Tsunami-devastated area near Soma City, Fukushima prefecture (March 10, 2012)
After having traveled to the heavily tsunami-damaged city of Ishinomaki this past November, and then again in January, my partner Sheila and I decided to head up again this past weekend for our third volunteering stint since the disaster struck last March. This time we would be there for the one-year 3.11 commemoration, and frankly speaking, I had somewhat mixed feelings about our decision to visit the city at this time. Even though we had begun forging relationships with local people during our past visits, I felt that as outsiders—those who had neither experienced the disaster firsthand, nor been there to volunteer during the initial weeks and months when the situation was at its rawest—we might be better off participating in a 3.11 remembrance ceremony elsewhere. Still, I reasoned, the volunteer work was carrying on, just as it had every single day over the past year. And so, as our overnight bus pulled away from Tokyo, I pushed the thought out of my mind.
We had hooked up during both of our previous visits with an international volunteer group known as It’s Not Just Mud (INJM), but since their house was completely full for the weekend, we decided to stay elsewhere and then meet up with them for daily project assignments. As it turns out, we were lucky to end up finding any accommodation in the city at all, as the first six or seven places that I contacted had all been completely booked. Clearly, if our presence as outsiders was going to be inappropriate in any way, we were at least not going to be alone in that respect.
Just prior to boarding the bus, I had gotten a phone call from one of the INJM coordinators asking if we would join the team traveling to Minamisoma City in Fukushima prefecture to help deliver food, water and other necessary supplies to local residents. The city, which straddles the 20km nuclear power plant exclusion zone, has basically existed in state of oblivion during the past year, with nearly two-thirds of its 70,000-some residents fleeing shortly after the accident, and those staying behind having to face the anxiety of potential long-term radiation effects.
Truthfully speaking, I had been wary about visiting Fukushima myself, given my desire to have a baby within the next year or two, and having been cautioned by several activist friends to stay away due to potential exposure. With the voice on the other end of the line asking if we would join the Minamisoma team, however, I found myself agreeing without even stopping to hesitate. Surely a one-day trip would not do much harm, and radiation levels in Minamisoma were in fact lower than certain other regions of Fukushima. How could I not do my part to help these residents who were living there, day in and day out, uncertain of their future, and many with children themselves?
Our INJM team picked us up shortly after 6:30 AM just after our bus arrived in Ishinomaki, and the van was already filled with a lively group of people from all around the world. The conversation was warm and animated, and as we made our way south amidst deepening snow and gradually frostier temperatures, I found myself thinking that there was actually nowhere I would rather be at that moment.
As soon as we arrived at the first temporary housing unit, we joined the members of the fantastically dedicated Save Minamisoma Project organization in arranging and handing out supplies to each family: Carrots, potatoes, onions, coffee, juice, cereal, pasta, bottled water, cleaning supplies, and packets of candies for the children. One of the housing units was actually a previously abandoned apartment building, and we carried the boxes of supplies upstairs for those living on the upper floors. Some were families of seven or eight people spanning three-generations that were now living in one- or two-bedroom spaces, and although all were grateful to receive the donations and thanked us profusely, the stress on their faces was apparent.
Save Minamisoma Project / It's Not Just Mud
Photos: Michael Connolly
One mother with small children had a particularly worried expression, barely returning our smile or greeting. It was of course impossible to know what she might have been thinking, but with recent news reports about glowing blue tap water in Minamisoma, while the government continues to dismissively advise Fukushima residents to “be strong” even in the face of worries about the safety of air, food and water—even going so far as to release a pamphlet essentially telling pregnant women and parents of small children that there is absolutely no need to worry about radiation—it was not hard to guess what might have been weighing on her mind.
The monthly distribution that we were handing out, for example, included two bottles of water per adult and four per child—an allotment that would likely last only days when considering needs for both drinking and cooking. And for taking medicine, I also realized, when an elderly woman came over and quietly asked for another bottle of water as we were packing up to leave, which she said she needed to help her take her pills. One of the seasoned volunteers simply told her that we were not permitted to distribute anything beyond the allotment, and the woman nodded and went on her way. Once again, I felt strong sadness and anger toward the situation these people were facing, and helpless at not being able to do more.
At the same time, however, I also found myself in somewhat of a different space than I had ever been previously as an anti-nuclear activist used to essentially attending demonstrations and writing about them. This time, by contrast, I was here not as a protester, but as someone having very human interactions with people in the here and now whose lives were being affected by nuclear policy. In this sense, I was reminded of photographer Jan Smith, who had spoken at the recent Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World about his experience from post-disaster Chernobyl, where he confirmed that in order to understand the true impact from a tragedy of this order, it is necessary to have real interactions with the affected individuals in order to capture the human element that media sensationalism often glosses over or leaves out altogether.
