Japan is rising again

Though still reeling from tragedy, the people of northern Japan remain resilient
Rising again
Photograph by Q. Sakamaki/Redux

On the afternoon of March 25, shortly before the two-week anniversary hour of Japan’s 9-magnitude earthquake, in the fishing town of Otsuchi, Kaoru Kikuchi, 59, catches sight of his cousin, Kouji Abe, 62, in the dirt courtyard of an evacuation shelter at Akahama Elementary School. As the men meet, they grasp each others’ shoulders, embrace, and Kikuchi, who wears light-green work gear, briefly weeps. Because the Japan Self-Defense Forces only recently managed to clear the roads here, this is the first contact that Kikuchi, who lives inland, has made with Abe, a fishing-boat builder with a wild shock of grey hair who wears a sweater and, jewellery-like from his neck, a squid lure. “I love fishing but my boat has been destroyed,” Abe says. “I will mend it.”

That same day, on one of the mountains encircling the coastal town of Onagawa, 100 km south of Otsuchi, soldiers salvage the body of 52-year-old homemaker Henna Kimura. Originally from the South American country of Suriname, Henna arrived in Japan after marrying sailor Satoru Kimura. Her recovery delivers relief. “I feel lighter,” says their son, Hitoshi Kimura, a commercial caterer who fled the March 11 tsunami by climbing a mountain, remaining there all night. “Everybody here has lost somebody,” Hitoshi says, using a sharp gesture of the hand to indicate an auditorium spread wide with unrolled futons and sleeping bodies. “We found our mother.”

Also on Friday, in an inland residential area that the quake and tsunami left largely undamaged but which remains without power and starved of food and gasoline, soldiers unload cardboard boxes packed with cup noodles and toilet paper. Alerted by loudspeaker, the residents scramble, running, toward the unarmed military men. “We are two, we are two,” an elderly woman, clutching the hand of another, frailer woman, tells the soldiers as she snatches up double her ration of five cup noodles. Nearby, a boy in a toque lunges at the food and an elderly woman waddles away holding a canvas bag overflowing with toilet paper in her right hand, another roll held firmly in her left. This is the second time in 14 days the soldiers have come with supplies. There are no complaints.

Rising again
Photograph by Q. Sakamaki/Redux

Such is life amidst the chaotic mulch Japan’s northeast coast became when the tsunami toppled seawalls, overturned buildings, splintered homes and stores, and scrubbed town after town off the landscape. From Sendai to northernmost Honshu, Japan’s long, thin main island, each decimated place took on its own particular colour and consistency according to the way the wave came. The town of Rikuzentakata, where 23,000 people lived, is now bone-white and lies razed, flat and sprawling, half its residents gone. Ishinomaki, a larger, denser city of low-flung highrises and fast-food outlets that spreads deeper inland than many neighbouring communities, is caked in grey clay, and largely without electricity—the darkened businesses are shut and, here and there, the windows of grocers and liquor stores smashed by looters.

Further inland, in the rivers that wind in and out of the mountain passes, debris floats: overturned boats and broken wood deposited by the tsunami after it snaked in through the low hills, then withdrew. The rice fields are filled with sea water, and a rank salt smell permeates the air along with the rot. The outskirts of Minamisanriku took the wave after it had been channelled through the mountains, where it picked up a surfeit of blade-like debris and churned the stuff up into a smooth, dark-brown paste. The town has been otherwise wiped clean from the map, with only the streets, shovelled and scrubbed by soldiers, left to describe the landscape. When a taxi glides inexplicably through the night, its interior lit like a lantern, the effect here, where it can be seen for miles over the flattened town, is otherworldly.

