Please don't forget Tōhoku


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Asia » Japan » Miyagi » Ishinomaki
September 11th 2013
Published: March 10th 2015
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I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t sure quite what I’d see.

It seemed like a typical rural station as the train rolled in, and still as I walked through the overpass and out the turnstile. Choosing to walk to my accommodation, again there were no immediate clues. Further on and the picture began to look not quite right. The occasional empty lot neatly cleared and obviously being readied for construction turned into regular gaps showing an increasing state of abandonment the further I went. Little did I know.



I spent the next day wandering along the edge of the river leading out to Ishinomaki Bay. It was a lot to take in. It would be easy to forget that what I was seeing was the town already two and a half years down the road to recovery.

It’s going to be a long road.

That evening I walked around town looking for somewhere to have dinner. I avoided anywhere that looked busy, or looked as though business was doing alright. I probably gave the owner a bit of a fright when I walked in the door and sat down at his counter. We chatted as he prepared my meal, then had a few laughs together watching the TV programme I had earlier interrupted.

On the way home I got talking with a guy who had moved up from Tokyo and spent a few months working on the volunteer programme. He begged me to go and see the untouched wasteland by the bay, which had been my plan for the next day anyway. “People need to know about it” he said. “There is nothing there, no ̴̴ ̴thing at all”.



I turned round at the friendly shout, and walked back to the woman sitting in her car in the driveway of one of the temporary homes. “Are you going to see the memorial? It’s hot, get in I’ll take you.”

I would have been quite happy walking there but didn’t like to decline the kind offer, so got in. During that short drive I learned what Friday 11 March 2011 had been like for Mrs S. She told me how she had been working with her husband in the family business when the earthquake had struck. Being concerned for her elderly mother who wasn’t very mobile, she rushed home. She never saw her husband again, and his body was never recovered. A few days later her mother passed away.

Mrs S and I spent about an hour down in that wasteland, at the memorial sites. We also stopped at the burnt shell of Kadonowaki Elementary School, now mostly covered by scaffolding and grey sheeting.

When we got back in the car Mrs S invited me to have lunch with her. In the few minutes it took to drive back she thanked me three times for coming to Ishinomaki. Leaving the lunch location up to her, she took me to a temporary food hall, erected to help some of the local business people whose restaurants had been destroyed in the earthquake and tsunami. Mrs S seemed to know all the stall holders - chatting with some, calling out to others. She introduced me to everyone at the table we sat down at. Things relating to the tsunami that I would have been sensitive about asking, they talked about freely – almost like an unwritten right of those that had been through what they had.

After lunch we drove up to Hiyoriyama Park and Kashima shrine, the hilltop park which had been a refuge for many residents when the tsunami hit. Mrs S offered to take me back down, but I was keen to spend a little more time sitting up there, just looking and thinking. Before leaving, she went back to the shrine and returned with a good luck charm for keeping one safe, and pressed it into one of my hands, with both of hers. There, on top of this hillside refuge, this person who had lost so much was still thinking of and wanting to give to a stranger.

As we parted company I asked Mrs S if she would mind me using the photos I had taken that afternoon.

“Please do. In gratitude for my husband and mother, please do.”

I spent my last day in Ishinomaki back down at that wasteland. Standing by the pole marking the height the waves passed at, I closed my eyes - trying to wonder how it must have been that far inland to have so much water and debri rushing by. How it must have been, that far inland, seeing cars flung around like matchsticks. How it must have been in the midst of those fires, and seeing the elementary school alight.

Unless you were there that day you really can’t know.




* Why Ishinomaki?

Although the immediate need when something like this happens is shelter and food, to rebuild businesses and community financial support is the best way to help. I wanted to go somewhere in Tohoku and support local business by spending money, and show that there are people thinking of them. Shortly after the tsunami an article was written in Japanese about the American English teacher Taylor Anderson living in Ishinomaki who died trying to save her students. They were looking for a volunteer to do an urgent translation of it to get the story out in English, and I picked the job up. I've never not been able to remove myself from a translation before, but this one I couldn't get out of my head.


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Rocks brightly painted and piled as a symbol of hope among the destruction.


10th March 2015

Devastating
Jo It is impossible to say how much suffering there was in Japan... I was in the centre of Christchurch a few weeks earlier when the earthquake struck there so I have great empathy for anyone who has experienced the devastation of an earthquake.
10th March 2015

Do not forget
What a beautiful and moving post. Your photography brings it all to life. I can't imagine what it must have been like, but I will remember it.
10th March 2015

Wow!
I've always been fascinated by disaster areas, call me weird but there is just something awe like witnessing how humans and their stuff can be wiped out by mother nature in a blink. Thanks for sharing this blog.
10th March 2015
Memorial - Ishinomaki

A sobering account!
What an amazing experience to visit a place so devastated by what we Californians call the Fukushima Disaster/Earthquake/Tsunami (probably because the radiation from the nuclear leaks still affects us on the Pacific East Coast). How wonderful the kindness shown you by Mrs S, and how sad that there is still so much in ruins. I'm curious, what made you visit this town and document its state? Had you lived there before? Did you visit other sites in the area? Thanks for the eye-opening photo journalism!
10th March 2015
Memorial - Ishinomaki

Why Ishinomaki?
Although the immediate need when something like this happens is shelter and food, to rebuild businesses and community financial support is the best way to help. I wanted to go somewhere in Tohoku and support local business by spending money, and show that there are people thinking of them. I saw a couple of foreigners at the accommodation near the train station, but none out in the wasteland. Why Ishinomaki? A few days after the tsunami an article was written in Japanese about the American English teacher living in Ishinomaki who died trying to save her students. They were looking for a volunteer to do an urgent translation of it to get the story out in English, and I picked the job up. I've never not been able to remove myself from a translation before, but this one I couldn't get out of my head.
10th March 2015
A special gift

So moving
Jo, your story of the translation and of why you went to Ishinomaki brought me to tears. I well remember this disaster because I was on the infamous, dirt road of Route 40 traveling down through Patagonia. We met another bus coming up and learned of the tragedy. On our bus was a Japanese backpacker; no one would tell him what had happened because we were out of internet/cell range for days and didn't want him worrying about his family when he couldn't contact them. Because of him, the Tohoku tragedy has been etched on my memory.
11th March 2015
A special gift

Lest we forget
A poignant reminder Jo that while news of natural disasters catches our attention while the tabloids are interested...it can pass us by with the next news event. But for the survivors they never forget. Reminds me I was at the epicentre of the Sichuan earthquake in 2007 one month before it hit...and I have never heard from my local friend since. Lest we forget. Thanks Jo.
14th March 2015

Two beautifully written/translated pieces, Jo. From Mrs. J to Taylor Anderson and the countless more individuals who were never found -- you remind us that each person had a life story that we would only be lucky to encounter and remember. Thanks so much for taking this journey and sharing it.
24th March 2015

The individuals
Thanks Michelle. Yes, there is so much more to be seen and felt when you take the time to stand out in the middle of 'nothing'.
21st March 2015

An increased state of abandonment the further I went
My heart breaks with your story of this tragedy. Your words evoke a great deal of emotion in me. Thank you for telling the story of the town and these people with such a warm heart. As you say it is hard to imagine.

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