Aftermath

car lifted to apartment building roof by tsunami

Six months have passed since the Great Tohoku Disaster. During these bright, sunny, late summer days, when the buildings hold still and the nights pass unperturbed by moments of terror when even the smallest movement of the bed shoots me awake from restless sleep, it is sometimes hard to remember that just a few months ago the whole world was shaking off its hinges and seemed to be tottering at the edge of ending.

Manami Sanrikucho torii gate knocked over by tsunami

I can’t quantify what the whole experience did to me. All I know is that I haven’t been able to write in the blog all this time; all ventures within sight of the events would leave my thoughts blank. Words almost seemed to lose their lift before anything coherent even began to form. And not just written words, but anything uttered, too. When I wasn’t clacking along in rush hour trains, lurching and swaying with everyone else, trying to think of nothing but work, it was timeless catatonia, sitting by the bedroom window, just watching clouds scud by. The world seemed to be moving elsewhere. For months nothing seemed to be happening at all around me, not even while being tumbled and kicked in the confusion of university work.

And it’s not as if evidence of the quake disappeared when the shaking began to let off. On the trains and subways, in supermarkets and shopping centers, in office buildings and sports centers, lights and unneeded electric devices remained switched off, and you stepped down into stairwells and lobbies and glided through a hushed gloom. Perhaps because so many people have volunteered to turn down or turn off their air conditioners, the whole city felt distinctly cooler than most of the summers of the last twenty years. Daily the news poured out statistics of the invisible threat from that gaping maw spewing nuclear ichor across the land, just north of us, from the region that was beloved for its green lushness and vegetables, now, just the name “Fukushima” conjures up ghosts and ostracism, human ugliness and unspeakable sorrow.

memorial shrine for a family lost in the tsunami

Further north lurks the “Place That Can’t Be Mentioned”, that vast, vast swath of wreckage and erasure that cannot be taken in by one mind, reaching far beyond the ability of the eye to register anything familiar, and harboring such a teeming chorus of lost voices that you cannot encounter the scenes without breaking down.

sparrow sitting on an overturned bicycle in the tsunami rubble

Two weeks after the big quake and tsunami, I decided to head up to Tohoku to see for myself what this horror was that had visited us, and to offer whatever I could to help, however small my contribution. It was better than sitting helpless in Tokyo, agonizing over the photos and videos I kept seeing on the Internet.

home foundations devastated by tsunami

I had no plan upon first looking for a way up there. News was broken, much of it hearsay, with rumors going around of long lines of cars running out of gasoline long before making it up to the zone of destruction. Telephone lines were out and any food available up there was meant for the survivors, many of whom were starving in remote, inaccessible towns. And so it was like heading north into the Heart of Darkness, my trepidation very real, my inexperience and ignorance warning me that I was being a fool, that the disaster could easily eat me alive, too.

cars wrapped around telephone pole after tsunami

I found a volunteer organization downtown that referred me to another lone volunteer heading up north in two days. She had a connection up there in Minami-Sanrikucho, the hardest hit town in all of the tsunami zone. I went into a frenzy getting myself prepared, gathering all my camping gear, buying all the food for a week, scouring the city for water jugs, almost all of which had been bought up by the panicking people in Tokyo, where food was running out in the supermarkets and cars had to wait for hours to buy gasoline. I managed to get it all together before my travel partner was due to arrive to pick me up. I sat on the couch in the living room, my heart pounding, not at all sure of what I was getting myself into.

calm sea and sunlight after the tsunami

devastation of Minami Sanriku seen from edge of town

tsunami smashed house on top of 4 meter bluff

The drive up north was surprisingly normal, with almost no stops, smooth sailing along an unbroken highway that seemed not to have seen one of the biggest earthquakes in history. My travel companion and I bantered about our backgrounds, our interests, even listening to her collection of iTunes songs and singing along. It was surreal. We kept glancing out of the car windows, seeking signs of destruction and misery, but seeing nothing but the usual Japanese rural landscape. No damage seemed to have been done.

