May 31, 2014
Dear Family and Friends,
Iwanuma is the township adjacent to Natori, where OISCA does its great work. Sendai Airport is in Iwanuma, so getting that area back on its feet quickly is crucial.
Both Natori and Iwanuma are working to create a safe coastal region. Yet, the two have very different approaches. Natori and OISCA have a plan to reforest the region with a uniform pine tree forest. They want to use mainly locals. Iwanuma’s program is more varied. Instead of only a single forest, its work includes a large park. It will eventually extend from the sea wall to several kilometers inland. This recreational area already has large expanses of open space, dotted here and there with low mounds. On top of those pimples of land are gazebos with artwork and memorial stones, plus views of the sea.
Between the tsunami wall and the park is a manmade ridge that extends along the entire coastline. Of course, that sloping hill needs to be very stable. And that is why volunteers came, again from all over the country, for another day of planting trees.
Unlike OISCA’s gracious NGO endeavor, this one was enormous. Iwanuma City government sponsored it. So, rather than 350 volunteers, there were about 6000! Naturally, the atmosphere between the two events was vastly different.
I went with a friend and her neighbors. As before we were greeted at the airport with people holding signs. Since the site was nearby, we walked. Naturally, there were hordes of us, so all along the route there were other people indicating the correct path.
When we arrived at the registration area, it felt like a carnival. There was music blaring out of loud speakers, food stalls, and huge banners advertising which companies and groups were there.
Among many others, there was a Hitachi crowd in bright orange shirts, school kids in baseball uniforms, the Iwanuma Green Forest Wall Project with its own T-shirts, AEON, and the Silver Center of oldsters.
After all 6000 of us had finally assembled into our neat little groups, we were told to stand and face east. That is, towards the Mother of this entire project: the Ocean. We bowed our heads in silent prayer of humility before Forces larger than ourselves and of respect to those lost in the tsunami.
Then we all sat down and were introduced to important guests. The son of Koizumi was one of several politicians. Plus there were TV talents and radio hosts, university presidents and, happily, a cluster of local school children. And the press, of course.
We were to plant a “natural” forest with sixteen varieties of trees.
Since most of us and little or no idea what each tree was, the celebrities on stage, with the help of Professor Miyawaki from Yokohama National University, shouted out the names one by one.
Then all 6000 of us loudly repeated the names three times. Finally we all raised our right fists in the air and shouted, “Gambarimashou”, again three times.
Each leader took his group to their specific area. Along the way we saw trays of trees, bundles of straw, boxes of water, and colorful trowels.
Likewise, from beginning to end, we were entertained with familiar songs broadcast over loudspeakers. It was an uncomfortably hot day in the direct sun. So I suppose the singing helped to entertain us and to make the atmosphere merry.
First we were given a demonstration on how to plant the trees. “We want a natural forest, so put things randomly, but not too close together.”
After planting, we had to cover the hill with straw bundles and then tie everything down with thick rope.
The final job was to hurl water over our great labors. Once we got started, the work went amazingly quickly.
All too soon our work was finished. The team leaders bowed their thanks to us; and we bowed our gratitude in return. And then we each went our own way.
I wanted to see the sea, hidden behind the tsunami wall. So I wandered over to one of the mounds. En route I was happy to come across a batch of trees that had been planted the year before. It was very reassuring to see that they were strong and becoming taller. I hope in the years ahead today’s babies will gradually take hold and eventually become a forest themselves.
Even though today was happy, as I drifted along the pathways, I could feel the deep sadness that still lingers in the earth, the air, the sea, and the sky. I heard a bell ringing with one deep gong after another. I wandered toward the sound and found a monument dedicated to those who perished. Each of their names was carved in stone. Visitors were searching for people they had known and loved. Several of them burst into tears when they found a significant name – even now, more than three years since that harrowing nightmare occurred.
The bell itself was like an altar. Anyone could ring it. All who did then bowed and placed their hands in a gesture of prayer. There was a continuous line of people who sought that place of reflection and respect. The bell chimed non-stop the entire day.
I stayed for a long while in that sacred space. But eventually I headed back to the Disneyland arena, where a cowboy-clad singer was wailing away and crowds were munching on rice balls and sweet cakes.
I could not help but to reflect upon the day. Even though the atmosphere, for the most part, had been light and full of entertainment, there was something as serious and as well intended as the more humble OISCA affair had been. I am glad I went to this event, too. And when asked who would come back next year, without hesitation I said, yes. And yes, And yes again.