Paul Johannessen writes: Weeks have passed already and a good deal of time has been spent reflecting over my very short but intense trip to Ishinomaki. The town lies in Miyagi prefecture, a few hundred kilometres north of Tokyo and over a hundred kilometres north of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear absurdity. I had wanted to go north for a long time, but was unsure how to be of any use, and was reluctant to just go purely out of curiosity.

Then, this year’s One Day on Earth project was to take place on 11.11.11, and this seemed like a good opportunity to head into the affected area. Coincidentally it would be eight months to the day since the earthquake and tsunami, and would also in fact be a full moon.

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Given that the project involved filming over a period of 24-hours, it seemed everything was falling into place to provide an opportunity to witness the devastation, and also create some media for use in a global documentary that may in turn keep the survivors of this disaster in people’s minds.

As we were to witness, the recovery is underway but far from finished, and in many respects yet to really begin. Until now has really just involved cleaning up. The actual recovery requires building off of some kind of clean slate, but the slate has not yet been cleaned.

We filled the rental van with ten kerosene ovens, around 130kg of rice, some clothing plus some books for kids for learning english. All this was made possible by the generous donations of my friends and family that totalled just under ¥150,000 / $AUS1800 / 11,000 Norwegian kronor (raised within a meagre 48 hours), plus some friends in the Tsukuba area who provided the rice, clothes and books.

We had a plan. We were to meet a man named Fujita-san who was running a community centre turned distribution centre, providing relief to his neighbourhood. He would receive our bounty, and then we would shoot interviews and material for the project. As we learnt, his area had once housed around 1000 families — now there were only 200 left, and it seemed everyone had lost someone near in the disaster.

Indeed, in Ishinomaki, the death toll was the highest of all the towns on the coast, even though the wave itself reached only (“only”) six metres. A broad flat coastline made it difficult for many to get away fast enough — others simply reacted too slowly after having grown up with countless tsunami warnings that never eventuated in anything. Fires and the cold took many more in the days that would follow.

After a five and a half hour drive, you suddenly enter the zone of devastation. We had to immediately stop and take pictures, trying to make sense of how to document the scope of the disaster — how to make it palpable to an idle or passive viewer? The shoot day was actually the following day, so we forced ourselves to take only still photos and just recce the locations we would use the following day.

The clean-up had clearly progressed over eight months, the loose rubble largely gone, the mud cleaned out of gutters with grass finally growing again, and even some roads newly sealed. But further progress was still hard to comprehend — an end was nowhere in site, let alone a beginning for the task of rebuilding communities. And the realisation that this story was repeating itself for hundreds of kilometres up and down the coastline … it remains beyond comprehension.

Fujita-san was now living with his Aunt, the last remaining member of his family after he lost his mother and her other sister.

He, along with everyone we had the chance to meet up there, seemed calm, determined and resilient. They have already passed a huge challenge that many of the people they knew and loved were not fortunate enough to survive, but as seems natural, in the enormity of the task ahead they can manage to only take things one day at a time, each day meeting only the needs of that day and not much more. I personally don´t completely buy the image of stoicism that was perpetuated by the foreign media so much in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

In Japan, the people are not encouraged to show too much emotion – it is really not a part of their culture for the individual to assert their feelings and their opinions. Maintaining face, and keeping your mouth shut is a part of the culture, and as is now becoming apparent, the stress and trauma of the event is only now starting to surface. The immediate cleanup has been done, the task now is to try and look ahead, to formulate a vision for the future of these devastated towns, but that task is enormous, and is being met as much with hopelessness as with stoicism. The answer for many is clear. It is suicide. Many now wish they had been taken by the wave along with the families. In Ishinomaki, 10 people are month are ending their lives as they cannot face the future anymore.

In the 24 hours that we were filming we met many hopeful focussed and forward thinking people:

  • A Kimono store owner that has reopened her shop, a shop that has been in her family for near 150 years. She provides floorspace to other shop owners who have not rebuilt their own stores, and every Friday puts on a kind of market.
  • A couple in their 70´s who lost everything in their liquor shop during the earthquake and then managed to escape and survive the tsunami, only to then lose their will to live after they no longer had their business. With the help of volunteers they will soon open their shop again, and resume their lives running a liquor store – they have found the will and means to go on.
  • A sushi chef from the town´s best restaurant (which is no more) is waiting to get a visa to work in America where a job already awaits him. In the meantime he is cooking ramen in a truck.

But these are the stories of people who we managed to meet, people who are up and at it piecing back together their lives. For every person like that, there is one or maybe more people who can´t manage to pick themselves up again. Now living in temporary housing where they don´t know their neighbours, they struggle to find purpose in their lives, and struggle to rebuild that sense of community that they were so used to.

All these people have a long and difficult road ahead, and some find the burden heavier to bear than others. The buildings will be rebuilt, indeed 300 diggers and tractors are tearing through that work at a phenomenal pace, but to rebuild communities? And in a country that is so used to simply burying emotions? With a Government forced to deal with a very pressing and dangerous situation in Fukushima? The future is bleak for many of these coastal towns. The risk of being forgotten is very real.

This post first appeared on Paul’s blog Scenes from a …

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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