road from evacuation center into devastated Minami Sanrikucho town

The ride took much longer than we had anticipated, so it was already dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Minami-Sanrikucho. All the street lights were out, so we drove in darkness, along deserted roads that passed through town after town with not a soul visible in any of the houses or walking the streets. As if a harbinger for what we were about to encounter, a gigantic dog-like creature appeared suddenly in the headlights on the verge of the road and we swept past without being able to identify what it was. The road ran out of pavement and we started bumping along a dirt track, when suddenly, like an exhibit in a ghost house, an upturned house loomed out of the darkness, right in the middle of the road. My companion shrieked and slammed on the breaks. We sat there, hearts pounding in our mouths, staring as the headlights shone into an empty window. When we peered around the car into the darkness, we became aware of the mountains of wreckage, wooden beams piled like matchsticks, houses and cars mashed together in impossible heaps, huge steel I-beams wrapped like spaghetti around building corners. It was piled so high we couldn’t see over it, all around us. The air was thick with dust, and when I rolled down the window it stank of brine and dead fish, mud and rotting vegetation. And we realized that it wasn’t an earthquake that we had come to, but the horror of the tsunami.

bicycling through the tsunami devastation Minami Sanrikucho

We drove gingerly through the detritus, picking the way carefully over the debris, until we found the evacuation center, where my companion’s contact waited.

The rest of the week in the town was unlike anything I’d ever experienced and I was totally unprepared for it. I had imagined camping amidst the wreckage, and working with volunteers to help clear this up, but in reality it was much too dangerous to spend much time in the wreckage, due to the danger of infection and proliferating bacteria, and to the forest of razor sharp edges everywhere, even underfoot. Instead, we stayed at the town’s sports center/ evacuation center, protected and organized by the local government and the Self Defense Forces. The whole population of the surrounding town was housed in the gym, thousands of people crammed together on every square inch of the floors. On the floor of the gym itself was a scene straight out of the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark… a gigantic warehouse of stacks and aisles of boxes of foodstuffs, basic survival goods, clothes, and blankets. Everywhere outside giant trucks and heavy machinery rumbled in the parking spaces, with lines of soldiers, teams of doctors and rescue workers, and an army of volunteer workers doing all the menial work like handing out food, cleaning toilets, carrying boxes, and answering the questions of the scared evacuees.

view of the Sanriku Bayside Arena evacuation center

view of Minami Sanriku Bayside Arena evacuation center toilets

view of my akto tent at Minami Sanrikucho Bayside Arena evacuation center

view of Minami Sanrikucho Bayside Arena evacuation center parking lot

group of survivors at the Minami Sanrikucho Bayside Arena evacuation center

During the week I met quite a few of them, listened to their stories, ate with them, helped them with basic chores. Nearly all of them revealed having lost someone, and the stories were harrowing and painful to listen to. And yet, everyone attempted to laugh and bear all this with dignity and grace. Walking around the evacuation center for the first part of the week a sense of mutual respect and calmness pervaded everything. That is until the second to the last day, when, after nearly three weeks being crammed together with hundreds of other families, eating the same instant food, boredom settling in, and anxiety over having lost their homes and livelihoods finally kicking in, several brawls erupted in the parking lots. Some of the locals began to grow suspicious of people like me who had come from Tokyo, where none of this destruction existed at this level. One man, catching sight of the only foreigner besides the Israeli rescue unit to have come to the town (nearby Ishinomaki was being called the “Harajuku of the Disaster Zone” because of all the young and non-Japanese volunteers), shouted at me in the worst tough-guy guttural Japanese, that I should stop butting into private people’s lives and that they didn’t need outside help. I later managed to get him to sit down and tell me about his experience: he had lost everyone, including his 7 year old daughter, his 10 year old son, his wife, his father, and brother. Only his aging and sick mother had survived, but, after driving out of the small coastal town up the coast, he had been waiting for six days to get his mother into a medical facility and he was worried she wouldn’t make it. He broke down sobbing in the midst of this story, and he was so ashamed that he got into his car, and locked the door. To see this proud and determined man get reduced to sobbing because he felt so helpless made me ask myself if coming here was not just being selfish and novelty seeking. What difference could I make here? I spoke to quite a few victims, and each time the stories were similar. One old man related how he had been standing on a hill overlooking his house when the tsunami hit, and he could only stand there helplessly as he watched his wife and 20 year old son get swept away in the house. He never found their bodies. Another man, while I was doing volunteer work in the vicinity of his demolished house, approached me to ask what I was doing. When he learned who I was working with and what we were doing, he began to tearfully tell me about being in the apartment building just behind us, with his wife and 3 year old daughter. When they saw the mud wave rolling in from the fields below, he shouted to his wife to get out of the house. He grabbed his daughter and started running up the valley, away from the oncoming mud wave. His wife, however, decided that she needed to gather a few valuables before escaping and while still in the apartment, the mud wave engulfed the house and crushed it. The father had managed to run far enough up the valley to reach the point where the mud wave let off. Weeping, he repeated over and over that his daughter kept asking when they could go home to see mother.

