Four years after Japan's Tsunami

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March 11, 2015  

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It has been four years since the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, Japan. So, far every 3/11 since, I have visited Ishinomaki, Miyagi - the largest town along the Tohoku coast. After staying in Ishinomaki from March - May 2011, then visiting in July 2011, March 2012, May 2012, March 2013, September 2013, March 2014 and again this trip, I’ve been able to track the process, both positive and negative.

In a way, it’s quite impressive how quickly most of the region has recovered. Japan is particularly good at building, and the incredible amount of debris, mud, waste, broken and abandoned property (including cars, homes and more) are more or less completely gone - almost as if nothing had ever happened. Traces of remaining damage can be found but not so easily anymore. Probably the most visible remnants are the barely visible building foundations seen in the flattened landscapes that used to be small towns and villages - like in Onagawa and Ogatsu, which I visited this trip (see the photos on Flickr). But soon enough those will also be gone, either covered by new pavement, removed, or built over.

Instead, the damage remains within the people themselves - the victims whose fates are resigned to living in temporary shelters that feel all-too-permanent; the parents who lost children and will never overcome the survivor’s guilt; the children who lost parents and seem to toggle from smile to tears and back again in a heartbeat; the couple who runs a community house which has gone from the neighborhood gathering place to a symbolic memory of post-tragedy camaraderie.

I met with all these people during my visit, on March 11, 2015 - four years, or perhaps an eternity, later.

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Minato-Sho, the elementary school-turned-shelter that bustled with volunteers, victims and emergency provisions in the post-tsunami period (and one of the four stories in my documentary Pray for Japan), had been so damaged that as recently as last March the locals told me it would never be used again. But one year later it’s an operating school.

I had to take the bus from Sendai to Ishinomaki as I did last year, but the train that locals had told me would never run again is re-opening in two months - my next visit will be a convenient train ride from Sendai to Ishinomaki.

There’s a new bridge being built across the Kitakami River, near Ishinomori Manga-kan; dozens of new restaurants, bars, and shops adorn the streets of downtown and other hub regions; oysters, scallops, and other local seafood are regularly farmed in the local sea; and there’s even a Starbucks at the main mall.

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But none of that is any consolation to Takayuki and Hiromi Tamura, who lost their 25-year-old son Kenta in the cold sea, when he and 12 co-workers escaped to the roof of their bank’s two-story building in Onagawa, only to realize 30 minutes later that the building wasn’t tall enough to save them.

I met the Tamuras for the first time during this visit. They were standing by a small memorial to their son Kenta and the other victims - and Takayuki approached me, explaining what had happened to Kenta. Hiromi handed me cough drops, expressing her concern about my standing outside in the cold. She greeted other visitors with the same passionate hospitality, which was at once both heart-warming and saddening.

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Takayuki showed me photos of the massive destruction he witnessed on 3/12/2011, while searching for his lost son. He searched restlessly for 6 months, never able to give up or let go of the fleeting hope that Kenta may have miraculously survived. While they never found the body, eventually the Tamuras accepted their fate and began to direct their energies towards disaster prevention and education. They cannot accept that the bank’s policies forced their employees to the rooftop instead of the local shelter, which would have saved their lives.

To this day, they spent every weekend at the memorial, pleading their case to anyone who will listen. Spending time with them, hearing their plight, I felt their desperation and haven’t been able to shake it. All of their effort, their passion, their mission - none of it can fill the emptiness in their hearts.

And I can’t forget the Tamuras - one of 20,000 such stories caused by the merciless hand of nature.

On this March 11, I was continuously struck by the bittersweet tinge of life moving on.

In Ogatsu — a tiny fishing village on one of Ishinomaki’s peninsulas — there was a sign that advertised a new residential development, with an emphasis on its hilltop location.

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Kai-you, the tiny local family-run oyster business where I sampled the freshest and best oyster I’ve ever had in my life, sits next to a seawall construction zone.

At Marumatsu, which I’ll always remember as the one restaurant that was open in the post-tsunami “war zone”, where I met with NPO Genki Miyagi’s Mitsunori Monma, I glanced over to see the mix of workers on their lunch break and memorial service attendees.

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I listened to M’s Japan Orchestra’s taiko drums synchronized to the continuous rumble of passing trucks.

While Kent Itou spoke about the earth - how it both protects us from the raging sea and rumbles to cause the sea to rage - I read the list of victims’ names on a recently erected tombstone.

At Majarain, a local community house run by the Abe’s, I perused photos of the volunteers and local families who gathered in the first three years after the tsunami, enjoying each other’s company while rebuilding their neighborhood - but for some reason, anniversary aside, there were no other visitors and the Abes opened up the house specifically for my visit.

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Finally, I conversed over dinner with long-term volunteer Mayumi Nishimura in a jam-packed local pub, where it felt like I could have been anywhere else in the world and nothing would be different.

It was a non-stop day, starting with a solo run in the early morning while snow flurries melted on my cheeks, and ending with a cup of hot tea in the local, newly built business hotel. Thanks to Manabu Endo, good friend, Ishinomaki native and my guide for the day, I didn’t have time to think at all - and hit the pillow exhausted. But for some reason when I woke up the following morning - on March 12 - to pack my bags and catch the train back to Tokyo, I felt an emptiness inside. A desolate, deep feeling of melancholy that I couldn’t shake.

What is it about human beings and tragedies that bring us all together for a fleeting moment, soon replaced by the bustle of life? Why did the tsunami take away so much yet connect us so powerfully? And why do we forget so easily?

I suppose it’s our nature, to move on. But on this day, March 11, I’m unable to simply move on - and it’s painful but I think we all need to feel the pain, at least once a year - to honor those we’ve lost.

In memory of the 3.11 tsunami victims.

—Stu

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