In the way it reordered human things, the tsunami itself followed an otherworldly logic—enlisting the tiled roof of a farmhouse to shelter a strip-mall pharmacy, an oyster farm in a mess of nets and buoys to festoon a hospital. A piano lies in a rice field, a bicycle sits in a tree. Then, in an endless motif, there is the strange majesty of boats crowning homes, crowning fish factories, adorning streets. If the wave dismantled the concrete, visible stuff of quotidian life in northeast Japan, it also pulled apart the communities that once occupied its neighbourhoods, shaking the inhabitants free of each other, drowning many, reconstituting the rest higgledy-piggledy in gymnasiums, community centres and recreational facilities up and down the coast.

Round a bend into Onagawa, piles of junked cars squeezed into tinfoil give way to a broken landscape veined by paths cleared of rubble. Homes and apartment buildings stand cracked open like dollhouses. Soldiers in smooth-domed helmets shrink amid the devastation, standing sentinel while backhoes punch holes into toppled buildings. They are waiting to collect the dead (when a news photographer approaches, the soldiers turn their backs on him in one fluid, collective movement). Elsewhere, soldiers surrounded by eruptions of debris scrub and polish the dust-laden streets with spades and old-fashioned straw brooms, a Sisyphean endeavour.

Rising again
Photograph by Q. Sakamaki/Redux

On the night of the tsunami, at an evacuation centre housed in an Onagawa civic centre, there were not enough food or blankets. Many were lucky to receive one onigiri, or rice ball. In the snowy days that followed, townsfolk gathered up the fish scattered when the wave blasted through the processing plants and canneries lining the harbour, feasting on the haul. Now there is enough to eat, delivered by truck and helicopter. Behind the shelter, on the baseball diamond, the Self-Defense Forces have established tents and a staging area. Nearby, evacuees have turned a grassy, tree-lined enclosure festooned with laundered clothes into a camp kitchen, with mackerel pike dangling from a line to dry beside barbecues rigged from overturned high school lockers and filled with the crackling wood of broken homes.

On the glass doors that make up the centre’s main entrance, people consult the lists of missing with slack faces, a pursuit that by this point, two weeks into the ordeal, appears almost to bore them. Next to some of the names are handwritten markings—the bodies discovered and identified in the morgue, housed in a building beneath the bleachers of an athletic field directly across the courtyard from the centre.

Occasionally, something happens to alleviate the monotony: a woman entering the centre passes by another woman of about the same age; each abruptly turns and falls into the other’s arms. “Heeeeeah—gomeng,” one says—Sorry!—though it is clear to no one why she is apologizing. Their eyes well with tears. After two weeks, the response is dulled by fatigue: the women are soon chatting as if over a backyard fence.

Otherwise, for many of the evacuees, the days are spent with little to do but engage in an exhausting effort to maintain the day-to-day rites of ordinary life.

Yoshinobu Abe, a 60-year-old retired bicycle courier in a soiled yellow fleece, shakes a reporter’s hand, then invites him into the shelter. He leads him through endless squares of futons, blankets, pillows, shopping bags stuffed with belongings, past the elderly women gathered around the enveloping warmth of a kerosene heater. The air sits thick with body smells. In the corner of a children’s nursery, Abe steps delicately onto a thin spread of futon about three square metres, then turns and faces the reporter in seiza, the sitting posture used for formal occasions, the legs tucked in beneath the thighs. “My room,” Abe says in English. His gaze is cloudy and unfocused. Suddenly Abe wants to introduce his wife. He stands, seeking her. With trembling hands he fills a plastic cup with tea from a bottle and hands the offering to the reporter. Then he is gone.

In the lobby, a woman in a face mask sits at a table with a mound of photographs collected from the wreck of Onagawa. She cuts short diagonal slits into a large white sheet of paper and slides the snapshots in with no particular order. Where she recognizes those in the photographs, she pencils in their names. The images, some mud-splattered, are incongruous. A boy in a suit jacket and red tie wears electric-blue tights. Revellers sit at a long table prepared with an elaborate drinking banquet. Women in kimonos participate in a tea ceremony competition. A boy eats a traditional Japanese sweet in the 1980s. A boy in black and white, his head shaved, gazes at the camera from the 1930s wearing his black, high-necked school uniform.
In a sparser corner of Onagawa, in a stretch of road by the harbour and just below the gate of a hilltop Shinto shrine, an old-fashioned house full of beautiful antiques still stands. Akihiro Endo, a 42-year-old self-described “salaryman”—the Japanese term for corporate peon—rummages through his childhood home.