view of Minami Sanrikucho Bayside Arena disaster relief headquarters

Minami Sanrikucho officials and Self Defense Force task force in evacuation center

bleachers sleeping quarters volunteers at Minami Sanrikucho Bayside Arena evacuation center

My volunteer group’s responsibility was to search for family photographs amidst the ruins. It seems like an easy job, but climbing amidst all that debris, in the heat and rain, and even snow, while wearing layers of protective clothing, helmet, boots, gloves, face mask, and over layer of red uniform so that we would be identifiable to both locals and the possibility of injury or death, was hot and exhausting work. We lifted thousands of beams and metals sheets, dug through silt-clogged old bags, broke open orphaned cabinets, and once even stumbled through a wooded area with a fishing boat suspended above in the tree canopy as it creaked and groaned in the wind, just outside our circle of safety. The worst moment for me was one freezing, rainy morning, while I was digging, with a photographer from the Asahi Shimbun newspaper photographing me, through the foundations of a house that had been washed away. I came upon the remains of a teenage girl’s bedroom, her colorful photographs of her and her friends, her collection of stuffed dolls, her little paper boxes of plastic jewelry and trinkets, her wads of sopping wet clothes, even her cell phone,adorned with glittery, stick-on glass beads, all strewn about the grey, muddy ground, rain soaking everything, me and the photographer soaked to the bone and cold. It all hit me at once, I was holding a photograph of the girl smiling into the camera with her chihuahua, and I started sobbing. I couldn’t stop. The photographer himself slumped onto a mud-covered log, and just sat there, in shock, not caring that his camera and clothing were getting soaked. The leader of our volunteer group had to come over and coax us to stand up and get back to work. “You didn’t come here to feel sorry for yourselves, right?” he asked us. “You came here to be strong for the people who really lost something here, right? You can cry later. Right now we really need to do this.” He wasn’t being cold or heartless; he’d seen a lot of newcomers like us break down like that.

baskets and bags of found photos amidst the tsunami rubble

some of the volunteers for the Minami Sanrikucho tsunami Memory Seekers

view of the whole of devastated Minami Sanrikucho town

view of devastated shopping center in Minami Sanrikucho

Minami Sanriku building wrapped in trawling nets by tsunami

tsunami devastation of Minami Sanriku downtown

tsunami wreckage of building frame in Minami Sanrikucho

tsunami wreckage of the Minami Sanrikucho harbor fish market

two volunteers surveying the tsunami destruction of downtown Minami Sanrikucho

As I gained confidence and experience, a real sense of camaraderie developed with both the survivors and with the volunteer workers. We could even say we were enjoying working together and giving each other courage. The week went by more quickly. Volunteers came and went. Those of us who had stayed longer took on the leading roles and watched those who were dealing with the shock of the enormity of the disaster. We gathered thousands of photographs,cleaned them of sand and salt and mud, hung them up to dry. News reporters and camera crews from all over Japan came to interview us and film us, and our group became known as the “Memory Seekers”. One member, a 72 year old superhero who had driven all the way up from southern Japan, became a national celebrity and even had a documentary made of him. Townsfolk came up to us to tearfully thank us for helping them find and preserve their precious memories.

