Kesennuma: 11 Months After the Tsunami
February 11, 2012
Dear Family and Friends,
It has been a long time since I wrote to you. For me personally life has resumed a degree of normalcy. I go to work, I shop for food, I write, and I try in my own ways to be involved in the relief efforts going on here. Those activities are time and energy consuming, so my letters to all of you have become far less frequent.
When I have time I go out to areas still struggling, more so even that Sendai, to get their feet back on the ground. We have come very far, but we still have much to do. In fact, amazingly just the other day a cluster of bodies from the tsunami were found and identified. So, yes, our work is far from over.
Yesterday I went north to Kesennuma. Maybe you remember hearing of that port town, one of the most severely damaged by the tsunami. I went exactly eleven months after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Somehow that seemed appropriate for a day of observation, admiration, and wonder.
Kesennuma was freezing cold with winds that cut and sliced. But even so, my friend and I set off walking from the small train station perched on a hill, down to the port area, our focus of interest. We were surprised that the beautiful old buildings near the station were in relatively fine shape. They were standing and had few cracks. Even the tile roofs were in tact, unlike those in Sendai and her surrounding areas.
The road sloped downward and suddenly as soon as we turned a sharp corner, everything changed. Neat piles of rubble were everywhere, buildings were either completely gone, were tilting this way and that, or were frames with broken boards and cement blocks crumbled all over the floors. It was as if we were walking in a dream world.
Everything seemed surreal, made all the more so because people were living as normal a life as they could among the rubble. There might be fish drying on a rack outside a makeshift shop, cars driving by, happy to stop at the very recently working traffic lights, small cranes everywhere slowly clearing up rocks and boards, and boats plying back and forth in the harbor.
We wandered and wondered our way past houses with the first floors smashed out, the third floor of buildings teetering on the smashed floors below it, upturned boats in parking lots or leaning beside buildings.
Yet not far from the edge of the sea, where large fishing concerns had one thrived, we saw a row of swinging red lanterns. We went to inspect and were delighted to discover a small area of teeny make-shift shops. They were all housed in the ubiquitous temporary buildings, which now cover much of the Tohoku region. Some were matchbox-sized restaurants; others were fishmongers. One sold tea, another groceries, mostly seaweeds of all sorts and fish.
Of course, my friend and I wanted to know about these colorful, merry little places, so we popped into the fishmongers to ask. He was a lovely man, very eager to share his story. “We have been here for three months. The government is allowing us to be here for two years. This is the first one of these little complexes. Further down the road there is another one that just opened. And others will soon follow.”
He seemed pleased and relieved to have a place, to be able to work, and to talk to people. His shop was sparkling clean. It was not overly full, but what he had was simply and pleasantly displayed. After we chatted for a while, he pointed to a huge bright banner crowding his wall. “This used to be used on big fishing boats. They were so huge that they would go out to sea for a year or longer. When they came back home, the men would furl these banners high on the mast so that the town folk would know they were approaching. Then everyone would rush to the port to greet them and to help unload.
“Everything on this means something. Look. Here are fish, of course, and pink coral. And this on the right is a drum. That is a wooden bucket full of rice rolled in reed mats. And there in the back is a big pot of gold, and in the front is an offering. Isn’t this banner beautiful?” he asked with an unusual (for Japanese) expression of pride.
“Of course,” he continued, “if a ship were small, one that came home every night, these banners were very small and plain, but their message was the same. They were a signal that the boat was coming to port, so please come help unload today’s catch.”
We chatted for a bit longer, bought some dried fish as a way to thank him, and moved on. Next we popped into a cubicle of a restaurant and ate some of the best tuna sushi we had ever tasted. Revived, we carried on down the arc of the still damaged port. We continued seeing mounds of rubble, shells of houses, areas now vacant, but which once held entire neighborhoods and fishing-related businesses.
A new landmark of Kesennuma is a huge tanker that the tsunami had lifted many meters from the sea and dumped at the base of a hill. It lay there like a beached whale among frames of old houses and a newly built parking lot.
Eerily the area around this enormous ship was utterly damaged, but a few meters up the houses were in tact and life in them seemed to be as it was before the tsunami. Curtains hung in windows, flowers stood in entranceways, laundry flapped in the breeze. The contrast was startling and struck very deep.
Near this beached whale of a tanker was the second very newly opened complex of temporary shops. This spot had opened less than two weeks before. We went into one because of the rows and rows of seaweed on the shelves and ended up talking to a man and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Azuma. They had lost pretty much everything in the tsunami. They had watched their forty-employee fish factory be swallowed by the monstrous sea, saw people scramble to the top of buildings, stranded for three days as fires raged all around making even helicopter rescuers have to wait before they could approach safely.
This couple had a wealth of information. They explained to us some of the inner workings of the clean-up mission. It seems the government, both local and national, are trying to determine the best way to rebuild the community. Of course, clearing up is a top priority. It has been going on since this all began and continues now. This couple felt that it would take at least another two years to clean up the mess, but another ten or so to get the place back to normal with businesses in full swing.
