Documenting Tohoku's long road to recovery

Rob Gilhooly

Special to The Japan Times

An aerial view of Fukushima Prefecture as seen from a Cessna aircraft on March 12, 2011. | © Bon Ishikawa

We profile three photographers who have worked tirelessly since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster to ensure the struggles of the region are not forgotten

Arguably the most heart-rending objects found among the mountains of rubble in the devastated Tohoku region following the March 11 disasters in 2011 were the countless sludge-splattered snapshots of an irremediably lost time.

They depicted anything from young women in kimono posing for coming-of-age portraits and cake-cutting newly weds to a high school baseball team and a radiant mother cradling a new-born baby. What they all shared in common were personal slices of happiness — private celebrations of everyday life that had previously occupied very personal spaces, but were now on display in a massive open-air gallery.

Through the lenses of the photographers who ventured into Tohoku in the aftermath of the quake and tsunami, these sunny snapshots — now muddied, torn and tossed around like confetti from some long-abandoned revelry — took on a distinctly somber tone. Where were those smiling, peace-sign toting teenagers now? Or the slightly disheveled business colleagues, grinning red-faced under the cherry blossoms?

In some cases, weeks of searching uncovered a frequently tragic answer. For many of the photographers who documented the disasters, however, this was the closest they would get to an image of how this coastal region in northeastern Japan had once looked and how its people had lived.

The other objects they photographed were little more than testament to the power of nature, or documents that would remind future generations of the travails of their forefathers, both as survivors and re-builders. In the case of the Fukushima nuclear accident, they served as records of villages and towns still physically standing but effectively as obliterated as those places along the coast that had been swept away by the marauding waves.

Five years on and much of the landscape in the devastated region has changed beyond recognition once more. In Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, post-tsunami landmarks such as toppled buildings and washed-up cargo vessels have disappeared almost as rapidly as those that are now obscured, or have been replaced, by the ever-growing mountains of plastic bags filled with radioactive waste and land-reclaiming vegetation in Fukushima.

Yet, while some displaced residents also have changed landscapes — many with new pastures hundreds of kilometers away — tens of thousands more remain in limbo.

“I have given up hope of ever returning home,” says one elderly evacuee from Namie, a town near the crippled nuclear plant, who has lived in temporary housing in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, for almost four of the past five years. “It seems the rest of the country has moved on, but we are going nowhere.”

Yuko Kusano of Sendai-based nonprofit organization Miyagi Jo-Net, which has provided support for displaced women since March 2011, says many others, especially the elderly, feel the same — that they have been “forgotten, or abandoned.”

Some photographers who have worked in the region over the past five years are determined to make sure this never happens, documenting progress, or lack of it, and giving hope to the people who they first met in those photos that littered the post-tsunami landscape.

To mark the upcoming fifth anniversary of the March 2011 disaster, The Japan Times interviewed three photographers who have expressed diverse, but nonetheless revealing, viewpoints.

An aerial view of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant shortly before a hydrogen explosion occurred at reactor 1 at 3:36 p.m. on March 12, 2011. | © Bon Ishikawa

Bon Ishikawa

Bon Ishikawa offers a unique perspective of the Tohoku disasters. Known for documenting the shrine removals at Ise Grand Shrine for more than 30 years as well as his aerial views of Earth, Ishikawa first photographed the devastated region from a Cessna aircraft that he chartered in Tokyo.

“When I flew over Kesennuma (in Miyagi Prefecture), I could just make out the faint sight of people through the smoke that was billowing up from the flooded landscape and felt as though I was looking down on hell,” says Ishikawa, 56, who began his career with the Agence France-Press news agency before turning freelance in 1990. “I couldn't help wondering what those people were going through.”

Within a matter of hours he would find out. Having returned to his home in the capital, Ishikawa collected his motorbike and headed back up to the devastated region. The pain and suffering he found there made him determined to show the disasters from the victims' perspectives.

“Even if we look at photos of war or the atomic bombings, for example, with time our memory of events tends to fade,” he says. “I thought that if I could somehow capture the feelings and struggles of the people then I would be able to convey the sheer terror of a tsunami for future generations.”

Later, Ishikawa had fears of his own to contend with. When reactor 3 at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power facility exploded on March 15, he was working nearby. Shortly after, it began to rain and he started to worry about radiation poisoning; he was still moving around the region on his motorbike.

“I was soaked through with black rain,” says Ishikawa, who later burned his clothes, showered and went through radiation screening in Iwaki City. “The readings caused a real commotion at the screening. My camera bag, camera straps and memory cards were confiscated … though somehow my cameras were OK. I am sure that I, too, must have been irradiated.”

Nonetheless, he carried on working, even though this “intense” incident made him question the wisdom of nuclear power in a disaster-prone country such as Japan.

“As a person who has gone through such a first-hand experience, I am amazed that despite what happened at Fukushima, despite the continuing nuclear waste issue, nuclear power plants are being switched back on,” says Ishikawa, whose wife developed thyroid cancer 12 months after the disasters, although he is unsure it was related to the nuclear accident. “I truly wonder where human wisdom lies when you can restart nuclear plants after something so asinine as Fukushima.”

Over the days that followed, Ishikawa delivered emergency supplies to remote communities near Kesennuma. Later on, he worked with local schools in an attempt to mitigate post-traumatic stress among school children, both through photography and his dog, Jubey, who he has trained as a Frisbee dog.

“Child survivors didn't talk about the disasters, but doctors said if they didn't they may never completely get over it,” Ishikawa says. “I thought the positive power of photography could help. So I worked with them on photo projects that focused on the things and places they like, or things they want to convey. During break time, we would play Frisbee. Such interaction helped them relax and enabled me to work more effectively.”