daffodils blooming above the tsunami devastation of Minami Sanrikucho

new telephone poles being put in only a few days after the tsunami

local volunteers serving food at a Minami Sanrikucho high school evacuation center

Japanese self defense force gathered at tsunami evacuation center

volunteer serving soup at Minami Sanrikucho high school evacuation center

last of the remaining Minami Sanrikucho fishing boat fleet with traditional blessings after the tsunami

Minami Sanrikucho local fishermen set up makeshift gasoline stand after tsunami

It was both hard and easy to leave all this. Hard, because I had made some good friends and felt I had done something of some value. Easy because I was exhausted and sad and filled with more than I could handle. I wanted to get home, feel safe again, wake up to a quiet morning without the gunning generators and cranes and bulldozers chugging through the air. The daily earthquakes, one of them a magnitude 7.2 that shuddered through the evacuation center like a derailed train and actually did more damage than the big earthquake in March, were rattling my nerves. And I just wanted to forget about all the destruction and death. It was enough.

my friend and co-volunteer 72 year-old Mr. Obata at Minami Sanrikucho disaster evacuation center

Driving back to Tokyo was a quiet, almost reverential time. We hardly spoke. We passed through Sendai, whose damage was on a scale so hugely wide that we drove through utterly speechless. It went on for kilometer after kilometer after kilometer, all the way to the horizon, an endless brown blanket of mud and debris where once rice fields painted the entire coastline bright green.

Earthquakes were still daily rocking Tokyo when we got back. There would continue to be earthquakes for months still. But Tohoku always lies in the back of my mind. So much of what goes on in Tokyo now, what so many people consider vital to everyday life seems frivolous and petty. And I wonder how it would have been had the earthquake been much worse here in Tokyo? Who would have come to help us? Could we even have survived? And what of Fukushima? A hole in the heart of Japan. I will probably be thinking about how I’ve changed for many years to come. Will I ever be the same?

lone seagull sitting atop Minami Sanrikucho fishing boat mast after tsunami

23 Responses

  1. Miguel, what a remarkable post. The photographs alone are brilliant, conveying the enormity of the tragedy and telling the stories better than any others I’ve seen, while your writing complements the photographs perfectly.

    Those questions you ask — I doubt any attempt by me to answer any would be worthwhile (what matters is that you’ve asked them), but I can suggest a response to your final question: No, you won’t be the same. Would you want to?

    Kia kaha, e hoa; stay strong, my friend.

  2. Oh Miguel. This is a heartbreaking, beautiful essay. Nothing else I have read has conveyed so effectively the magnitude of this disaster.

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

  3. Remarkable, tragically beautiful photos and stunning story, and so very heartbreaking that it’s impossible that you not be changed by the experience. I wish you well, also all those sad people without homes and missing their loved ones.

    I just read that Japan has had a typhoon and another earthquake. Hope you are safe, Miguel.

  4. Miguel — this is an intensely moving post, wrenching. Thank you.

  5. Thanks everyone. It took a long time getting myself to sit down and face a lot of the feelings. When someone at work, who had also gone up to the area, started asking me about how I felt about everything, I nearly broke down crying there in the office, unable to hold back all the emotion dammed up inside. What’s especially hard is that those who haven’t seen it, including all the Japanese down in Tokyo, many of whom try to categorize it as a “Japanese thing” that non-Japanese cannot feel or understand, cannot get a real sense of what actually happened there, and so I have few people I can open up to about it who will truly understand what I am trying to say. I’m lucky in that my partner, who was up there for a week before I was, as a nurse, knows without my expressing it, what these feelings are. Everyone who has been up there and seen the suffering and the devastation, and who went there to help (not those who went up there to simply gawk and stand about being tourists, of which there were many), knows how difficult it is to put any of this into words.

    Marja-Leena, yes, we had a major typhoon blast through yesterday. The worst typhoon I’ve experienced in many years. This morning, while the sky is cloudless and blue, has the streets and houses strewn with branches and leaves, everywhere. And yes, right after the winds died down, we had another earthquake. It’s just not letting up this year. The typhoon two weeks ago in southern Japan killed about 100 people and left many towns in shambles.