Rising again
Photograph by Q. Sakamaki/Redux

The walls are stained grey and brown by the sea, the tatami mats are strewn high and rotting. This is Endo’s third visit from Sendai, where he now lives, since the road here first opened on March 16. He is still seeking his father, mother and grandmother, who lived here, amid the tatami, the masks of Ebisu, the happy god of fishermen, and the elaborate wooden shrine to the Endo dead. In an overturned, intricately carved wood cabinet, blue and white pottery lies smashed. “I am the first son in the family,” says Endo, who wears fashionable black glasses and a knitted woolen cap. “I’m not sure when I’ll return here to live. But I feel I will.”

The Akahama school stands on high ground overlooking the picturesque, mountain-rimmed harbour of Otsuchi. By its main building, where a blue tarp has been erected over an alfresco kitchen, a young woman with dyed strawberry-blond hair squats as she transfers long mackerel pike with black crackling oily skins from the fire onto serving trays lined with tinfoil. Nearby, on a long table, an enormous pot of soup swims with cabbage, daikon and pork, joined here by a great pot of rice, pickled vegetables—”they’re a little bit spicy!” a small girl says—and a heaped platter of sliced apple. Soon the people, gathered here to scratch out a makeshift alternative to their vanished town, line up with little talk to collect their rations.

Takeo Hurudate, a 63-year-old retired taxi driver, strolls by a circle of older men who sit around a blazing bonfire chatting or gazing wordlessly into the distance. “It’s all gone. All is nothing,” he says. “My heart became cold. My house is lost.” Hurudate wants to begin again. “There are many who are frightened and want to live elsewhere,” he says. “But I want to live here.” Balancing a bowl of the soup in her hand and fishing out meat with chopsticks, eight-year-old Nami Oguni makes small talk with her companion, Manato Kurosawa, 9, in a doorway of the school. A soiled white car is perched askew at the end of the corridor. What do they do all day? They contemplate the question, giggling. “We play all day and sleep here at night,” says Nami finally. “It’s really perfectly fine here.”

The camp boss, Toyokatsu Kurosawa, a gruff man with grey hair and a cotton mask, sits astride a squat chair borrowed from one of the classrooms, his hands on his knees, a canvas golf cap pulled low over his eyes. Amid talk with a reporter, he barks orders at volunteers seeking his counsel by a smoking fire fed with debris: 160 sleep here at night, more come to eat. They could use more gasoline. But NGOs and the military have kept the shelter well-stocked with food. Still, he says: “I’m worried. I’m not sure how long they can help us.”

One NGO supplying the camp today is Peach John, the Japanese mail-order lingerie retailer. From her microbus, Peach John co-founder Mika Noguchi, one of the few female company heads in Japan, jumps to the dark dirt. Now based in Tokyo, she grew up in the tsunami-devastated city of Sendai south of here, and takes a special interest in the region. When her friend Teru, lead vocalist of multi-million-selling J-pop band Glay, follows her off the bus, teen girls from the shelter scream with delight and run to him. “I have so many fans all over Japan—I came here for my fans,” says Teru, who wears his hair blond.

This is the second time a Peach John convoy has transported supplies—water, rice, food, clothing, blankets, gasoline—from Tokyo, a 10-hour-plus drive due to the poor conditions. Travelling with Noguchi is her PR manager, Maki Muroi, who as a girl spent summers in Otsuchi, her mother Hideko Muroi’s hometown. With the supplies delivered—the futons, diapers and baby formula the shelters requested more of during their first trip—Hideko, a 59-year-old nurse who volunteers at the shelter, invites the Peach John team to a relative’s home to eat.

