“No place for resent. Only walk.”
ur 10-day journey began in my travel companionâ€™s cozy kitchen at the foothills of beautiful Nagano mountains, where we tried to imagine the unimaginable in what awaited us ahead. My plan was to have no plan, to go with a blank page, and try to take in what then seemed overwhelming, distressing, on a scale too vast to comprehend. I was prepared to be devastated, and instead I was inspired. The day we set out started with a magnitude-6 earthquake, taking out some of the roads on our route, and bringing the number of homes without electricity since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami to more than 3,400,000. We drove toward the coast, making a stop at the National Institute of Environmental Studies, where a man in charge of waste disposal told us his main concern was the black sludge or hedro, found in some cities like Ishinomaki, the contents of which he described as decaying organic matter, chemical waste, sewage, and other nastiness that would undoubtedly make anyone living with it ill. From there we drove to Kashima, and from Kashima to Sendai. We drove ten hours per day, talking to as many people as we could along the way, and slept in the van at night. On our way out of Sendai we picked up a hitchhiker. He had taken time off of his job as a tour guide in Kanagawa to volunteer three times. I was embarrassed when he started to advise us on how to donate the water and food we had in the back for ourselves, and bought large quantities of wet tissues and sanitary napkins at the next convenience store we came across.
He told us that he could take time off from work because business was slow due to the nation-wide jishuku (self-restraint), which had set in since the tsunami. This practice of empathy, unique to Japan, has resulted in the cancellation of travel plans, empty karaoke boxes, a decrease in excessive consumerism, and the toning-down of aggressive marketing tactics. I asked him what the history of jishuku was, to which he answered he believes it comes from the term, “hoshigarimasen katsumade” or “we will not want until we are victorious,” a term used during war. As we talked signs of the tsunami became more and more visible. Most businesses were closed, and we could see the toxic hedro everywhere. Tall stacks of tatami lined the streets alongside heaps of debris, and volunteer traffic cops in neat blue uniforms waved their neon wands. Fishing boats would suddenly appear like beached whales on the side of the road, and people were pushing wheelbarrows of water bottles and gas canisters. It was enough to see their disheveled mess of hair and tired, dirty faces, to forget we were in Japan. In Ishinomaki we went straight to Senshu University, were approximately 300 tents of volunteers had been set up on campus. We registered with the Volunteer Center that pro-
vides free health insurance to all volunteers for the duration of their stay. There were two huge warehouses full of donations in large crates and small, individual packages. I signed up to volunteer the next day with the NGO Peace Boat, that I had voyaged around the world with by ship as their web reporter in 2007. That evening we crossed the river into a more heavily affected area. As the dust grew unbearable, the landscape became increasingly absurd. Cars were lodged in the branches of giant red pine, everywhere clothes spewed from their ownerâ€™s dressers hung on trees, buildings, and poles as if we were wandering through some macabre festival. In the midst of this ocean of remnants, a single table displaying childrenâ€™s toys and diplomas, instruments and books, waited in silence to be reclaimed. Homes were smeared across a wasteland of destruction so vast, I had to scramble up a hill through a cemetery full of unlikely objects to take it all in.
We parked the van in what used to be a peaceful neighborhood, and as I took some photos I heard a voice above me call out, “gokurousama!” (an acknowledgment of another’s effort). I looked up to see two small faces peering down at me from a second floor window. “Otsukaresamadesu,” I responded (an acknowledgment of another’s struggle). They told us they would be right down and a few minutes later an elderly couple emerged from the black mouth of their genkan. The woman looked pretty in her sakura-colored apron and slippers. They told us they were grateful for all the people who traveled such long distances to help their town. Then simultaneously showed us their matching wristwatches, which had been presented to them by Australian volunteers who had cleared their first floor. “Have you been staying here?” I asked worriedly as I eyed the posts bulging precariously out of the side of their house. “We stayed at our daughter’s place in Sendai for some time but decided to come back here,” The man, Mr. Narasaka (78), said. “This is our home, our village,” he continued. “We don’t want to be anywhere else.” Mrs. Narasaka smiled and told us they had signed up for temporary housing. I remembered what our hitchhiking friend told us, that only 172 temporary homes had built so far and 6,000 were still necessary. I wonder how long they will have to wait for their names to be pulled in the lottery. Mr. Narasaka had been at home when the earthquake hit. When he went downstairs 15 minutes later and saw a large fish swimming through the street, he took off for the nearby cliff. He climbed and held onto the trunk of a pine just as the tsunami came. At that point he says he heard someone crying out for help and saw something white floating in the black water. He stuck out a long branch and a young girl’s arm grabbed on. He pulled her to safety. As he told the story, his gaze became distant and his voice trembled. I realized that while he had saved a young girl’s life, he was still waiting to be pulled out of the water.
The next day I volunteered to clean the streets with Peace Boat. I joined an international team of Japanese, Israeli, British, Iranian, Australian, German, Mexican, American, and one French volunteer. I joked with him that he was the last Frenchman in Japan. He said actually there was one other, in Sendai. We scrubbed the hedro and dust away from the sidewalk on the main street in Ishinomaki. While I can understand the psychological importance of restoring some semblance of normality, the excessive use of water and the fact that the volunteers had not been briefed on the dangers of the hedro (some were wearing only cotton gloves and no masks) seemed irresponsible. The next evening when I joined them at their campsite, however, I was touched by the solidarity I sensed between them. As we huddled shoulder-to-shoulder in the cold night, we talked about Japanese resilience in the face of disaster, nuclear power, consumerism, war and peace, violence and selfdefense. The en (circle, or fated meeting) was strong ~ glowing in the candlelight, and reflected on faces full of hope for a better world. I felt a closeness amongst them that in our daily lives would take months, maybe years to develop. We saw signs of this solidarity everywhere in Ishinomaki. When the car battery died, a group of six able-bodied young men tried to find the battery on the little kei van. When I apologized for the trouble, Sol (Korean-Japanese) said matterof-factly, “nakama wa nakama wo tasukeau” (roughly translated, friends help friends in need). In this environment I watched myself become more cheerful, friendlier, and more giving. It was empowering to be given the chance to give. It’s easy to forget who we are in our busy daily lives.