They said that almost all of Kesennuma’s work had always been connected to fishing. That included not only the seafood per se, but also the packing, and the shipping. It also meant local shops catering to fishermen and their needs, advertising, and disposal of waste. And of course, fishermen’s families’ needs had to be met, too. So the community had been bustling before the tsunami.
“Now we are trying our best,” they said. “These small businesses can operate for two years. In that time the government is working hard to figure out how to make a new infrastructure. We hear they are proposing fishing businesses near the port, then a huge park as a buffer against tsunami, and finally homes far back from the sea. Before the devastation, business and homes were mingled all over the place. But that will be illegal after this.
“We in Kesennuma are very familiar with tsunami. Just two years ago we had one that came up to our knees. For us that was nothing. We just cleaned up and kept on working. This time the tsunami took a long time to hit, so many people ran to safety, but then went back home to fetch something, thinking the water would not be so bad. But this one was more than anyone ever imagined. Tsunami do not arch upward and curl under like regular waves. They back up further and further, collecting water as they go, and then they come forward, flat and ferocious, driving everything in front of them to oblivion.”
I asked them how they felt as they watched this angry sea ravaging their lives. “Did you cry,” I queried. “No, actually I laughed,” said Mr. Azuma. “It was a sort of hysterical laughter, I guess. It was so totally unbelievable and I felt to my bones all the work ahead of us. It was the only reaction I could muster. No point in getting overwhelmed. There was too much to be done.”
Mr. Azuma then went on to explain about a cycle of geological disturbances called “The Miyagi Earthquakes”. Ever since 1793 when the first records were accurately kept, Miyagi Prefecture has known a severe earthquake every thirty years. The last one was in 1978 and had a magnitude of 7.4. But the tsunami from that was only 30 centimeters and “only” twenty-eight people died. At first everyone felt that the 2011 whooper was the overdue Miyagi Earthquake, but we later found out otherwise. It had been caused by different plates, so was not an official Miyagi Earthquake at all. The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami was from plates that last shook more than 1000 years ago, so the pressure under them was phenomenal. No one knows if the “regular” plates causing the once-every-thirty-year Miyagi Earthquake will start to shake soon or not. We all hope that the recent disturbance released enough pressure to keep things silent for a long time. But we do not know. We can only prepare ourselves, move forward with life, wait and see.
Before the tsunami, part of the Azuma family’s work had been to make cloth wrappings for fish to be shipped and sold. So they had skills in sewing and working with material. He and his wife sat together thinking what they could do for work now that their factory had been destroyed. They came up with a brilliant idea of making artistically designed patterns on heavy duty cloth, and then sewing them into bags, mats, aprons, pen cases, and the like.
Some of these designs include the names of all the neighborhoods of Kesennuma which were wiped out. After reconstruction, even their names will no longer exist outside of memory. So as a way to preserve them, this couple very cleverly made designs with those precious names sprinkled throughout. Then they borrowed money and bought a small shop high up on a hill and opened their business with a coffee counter to bring in daily revenue.
This kind gentleman and his wife drove us to this new jewel of a place. We enjoyed chatting over hot drinks as we listened to more of his stories and admired his truly lovely items for sale. The workshop for these goods was right in the back and several women were hunched over sewing machines making these wonderful products. Everyone was grateful for work.
Here is their website, in case you are interested. http://sites.google.com/site/ganbaare/
Realizing how locals were suffering economically at this time, I asked who bought their goods. “Friends from other places who want to help us,” they said. “And many volunteers did, too. And we local people are all helping each other as much as we can. Even though we have so little, we buy from each other whenever possible. We were helping out the woman in the shop where you met us. And did you notice that she was wearing one of our aprons? So, it is give and take. That is how we have always survived.”
This couple went on to tell us that there were now ninety different areas with clusters of temporary houses in them. Of course, everyone is hoping that someday they will be able to get back to living in a regular house again. But the long process of clearing up, of developing infrastructure, and then of rebuilding lies ahead.
“But you know, this is not the first time we have been devastated and it will not be the last. It is definitely the worst in our lifetime, and we hope it will stay that way. But we will go on. And our children and their children will. That is something we believe. That is something that keeps us going.”
When we got back to Sendai, we sent them a thank you note, of course. And this is their reply.
“I also would like to say thank you. It was good to see both of you had a chance to see the situation at Kesennuma. And we felt very warm to share time and our memories with both of you. In Kesennuma, temporary shops/buildings are started to set up everywhere so that it looks like recoverying is going well; however, for us, our real job is seafood processing and seafood processing industry is still in the dark. In this sense, we are groping and seeking ways everyday. Right now, we are trying to send out “Genki” of Kesennuma by making those GANBAARE products which related to Kesennuma. Please visit us again when you are coming to Kesennuma next time. Please tell Anne-sensei, ‘Please show the current situation of Kesennuma to American people with your article.’ We are looking forward to seeing both of you again. Thank you very much.”
To help those still in need in Japan, please consider buying Letters to the Ground from the Heart or donating to the cause. 100% of the proceeds will be distributed to survivors of The Great East Japan / Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, most notably the Sendai Yomawari Group that serves the homeless—a population which is now exploding.