It’s been a challenge for me to get through editing these photographs from my November trip to Ishinomaki, Japan. It’s not so much that the subject matter is emotional, thought it is, but that I struggled to feel that I adequately captured the experience of volunteering in a disaster area. There were a lot of things I saw that I just couldn’t photograph… or that simply didn’t come out in a way that I felt fairly represented the situation in Japan eight months after the tsunami. There were a lot of images I still feel just don’t mean much out of context. [NOTE: With that in mind, I’m going to provide captions for the images below.] And, simply, there was so much that I saw only through a car window, just barely able to gape, as we drove by.
I didn’t spend nearly as much time photographing as I did working. The work that we did wasn’t very conducive to cradling a camera either– mostly hard labor and restorations digging out overgrowth, debris, mud, and other detritus from the former sites of homes and farm fields. It was a lot of shoveling, wheelbarrowing, pulling up weeds, sorting, lifting, and searching. The big cleanup– rebuilding roads, salvaging boats and big debris, the demolition of buildings too damaged to be saved– is finished in some areas and well under way in other areas. Most of the towns and villages hit by the tsunami have simply ceased to exist, bulldozed into a state more reminisce of a vacant lot than a Japanese city. So where there once were tightly-packed communities teeming with farmers and fishermen, there are now desolate stretches of washed-out soil embedded with the bits and pieces of the lives that once called that area home.
It’s strange to see the coastline in this state of perpetual transition. In some ways, there has been remarkable progress. The Japanese Self Defense Forces have repaired and built new roads to make the area accessible to relief workers. Those who lost their homes have been given transitional housing. There are a variety of staple donations available to those who need them. There is no longer a search for the dead or missing. It is a time to repair and rebuild.
But… not everywhere CAN rebuild. Some areas of the coast sank more than four feet after the tectonic shift of the massive quake. These areas may be subject to tidal flooding (like large parts of Ishinomaki city), unstable soil, or simply unsafe for future building. The government has provided a stipend for those who have lost their homes, but it is often not enough money for a new piece of land and a new home. Where can they build? Land is at a premium in Japan.
Plus, there’s a whole level of unseen politic beneath the surface: What about those who still have their homes? They have mortgages, but they may not have jobs. The people in temporary housing can at least receive relief donations, but those who still have their homes cannot. This area had a vibrant fishing and farming industry, neither of which functioned at all during 2011. How are the remaining residents supposed to make income? Some are volunteering rebuilding the industry, but some have had to take other jobs in areas that weren’t ruined, leaving tension between them and those who are shouldering the burden. It’s this sort of thing that photographs can’t show.
What I did see were a lot of bizarre wide-open spaces where land that once often held scores of houses is now vacant. I saw wrecked and washed-out homes and schools in various states of decay and demolition. I saw memorials for the dead and for the missing. I saw lots, and lots, and lots of volunteers– some coming from hours away on tour buses over the weekend to spend Saturday volunteering and the night on the bus home. I saw strange portents, like the tiny wooden Shinto shrine that survived the flooding of a river delta where 27 homes did not. I saw the bits and pieces of lives destroyed, embedded in a thick layer of mud. I saw tragedy and destitution and hope being rebuilt. Eight months after the disaster, the horror is gone, but the sadness remains, haunting the quiet, vacant lots.
This post is as much for me as it is for you. Looking at these images helps me remember the important things in life, and not to get too bogged down in details. I hope they do the same for you.
Interested in seeing more images? View Part Two of my tsunami relief photographs.