Japan's Car Owners Search In Huge 'Graveyards' Japan's tsunami left behind thousands of demolished cars, which cities need to get rid of in order to start clean-up efforts. Owners are searching for their abandoned vehicles in sprawling lots along the coastline.
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Japan's Car Owners Search In Huge 'Graveyards'

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Japan's Car Owners Search In Huge 'Graveyards'

Japan's Car Owners Search In Huge 'Graveyards'

Japan's Car Owners Search In Huge 'Graveyards'

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/135110969/135121152" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Mitsuyuki Yagi looks for his Toyota sedan in a "graveyard" on the outskirts of Miyako city. He hopes to be able to retrieve his house keys and computer. John Burnett/NPR hide caption

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John Burnett/NPR

Mitsuyuki Yagi looks for his Toyota sedan in a "graveyard" on the outskirts of Miyako city. He hopes to be able to retrieve his house keys and computer.

John Burnett/NPR

A construction excavator drags a crumpled black Nissan down the street of a pulverized Japanese port city.

A look of recognition flashes on the face of a man, and he runs over to the wreck.

"My car, my car!" he says.

He reaches in a jagged hole torn in the roof of his vehicle, and he pulls out his wallet, a parking ticket and a Shinto good luck charm. He pockets them with a resigned smile — last month was his final car payment.

The Japanese tsunami left thousands of demolished cars in its wake. Cities have ordered them removed in order to get on with cleanup, and they're being stored in sprawling car graveyards up and down the battered coastline.

This man's story is a common one: He says he first tried to outrun the tsunami, but when he hit a traffic jam, he abandoned his vehicle with the keys still in the ignition and scrambled up the nearest hill.

His totaled sedan was trucked to a sort-of cemetery for the automotive victims of the tsunami. The exposure to saltwater makes their parts useless for salvage.

The vehicles are a frightful sight. They weren't merely swamped by rising water like so many cars in New Orleans after Katrina. These were seized by the onrushing water, then tossed and pummeled, wheels torn off and bodies ripped open as though by a rampaging monster.

Trying To Restore Order

All day long, people like Mitsuyuki Yagi come to the destroyed car lots like this one on the outskirts of Miyako city.

Yagi watched terrified from the roof of the bank building where he works as the black tide swept away people, houses and all the cars in the bank parking lot.

An unidentified man finds his smashed green jeep in the Miyako lot. He says he prefers his bicycle over his car, but he wanted to find his registration certificate and a chopping tool that was in the back seat. John Burnett/NPR hide caption

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John Burnett/NPR

An unidentified man finds his smashed green jeep in the Miyako lot. He says he prefers his bicycle over his car, but he wanted to find his registration certificate and a chopping tool that was in the back seat.

John Burnett/NPR

If he can find his white Toyota sedan, he wants to retrieve his house keys and computer — nothing else.

"In my office lots of people lost houses. I was never so afraid in my life," he says. "I'm just grateful to be alive."

Filing insurance claims is generally a waste of time because so few Japanese take out natural disaster coverage for their autos, says an insurance company employee who happens to be at the wrecked car lot looking for a company car that was washed away.

The contents of the cars brought here are time capsules of the lives that were interrupted — or a worse fate.

A child's smiley-bear backpack still has books inside, a jazz piano CD is in the CD player and a pair of fuzzy snow boots is on the floorboard.

To keep things in perspective, these ruined vehicles are far down the list of worries for the people of the northeastern coast. They have dead loved ones to locate and cremate; houses and businesses to rebuild. But finding their cars has become a ritual to restore some semblance of order to their lives.

An old fellow in a cap and face mask walks up to a smashed green jeep in the Miyako lot.

"My car!" he says.

Another reunion. He says it's 15 years old and he never drove it much anyway. He'll retrieve the registration certificate and a favorite chopping tool in the back seat.

"I like a bicycle better," he says. Then he climbs onto a bike and pedals away.