    What a year we’re having…

  6. Thanks, Miguel.

  7. God, Miguel, I broke down crying from this. Pax vobiscum.

  8. Marlis Arboleda

    I just lost a loved one, as you know. But reading your photo-essay made me realize how much greater in scale and how much more heart-breaking the Tsunami disaster is. A whole way of life gone; innocent children who lost their parents- their future uncertain and sorrowful; and children who died with so little time to enjoy this beautiful earth……..
    Your photos are absolutely beautiful, and your words touching beyond description….. thank you for sharing it with all of us.
    Love,
    Mama

  9. Thank you for this blog post, which helped to bring home an event that happened far away and make it real for me. It is unfortunately true that until disasters become personal, we, far from the scene, cannot quite feel their implications.
    Your blog allowed me to identify with you, with the victims, with everyone who has lived through this kind of traumatic event.

  10. Honestly, I cried through most of this, wiping tears to see your photographs, read your words, and there are no words…. for this tragedy. Except, Miguel, I deeply appreciate your bravery in writing as clearly and deeply as you have about your experiences visiting the aftermath of the destruction wrought by the earthquakes and tsunami, and the continued huge tremors and the damn typhoons. As a volunteer offering to help with clean-up, hunting for photographs, cleaning and drying them, oh how unspeakably beautiful and heartbreaking, and these delicate threads to personal pasts, how affirmative of the spirit of Japan. Thank you for sharing so deeply of yourself.

  11. When TV shows so devastating things like tsunami in Tohoku, you understand something horrible has happened…in your mind. But you will forget about it as you trun off the TV because it’s not real to you. If you go there, there is no escape. You are forced to face, smell, and feel nothingness about human beings.

    My visit to Tohoku made me think what are valuable things in my life. Laughter with family and friends, cooking meals with vegetables fresh from my own garden, soaking myself in a hot bath while listening to an orchestra of frogs, cicadas, and crickets…very simple things.

    But the reality pulls me out from a simple life to rather complicated one. Sometimes I’m too busy to stop and think. I guess we need to make a balance between our ideal life and the reality.

    My local group is now registered as a NPO. It’s a culture-based activity group. Hoping to practice many enjoyable events and learn local culture and people.

    See you in Tokyo next week!

  12. Miguel:

    I’ve wondered how you were doing after the earthquake. How much like you to go and help. Thank you.

  13. God Bless people like you! Although, it was very hard to work in such sad conditions, you still pulled through for those who were truly in need

  14. Big brother, thank you for everything. I wish I could have been there with you. You make me very proud to be your brother. Don’t forget, stories are what keep us alive, so please keep writing and sharing.

  15. What a deeply moving account. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like even to see the aftermath of this, let alone live through it. Thank you for sharing with us in words and pictures what it’s like there now.

  16. I was sent a link to Laughing Knees by a friend in the US. He sensed a “kindred spirit” according to his email. I am very impressed. I am also quite fond of Okutama – I’m a hiker, biker, and outdoorsman – and have done a lot of things concerning 3.11 recovery efforts, too. Very moving, your post on the work you’ve done. I’d like to hook up sometime…

    Not directly connected to anything, but I’ve known Jeremy Hedley and MJ for many years…

    Thanks!

  17. Miguel, I am really glad to see you writing again. I used to read your blog when I was in Japan in 2008; I was one of the two gaijin trying to walk through Japan (we had the Four Corners of Japan blog) and think we exchanged a comment or two back then. After the disaster I checked and read you previous post, and then the long silence… Just really glad you are doing ok and — whoaaaa — those pictures, that post… Very moving.

  18. Miguel ~ As with many of the others here I have to say thank you for returning to this realm with such powerful story telling. So strong of you to share your heart, voice, and vision as witness, prompting serious personal reflection in others. I’m not your mother or brother; nonetheless along with them I am so proud of you. Big hugs to you and a more peaceful future.

  19. Miguel, I’ve been wondering how you’ve been doing in the aftermath. If your voice had been stilled and vision darkened by the horror you’ve been witness to. Thanks for your beautiful,heartbreaking stories and photos. I know it couldn’t have been easy to put it all out there.