As she leads the group on foot through the wreckage, Hideko still can’t help gesturing at the massive cruise ship that sits perfectly balanced atop a small, two-storey inn. Below it, she stops to flip through a photo album someone has propped against a wall memorializing a wedding. She does not recognize the bride. The group marches up an ascending road along which soldiers have recently uncovered bodies. More soldiers working to clear the road run to warn the backhoe operator of the approaching pedestrians, and the platoon stands at attention as they pass.

A few doors up, Hideko’s relatives wait in a perfectly preserved home, one of a cluster spared by the wave’s cresting metres below. The group sits on the floor at the table and the food comes: abalone, sardine ball soup in wood bowls, mackerel pike mashed into a paste with miso and scallion. All is from the sea or nearby; there is no refrigeration to keep it. Slurping at the soup, they shout their approval—”Umai, umai!” Just a few doors away, the world is rubble. As they eat, they talk of the wave. “I couldn’t sleep last week,” says Noguchi. “I’m a businesswoman, I was worrying about Japan.” She pauses, reflecting. “I believe we will find a new way,” she continues. “A new Japan. We have a chance to reset. We have an aging society. Before, so many young people had no hope. Because of this challenge, they now have fuel.”

In the kitchen, still fussing over the meal, Hideko finds time to think of recent days. She has not yet reconciled herself to the destruction of her hometown. “I refrain from watching television when the news comes on,” she says. After the roads were cleared of debris and she could return to Otsuchi, she was relieved to find her mother’s grave had not been washed away. But she could not locate her childhood home. No landmark remains. “All my memories have become a zero,” Hideko says without self-pity. Yet little of what she saw moved her, so overwhelmed was she. It took the sight of an old acquaintance. “That’s the first time I cried. When I saw someone who had lost everyone in the tsunami busy volunteering at the shelter.”

In myriad ways inside this exploded world, the people of the northeast wrestle a little more order back from the leviathan each day. A man wearing black digs through the rubble near the Onagawa harbour. He finds two large bottles of soy sauce, a bottle of white wine, one of red, and a bottle of sake. The bottles come from a restaurant that once stood two buildings away, he says. Half a block north, two young men in jeans pick their way through the apartment one had lived in that’s now folded in upon itself. “Oh look,” one says to the other. “Over there.” They unearth a small skateboard. It’s awful, what’s happened. Are you alright? “Don’t worry,” one of the young men tells a reporter. He asks back: “Are you alright?” One of the two disappears beneath a sprawl of tangled rebar, still searching.

Here and there amid the mixture of house, toppled police station, boats, all the churned up mass-produced human artifacts—the dolls and aprons and shattered glass—little displays appear. On a chair by a vanished house in Minamisanriku sit three old-fashioned Canon film cameras, gathered to some unknown purpose. An effigy of Daikokuten, the god of darkness holding his mythical money-making hammer, is placed carefully on a prominent outcrop of rubble in a fallen home—a household deity, he stays to the last.

And everywhere there are the photographs. In a corner of the destruction not far from the evacuation centre in Rikuzentakata, designated by tacit agreement, is a gathering place for albums, now numbering perhaps half a dozen. In one album or another can be found a photograph of a yawning baby, of a dinner party, of three boys graduating high school, of a piano recital, an old black and white snap snot of a woman in a kimono performing a geisha dance, of a tour guide posing in front of her bus in a beehive hairdo half a century ago.

Later that day, at an Onagawa hospital built on high ground overlooking the city’s vast spread of ruin, another collection: of human beings fighting for their lives. A doctor greets a visitor who is due to leave the area this day but vows to return. The doctor explains that the people here are well for now because they have an aim—to survive. They are tired but not depressed. The doctor has not shaved in some time. He tells the visitor: “The next time you come it will have become clean.”