When I spoke with Yoshioka-san (director of Peace Boat) the next day and he mentioned the power of “positive nationalism.” I asked him to explain how positive nationalism in Japan is different from other countries, to which he said, “When you’re strong you don’t understand other people’s love and friendship. When you are weak, you have to depend on others.” I asked him if that was positive nationalism or human resilience. Yoshioka-san replied, “In these hard times, nationalism can be positive because it pulls people together, without closing to the outside world. Positive nationalism goes handin-hand with international cooperation. In times of disaster, borders disappear.” Deep in the Japanese heritage, customs of not having too much, not attaching oneself to material possessions, are etched into people’s minds and actions. I came to understand that this is because of the knowledge that things can be easily washed away and lost. It is currently sakura season in Tohoku. In the arts, the cherry blossoms represent impermanence of all things, of life itself. Perhaps that also has to do with the cool calmness foreigners are stunned by here. I am reminded of something Arn Chorn-Pond, a Cambodian cultural revivalist told me in Phnom Penh in 2003, “You must know where you come from to know where you are headed.” We hear that there are 600-year-old stone epithets in Ishinomaki (indeed, all along the coast) that mark the line beyond which homes should not be built to avoid the danger of tsunami. Development ignored such warnings and creeped further and further toward the coastline. I wonder if a similar warning will be placed by the survivors of today, only to be forgotten by generations of the future, repeating the same mis-
take again and again like the ebb and flow of the tides of time. That afternoon just outside of Ishinomaki, I had a blissful moment at a convenience store sink. I washed my hands with running water and soap for the first time in days and watched the dust swirl down the drain. The following night I had a bit of a breakdown in Sendai. It happened while we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The room with its blaring TV, greasy floors, bug-eyed carp trapped in a too-small tank, and the giggling customer getting drunk alone on amber-colored liquor, spun around me. Continuing on, to see even one more devastated town, to hear even one more sakura-tragic story, was overwhelming. The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant raising itâ€™s disaster count to 7 (same as Chernobyl) didnâ€™t help. We left the restaurant and parked in a dark alley next to a pachinko parlor. The music buzzed and jingled in and out of audio focus as customers entered and left. I felt like I had left reality and stepped into its sad, dark gutter, as I watched an old man in a janitorâ€™s uniform clean out a garbage bin, take a can that was not yet open in his hand, look up and down the street, carefully wipe it off with his rag, and put it in his pocket. It was distressing to watch. Early the next morning we drove to Minami Sanriku, another heavily-affected area along the coast. It is one thing to watch video of what happened on youtube or to view photographs, quite another to be surrounded by it 360 degrees, and yet another still to stand in it and try to comprehend 400km of coastline affected in the same way. We parked the van and
Mr. Konno at the site of his destroyed business and home
I took a walk around. There was a different feeling in the air. There wasn’t as much dust, and barely any visible hedro. It had been a traditional fishing village, so no industrial area = no toxic hedro. The sun was shining and there was a clean, crisp breeze. Barely anyone was walking amidst the rubble and only a few jietai (Japan Self Defense Force) jeeps drove around. I decided to walk further. I noticed two men clearing an area with a wheelbarrow. I hesitated to approach them when the older man in a purple sweatshirt said, “What are you taking photos of?” There was a tinge of confrontation in his voice, but I decided to take it as a friendly invitation to conversation. Mr. Konno (70) had a fishing-net business and home, where we stood as we talked. When the tsunami came, he drove to his sister’s house in the hill and was saved. Now the fishing industry is destroyed so he will be out of work, and yet he is still there doing his best to clean up, a seemingly futile task. He had a sparkle in his eyes and a brilliant smile. It was a clarity I had not yet witnessed during the trip. Here was the pine tree that withstood the tsunami with its strong trunk and deep roots, I realized. This was not a sakura story at all. “It’s like a war zone here”, he said. “But there is no enemy to spite. This is no place for resent. Only walk,” he said with a big smile. He continued to say that so many people who are sheltered up on the hills gaze out across the destruction, look up at the sky, and give three sighs. He himself thinks they should put themselves to work. “In such a disaster,” he said, “food will never be a problem. The real problem is idle hands and the loss of dignity. Instead of begging every day with the bowl, people should move their bodies and do what they can to help others. There is always someone suffering more than you. Look around you”, he continued, “There are no townspeople here. They just sit and wait. Tell me, what are they waiting for?” As we talked, the giant shadow of a large-winged bird swooped silently over us. When I looked up, there was nothing but blue sky.
Kimberlye Kowalczyk was born in Japan to a Korean mother and an American father. She currently lives and works in Kyoto.
A photo essay by Kimberlye Kowalczyk from ten days in the tsunami affected areas of Tohoku (Northern Japan). April 2011.
Published on May 11, 2011
A photo essay by Kimberlye Kowalczyk from ten days in the tsunami affected areas of Tohoku (Northern Japan). April 2011.