  20. Glen Van Peski

    Miguel – very moving essay and amazing photos. Thank you for sharing.

  21. very very nice. thanks for sharing. i think it’s worth a pullizer price…

  22. Dave, thanks.

    Ivy, your words moved me quite a lot. Having people tell me that my essay moved them to tears seems to relay back to me and I end up crying. I guess we’re all in this together.

    Mama, I don’t think that what happened in Tohoku was much more heart-breaking than your own experience with your loss. Tohoku, as I saw it, was just different individuals all going through what you went through. Adding it up and looking at it from afar makes it come across as something bigger, but the sense of loss is all the same. What it did for me is make me appreciate how each little life in the world is precious.

    Robbi, I was hoping the essay would get across what happened there. It isn’t easy to get across; my essay doesn’t even do it a fraction of the justice needed to truly bring home what it was like to actually go there.

    Brenda, I still don’t know if I can call what I did “bravery” or “courage”. I was scared most of the time, especially when the earthquakes came. When the huge earthquake came on the fourth day (including sending in a small tsunami through the abandoned town below, I seriously questioned what the hell I was doing there. It also gave me a very good appreciation for what the people had gone through. But bravery? Not so much.

    Yuko, isn’t it true that such things make you see and appreciate the really tiny things? And you realize that it really doesn’t take much to either lose everything, or to appreciate what little you have.

    Vegetablej, I think I worried a lot of people, including my family. Sorry about that. I’m going to have to make up for it somehow.

    LoidaS, thank you. I don’t think I could have made it through without those people I was working with. Alone I would have mentally broken down, I’m almost certain.

    Teja, I have mixed feelings about the idea of us going there together to do the work. On one hand it would have been really to have family there and someone I could talk to (I felt really out of place as the only foreigner there), but at the same time I wouldn’t wish it on anyone to witness what was there… It was truly, truly awful. I’m still trying to come to terms with having that inside my soul now, forever.

    Dale, thanks.

    Maria, thanks. I guess the reason I had to go was to go beyond that amorphous point at the edge of imagination. Being here, having lived through the lesser side of the disaster, imagining it was just not enough. It had to be, at least partly, real. It’s like educating yourself to step beyond superstition.

    Mike, thank you for stopping by and reading other posts here. Let’s talk more about the outdoor aspect of Japan. It would be great to talk with you directly and perhaps go for a hike or so. Jeremy and M.J.! Wow, I haven’t heard those names in ages. I never knew either of them very well, but M.J. went out of her way when I first started blogging, to stay up all night on the phone with me, talking me through setting up my first self-hosted Moveable Type blog. Still owe her a beer!

    Goat, it’s been a while since we talked. I always wondered what happened to your journey. I was keeping up with the story, but somehow lost track of it, or perhaps you didn’t finish, or something? I’ve been so preoccupied that I can’t rightly recall things.

    Sally, so good to here from you again. Always miss you when we let time go by. And thanks, for the pride and for the hug. In some ways you understand what happened a little better than most here… you traveled through the area when you were last in Japan. So it must have hit home when the earthquake news made it to your area. In spite of that, the people there are as vital and cheerful as ever. It’s one joy to see out of all this.

    Dondo, I’ve been steadily keeping up with your blog and your posts over the months and I must say reading those peaceful and sublime solo pieces helped a lot in reminding me that things were still sane and beautiful in the world. So from my end back I want to thank you for how you’ve given balance to me. Thank you.

    Glen, very different from our talking of hiking, but you know, all those things I’ve learned from you over the years proved to be extremely useful both here in Tokyo (for preparing an emergency kit) and for my time up in Tohoku… I was better prepared for living outside with almost no amenities than most of the other volunteers. It was freezing cold there at the time (far to the north, beginning of April), but I got through in fair comfort and not much weight.

    Yann, thank you, too, for stopping by. As another person who’s lived through the quakes I’m sure a lot of this brought up lots of emotions. I hope you guys were okay in Kofu. I didn’t hear much about how things were there. But a Pulitzer? Hah hah! They’d get me on grammar and style alone! :-)

Leave a Reply