An elderly woman shuffles through Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, after a 25-meter-high tsunami struck the city on March 11, 2011. | © James Whitlow Delano

James Whitlow Delano

American photojournalist James Whitlow Delano recently returned from the disaster zone where he had tried to revisit some of the places he had photographed in the aftermath of the disasters. Most he found, although the rapidly altering landscape made the job challenging.

“Five years on, they are making great progress but they are not there yet,” says Delano, who has called Japan home for over 20 years. “Rebuilding these towns … is a massive operation. And it's really hit and miss — some places are doing better than others.”

Delano has shot photographic projects worldwide, many focusing on environmental issues and natural phenomena such as volcanoes. The Tohoku disasters had a more emotional impact on him, especially the Fukushima nuclear accident which was “harrowing for a child of the Cold War,” he says.

“Being a long-term resident and having family here I felt duty-bound to tell this story,” he says. “When you see news from around the world, it somehow seems as though affected people are in a never-changing state, which makes it hard to imagine what life was like for them in normal times. In this case, however, a few days before they were living just like you and me. … And it showed me that we are just one bad day away from being in their shoes.”

Consequently, he admits to feeling conflicted when working in the disaster zone and photographing people who had lost their homes and loved ones.

“There were photos I had to take to communicate what was going on,” he says. “I always apologized and explained to them after. I wanted people to understand. … But that was the worst time of their lives. It was tough.”

While he believes that much of the tsunami-hit zone will recover with time, he is less optimistic about communities that have been affected by radiation. On a recent assignment in Fukushima, in addition to the sprawling temporary storage facilities that can be found dotted around the prefecture, Delano noticed piles of tarpaulin-covered radioactive debris near to homes, even in the city of Fukushima.

“When I found out what they were, I saw them as a great metaphor for the silent menace that people have to live with up there,” he says. “I can't imagine how anyone who has been to see Fukushima Prefecture could think anything about nuclear power is good.”

Despite the nuclear issue, Delano believes the “world-class beauty” found in Honshu's northeastern region and the hard-working, stoic character of the Tohoku people could lead to much-needed development and innovation in the area.

“They didn't lose everything,” he says. “Tohoku is still there. The culture and the spirit is very much still alive. A happy scenario could be that this sparks a renaissance.”

A view of the town of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, from Kumano Shrine in 2006. | © Atsushi Sasaki
A view of the town of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, from Kumano Shrine in May 2011. | © Mayumi Suzuki
A view of the town of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, from Kumano Shrine in December 2012. | © Mayumi Suzuki
A view of the town of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, from Kumano Shrine in August 2013. | © Mayumi Suzuki
A view of the town of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, from Kumano Shrine in December 2015. | © Mayumi Suzuki

Mayumi Suzuki

Large-format photographer Mayumi Suzuki's work in Tohoku began when she uncovered a camera lens among the debris in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture. Caked in mud, it had been half buried near a darkroom that was all that remained of an erstwhile photo studio and home.

Suzuki, who lives in Kanagawa Prefecture, recognized the lens immediately: It belonged to her father, Atsushi Sasaki, and the battered two-story building was the house in which she was born.

Although it had not been confirmed at the time, her father and mother both perished in the disasters. However, aided by a love of photography and a positivity she says she inherited from her father, Suzuki chose not to dwell on the past. Instead, she began to document the bravery of the survivors as they went about picking up the pieces of their lives.

“I found the lens and the darkroom, but there was nothing left of the neighboring homes and stores,” Suzuki recalls. “Even a large, concrete building nearby had been knocked on its side. Inside the darkroom, however, equipment such as the enlarger was still intact. Even the light bulb was unbroken. I felt this must be a message from my father. … I thought I have to start working.”

First, she created a studio-like set on the devastated land and began to take portraits of survivors — local store owners and their children, who, like Suzuki were heirs to the family business.

It was a theme she resolved to follow after discovering that her grandfather, who opened the seaside studio in 1930, had been forced to rebuild it three years later following another devastating tsunami that was triggered by the 1933 Sanriku Earthquake. Her father, too, had suffered a similar fate in the aftermath of another tsunami that hit the pretty coastal town in 1960.

“A disaster had struck each generation, but everyone decided to stay and rebuild,” says Suzuki, who says she had never considered carrying on her father's work. “The reason is simple — Onagawa is a place that holds too much significance for them. It's a place they love. This is why they chose to start again after March 11 and that's what moved me the most. It's why I wanted to document their endeavors for future generations.”

Onagawa's recovery has been steady, and plans to raise the coastal land by 5 meters are yet to convene. Yet, there is a perceptiveness among the local people that is not always seen in other recovering towns, she says.

“In other places, there is a tendency to look back — to want to return to how things were,” says Suzuki, who was invited to show her work in New York a few months after the disasters. “In Onagawa, however, the future of the town is being shaped by people of my generation, but not even for us. We are shaping it for our children.”

More recently, Suzuki has started to reflect on the family photo studio and has commenced work on a new project that employs the mud-encrusted lens she found among the debris five years ago, which she had mistakenly believed was beyond repair.

“What I want to express through these images is the idea that my father's spirit is alive, and that at night he appears and wanders around town,” she says. “The photos reflect how he would see it now five years on, or that he is still watching over me, … saying, 'Make sure you do a good job of this.' … So I am no longer creating just a record of recovery. Although I am the one who is taking the pictures, I see them from my father's perspective and his spirit is always by my side.”

Related link: Revisiting 3/11: Five years after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake

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