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Japan, November 2011 | Part One: Tsunami Relief in Ishinomaki

Fishermen

A fisherman’s floats with the kanji for the family name sit unused outside a port near Ishinomaki, Japan. The area was a vibrant fishing and farming community that could not practice its industry during 2011.

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.

An elementary school near the river bank that was completely covered by the wave. All students evacuated safely.

An elementary school near the river bank that was completely covered by the wave. All students evacuated safely before the tsunami.

Clothing, dishes, roof tiles, and more debris removed from under the mud and millet in a field we cleared

Clothing, dishes, roof tiles, and more debris removed from under the mud and millet in a field we cleared

Salvaged from beneath the mud in a field we cleared, this ping-pong paddle had a child

Salvaged from beneath the mud in a field we cleared, this ping-pong paddle had a child’s name written on it. We cleaned it off with the hope of reuniting it with its owner or living relatives.

A car wrecked by the tsunami sits in a field near Ookawa, Japan

A car wrecked by the tsunami sits in a field near Ookawa, Japan

Brooms in an abandoned shed near Ookawa in Ishinomaki, Japan

Brooms in an abandoned shed near Ookawa in Ishinomaki, Japan

My friend, Kyoko, who helped organize our volunteer effort in Ishinomaki

My friend, Kyoko, who helped organize our volunteer effort in Ishinomaki, taking a break during field-clearing

Volunteers from our team take a break in the sun during a day spent clearing millet and debris from a farm field.

Volunteers from our team take a break in the sun during a day spent clearing millet and debris from a farm field.

Volunteers clearing a field of millet and debris so it can be re-plowed for use in 2012

Volunteers clearing a field of millet and debris so it can be re-plowed for use in 2012

Tsunami damage to the inside of a Japanese home near Ookawa. Paper doors, futons, and wooden floors destroyed by the wave.

Tsunami damage to the inside of a Japanese home near Ookawa. Paper doors, futons, and wooden floors destroyed by the wave.

Persimmons growing near Ookawa, Japan

Persimmons growing near Ookawa, Japan

Traditional Japanese hinamatsuri doll sitting in a damaged shed outside Ookawa

Traditional Japanese hinamatsuri doll sitting in a damaged shed outside Ookawa

A local farmer standing in front of his field, which we cleared earlier of debris and overgrowth that day

A local farmer standing in front of his field in Ookawa, which we cleared earlier of debris and overgrowth that day

Lettuce growing on a family farm plot near homes that have been repaired from tsunami damage in Ookawa.

Lettuce growing on a family farm plot near homes that have been repaired from tsunami damage in Ookawa.

Memorial for the lives lost in a residential area where 27 houses were washed away and the cement shell of a home shrine in the mud.

Memorial for the lives lost in a residential area where 27 houses were washed away and only a muddy flood-plain remains. On the right, the cement shell of a home shrine in the mud.

Flower memorial at Ookawa elementary school, where nearly every student and teacher died during the tsunami

A flower memorial at Ookawa elementary school, where nearly every student and teacher died during the tsunami.

Debris and garbage piled at the base of the slope near Ookawa elementary school, where evacuations were supposed to take place

Debris and garbage from the tsunami piled at the base of the slope near Ookawa elementary school, where evacuations were supposed to take place. Instead, teachers delayed evacuating before directing students to a nearby bridge, where they were struck by the wave.

Sunrise over Kinkasan Island from our cabin at the Oshika family campground

Sunrise over Kinkasan Island from our cabin at the Oshika family campground. Oshika was closest to the epicenter of the tsunami and parts of it sank 3.9 feet and moved 17 feet south.

Fishing boats off the coast of Ishinomaki, Japan

Fishing boats off the coast of Ishinomaki, Japan

Opposite a narrow beach, this neighborhood was washed away in the March 2011 tsunami. The small house in center frame washed off its foundation and settled there. It was demolished later that day.

Opposite a narrow beach, this neighborhood was washed away in the March 2011 tsunami. The small house in center frame washed off its foundation and settled there. It was demolished later that day.

Manhole cover in Onagawa, Japan, near temporary housing for tsunami refugees.

Manhole cover in Onagawa, Japan, near temporary housing for tsunami refugees.

Older women among the Onagawa tsunami refugees make zorii slippers from old t-shirts to keep busy and fundraise for their community

Older women among the Onagawa tsunami refugees make zorii slippers from old t-shirts to keep busy and fundraise for their community. The “aunties” and “grandmas” in temporary housing groups across the affected areas have taken up projects to support each other.

Kyoko making zorii from old t-shirts with the Mama Supporters in Onagawa

Kyoko learning to make zorii from old t-shirts with the Mama Supporters in Onagawa

A poster of Oshika Whale town in Ishinomaki, Japan, before the March 2011 tsunami

A poster of Oshika, a whaling town in Ishinomaki, Japan, before the March 2011 tsunami. Notice the apartment building in the upper right and look for it in the next photo (center).

Oshika town in Ishinomaki prefecture after the tsunami. The apartment building to the right of the blue sign is the same one in the upper right of the

Oshika town in Ishinomaki prefecture after the tsunami. The apartment building to the right of the blue sign is the same one in the upper right of the “before” picture. Eighty percent of buildings in Oshika were destroyed.

Apartment building in Oshika, Ishinomaki prefecture, damaged by the tsunami wave.

Apartment building in Oshika, Ishinomaki prefecture, damaged by the tsunami wave.

A small boat, washed about 1km inland, rests at near an apartment complex in Oshika town

A small boat, washed about 1km inland, rests at near an apartment complex in Oshika town

Clocks stopped at the time of the earthquake.

Clocks stopped at the time of the earthquake.

Bottles of beer, kitchenware, and other debris sorted and left behind at an apartment building in Oshika, where 80 percent of residences were destroyed.

Bottles of beer, kitchenware, and other debris sorted and left behind at an apartment building in Oshika, where 80 percent of residences were destroyed.

The owner of a liquor store in Oshika selling bottles with labels damaged in the tsunami at a local flea market.

The owner of a liquor store in Oshika selling bottles with labels damaged in the tsunami at a local flea market.

A young boy celebrates his fifth birthday at Hiyori-yama Shine

Life goes on, and a young boy celebrates his fifth birthday (the shichi-go-san ceremony) at Hiyori-yama Shine

Interested in seeing more images? View Part Two of my tsunami relief photographs.

benj haisch - so amazing. I can’t wait to go to Japan someday. ?????????? I took it in high school and college but know nothing now.

Andrea Kilmer - Kat, these pictures are amazing. I still can’t even fathom a disaster of that magnitude – so glad to see the rebuilding efforts underway & that life goes on!

Kat - Thank you, Andrea! It’s so good to hear from you, by the way. 🙂

Kat - Hey Benj! I studied it in college (as a second major) and lived there in 2003, but MAN is it hard to start speaking again after all that time. I really had to the two weeks I was volunteering because I was with native speakers and not other Americans. Super exhausting in its own right.

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