser. When he woke up around 4 am. March 11, the news was already running reports about the disaster that had occurred about an hour before, at 2:46 p.m. Japan time.  

“I called Alex Gregory immediately,” he told Global Atlanta, referring to YKK America Corp.’s then-CEO, who led the company’s Western Hemisphere operations from its base in Marietta, including its zipper plant in Macon and an architectural products factory in Dublin.  

In 2019, Mr. Best traveled to Miyagi prefecture on the tail end of a trip sponsored by the Japan Foundation. The Grassroots Educational Network fellowship brought leaders from cities, governments and economic development agencies in the South and Midwest to the country for a weeklong trip to deepen their economic and civic ties.  

Global Atlanta followed Mr. Best to Dublin’s sister city of Osaki, which lies further inland and is home to YKK AP’s flagship factory. The massive complex was unscathed during the earthquake, but the region as a whole remains emotionally scarred by the devastation. The prefecture of Miyagi alone recorded more than 9,500 deaths, about half the country’s total.  

As Mr. Halberstadt said: “Everyone lost somebody,” and livelihoods as well as lives were devastated. The Great East Japan Earthquake was the costliest disaster in history, causing more than $100 billion in estimated financial losses. Some of the regions bucolic rice farms were so flooded with salt water that they didn’t yield and rice for five years. 

Mayor Best shared a Dublin Fire Department hat with Jin Ito, who heads Osaki’s volunteer international committee and hosted the Georgia visitors in 2019.

Mr. Best’s visit to the YKK factory didn’t dwell on the tragedy of 2011, but showed how bonds forged through the hardest of times can be the most enduring.  

The relationship was inaugurated by then-mayors Buichiro Sato of Sanbongi and Bob Walker of Dublin in 1998, soon after the YKK plant launched in Dublin. Mr. Sato visited Dublin in March 2004 and served as the grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Mr. Best reciprocated two months after that. 

Fifteen years later to the month, and after the sister city relationship had yielded some 170 student and civic exchanges, Mr. Sato joined current Mayor Yashushi Ito in welcoming Mr. Best back to the city. They joined YKK AP plant leaders on a Saturday, opening the factory’s conference room for an exchange of gifts and pleasantries — despite the fact that it was idled for the day.  

Mr. Best doled out his inevitably crowd-pleasing gifts — baseball caps emblazoned with the Dublin fire department logo — as well as a marble paper weight with the city logo and a pen made from wood salvaged during a remodel of Dublin City Hall.  

“We are so grateful for our relationship not only with YKK but also with Osaki — and we want you to know how grateful we are for that and we look forward to a long relationship for years to come,” he said at the time.  

Escorted by Osaki international committee volunteers, Jin Ito and Rie Shiga, who both had visited Dublin in years past, Mr. Best also traveled to the Ishinomaki information center and the library at the city’s Senshu University, where he encountered another poignant scene representing the enduring ties between the countries.  

The Taylor Anderson Reading Corner at Ishinomaki Senshu University library was the first created in remembrance of the American teacher who lost her life.

The library has set up a reading corner dedicated to Taylor Anderson, the first confirmed American casualty in the disaster.  

Ms. Anderson, who hailed from Richmond, Va., had already spent more than two years teaching English in the region as a Japan Exchange and Teaching (or JET) Program participant before she perished in the tsunami. The 24-year-old was reportedly last seen on her bicycle after escorting her students to safety.  

A memorial fund set up by Taylor’s parents has established similar Taylor Bunko, or reading corners, at nine local schools where she taught, while also supporting youth organizations and funding scholarships as a nod to her love of literature and her desire to bridge the cultures of the U.S. and Japan.  

“We are still cultivating her dreams,” said Naomi Chiba, who runs the library and showed Mr. Best some dogwood trees on the campus that were among more than 500 planted in the Tohoku region through the Friendship Blossoms project coordinated by the U.S. State Department.  

On a Zoom event Thursday organized by the Japan-America Society of Georgia with assistance from the Consulate General of Japan in Atlanta, Mr. Best recounted the visit to the library as one of the most impactful of the trip.  

“It’s easy to be a partner when things are good,” Mr. Best said during the discussion with representatives from Delta, Global Atlanta and YKK, just before the Japan-America Society aired a video compilation featuring messages of remembrance gathered from around Georgia.  

“When things are not so good and you’re still a partner — that’s friendship.”  

This week, Dublin schoolchildren are folding 1,000 paper cranes to send to Osaki in a show of solidarity.

Global Atlanta Editor Trevor Williams, left, and Mayor Phil Best, right, learn about Ishinomaki’s recovery from Richard Halberstadt.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...