Since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the northeastern Japan region of Tohoku on March 11, 2011, the majority of post offices forced to close in the area have now resumed operations, thanks to the resolve of local delivery workers and their ambition to "never stop" providing mail services.

The disaster caused the temporary closure of 159 post offices, after they were destroyed or washed away. But of those, 120 had been reopened by last year. Many postmasters, who, as delivery carriers, braved traveling through the rubble to deliver mail during that time, are now acquiring qualifications as disaster management specialists.

Onagawa Post Office damaged by the tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake in photo taken in April 2011. (Courtesy of Japan Post Co.)(Kyodo)

Following the massive quake, Keita Sasaki, a mail carrier at the Onagawa Post Office in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, loaded mail and address books onto a delivery vehicle and fled to higher ground as a 14.8-meter tsunami engulfed the town and demolished the station building. His home in the prefectural city of Ishinomaki was also washed away.

Keita Sasaki, section chief of Ishinomaki Post Office in photo taken in January 2023. Sasaki was working at Onagawa Post Office at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake. (Kyodo)

Sasaki, now 48, resumed delivering mail about two weeks later, driving a red van through the scattered debris of the town. Not knowing the whereabouts of many people whose homes were destroyed, he visited shelters and checked name lists to track them down.

He also made a floor plan of the evacuation centers, partitioned by cardboard. Whenever he met acquaintances of recipients, he would ask if they knew where to find them.

With radio waves cut off, it was difficult for outsiders to enter the affected areas, and letters became an essential means of confirming people's safety.

Even though he felt frustration at times, owing to occasions when he could not find someone despite his best efforts, Sasaki persevered, because "Many people were unable to contact their loved ones and sent letters as a last resort."

But over time, Sasaki was able to find many delivery destinations without using mail addresses, instead asking people he would recognize from the community their whereabouts.

"My accumulated experience from my activities in the community went a long way in a time of emergency," he recalled. Now, as a section chief at the Ishinomaki Post Office, Sasaki gives talks about his actions 12 years ago to junior workers.

Last year on Nov. 7, the Oharahama Post Office on the Oshika Peninsula in Ishinomaki was rebuilt on higher ground -- becoming the 120th station to reopen after an absence of about 11 years and eight months.

Photo taken in November 2022 shows Oharahama Post Office in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, which has been rebuilt and reopened for business. (Kyodo)
Makoto Kimura, who has worked at Oharahama Post Office since the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake, is pictured in December 2022. (Kyodo)

The 159 temporarily closed post offices, by prefecture, consisted of two in Aomori, 49 in Iwate, 68 in Miyagi and 40 in Fukushima. Six offices remain closed in Iwate, 15 in Miyagi and 17 in Fukushima.

While one has been abandoned in Miyagi, the 38 remaining closed stations spanning the prefectures are not expected to reopen soon due to the current status of reconstruction efforts in the local areas.

Makoto Kimura, 60, began delivering mail from the Oharahama office three days after the earthquake.

Although he often had to wait in long lines at gas stations from dawn to get to work because of fuel shortages, he said, "I was encouraged by the joy of the residents at the shelter (whom I was bringing mail to)."

Although the local population has declined and the environment has changed drastically, Kimura said that he wants to "make this a place where local people can come without hesitation, just as it was before the disaster."

Many postmasters have also been obtaining disaster management specialist certifications.

According to the national association of postmasters, the number of postmasters possessing such qualification has increased from approximately 9,600 in 2015 to over 12,000, or 60 percent of the total in Japan, as of April 2022.

The qualification enables them to supervise disaster management plans and advise nurseries and elementary schools on evacuation drills.