Left: Special wooden temporary housing units in Minamisoma City created by designers and architects in order to give residents a greater sense of "home"
Right: Our volunteer team in front of a tower at the same housing unit, where we were invited to share a ramen lunch together with residents
Similarly, the desire to express anger toward TEPCO and the government over the massive suffering caused by the disaster and Japan’s ongoing nuclear policy—vs. that of engaging in a more quiet, reflective remembrance—became a sensitive topic of discussion across the nation on the occasion of the one-year 3.11 commemoration. According to one news report I heard, some survivors called for angry demonstrations to be kept to a minimum or even cancelled altogether on this day out of respect for the dead. Nevertheless, various anti-nuclear protests did take place around the country, with anger at times indeed prevailing. A photo blog at Mkimpo, whose title was aptly translated as “Mourning and Militancy”, captured this tension excellently as it played out on Sunday in the nation's capital, featuring images from a demonstration held at the offices of the Tokyo Electric Power Company side by side with those from another 3.11 event in Hibiya Park titled “Peace On Earth".
Having chosen to spend the one-year anniversary of the disaster in Ishinomaki, where survivors were experiencing deep trauma of a different nature due to severe damage from the tsunami rather than immediate concerns regarding radiation, Sheila and I were most certainly going to follow the lead of local residents in commemorating the tragedy.
As soon as we left our motel the following morning, it was clear that both domestic and international media were all over the city. We ourselves were even stopped and interviewed while on our way to the It’s Not Just Mud house by Fuji TV, who asked for our reflections as part of the network’s 3.11 coverage. While I certainly didn’t mind sharing my thoughts, it did seem a bit as if the reporter was scoping for sound bites rather than looking for an honest and heartfelt assessment.
After a quick reunion at INJM headquarters with friends whom we had not seen since earlier in the winter, we set off to our assignment for the day. Our job was to help do odd jobs at a kimono shop run by an elderly couple in the shopping arcade area near the train station, which had sustained severe damage from the tsunami. The shop had begun doubling as a community hub of sorts following the disaster, with individual- and group-based volunteers gathering to hold meetings and just share tea, snacks, and one another’s company.
Leading the day’s volunteer work at the shop were the members of Ishinomaki 2.0, a dynamic initiative focused upon rebuilding the city through grassroots-level architectural and cultural projects including a design laboratory, a traveling arts market, a community guest house facility, a café powered by solar energy, a bar, a traveling restaurant event series, and more. Sheila and I were asked to paint some shelves and assemble some furniture that the project members had brought for the kimono shop’s community space, and while we worked, a steady stream of university students and other volunteers came in and out of the shop to work on other tasks.
Left: Blackboards for the community space at the kimono shop, which we were asked to paint
Right: Handcrafted wooden tables at the headquarters of the Ishinomaki 2.0 project, located across the street from the kimono shop
The staff at the kimono shop had no plans to attend any of the several memorials taking place around the city at 2:46 PM—the moment the earthquake struck—saying they would instead participate in a candlelight ceremony later that night to honor the souls of the departed. I also learned here that some local residents indeed felt skeptical toward the news media. During our lunch break, where a big group of us had gathered for delicious, steaming bowls of curry-flavored udon noodles, several people were commenting dryly on the sudden influx of hordes of media, with one resident noting the questionable taste of the reporter delivering a newscast while standing atop a mound of tsunami rubble.
Sheila and I had decided to join a call from members of the spiritual community to observe the one-year mark through meditative prayer, and so we excused ourselves at around 2:30 PM in order to find a quiet spot. We ended up in the public space in front of the train station, and as we sat in silent reflection, we heard the same siren ring throughout the city’s loudspeaker system at 2:46 PM that had warned residents of the coming tsunami one year earlier. It was a surreal feeling to say the least, particularly as the weather was warm and sunny in contrast to the cold and snowy temperatures that had tragically accompanied the tsunami the previous year. With people walking around, drinking and eating in cafés, in fact, it would have been easy to pretend that no tragedy had ever struck the city at all.
In front of Ishinomaki station, around 3:30 PM, March 11, 2012
When we stopped in a sporting goods store on our way back to the kimono shop to speak with an older couple we had met on one of our previous visits, I pointed out the good fortune of the shop not having sustained much visible damage. In response, the woman simply pointed toward her heart. “Yes, there is damage,” she said. “It’s here.”
One of the regular volunteers at It's Not Just Mud whom we had met for the first time that morning, psychological nurse Anna Swain, is now working to address this sort of hidden pain that continues one year later among those who experienced the disaster. An American who was born and raised in Tokyo, Anna returned from the United States shortly after 3.11, and now travels around Ishinomaki on her bicycle offering counseling to local residents who ask for her support. "Sometimes, it's just not enough to say "ganbatte!" ("hang in there!") to a seven year-old who has just lost absolutely everything," she observed. "Although it's often not recognized here as such, post-traumatic stress disorder is certainly present among some survivors."
After finishing up our afternoon volunteer work, we headed together with the kimono shop staff and volunteers to attend the evening candlelight ceremony. Everyone was invited to write messages on dove-shaped balloons, which would then be sent upward into the sky. “On this day one year ago, many of us were unable even to say goodbye to our loved ones,” the event organizer said softly just before the balloons were released. “With these balloons, we send the thoughts and words that we were never able to say to them.”
At this point, I had begun to once again feel that we truly did not belong here at this ceremony together with people who had experienced such profound loss and grief. Just then, however, the woman from the kimono shop came over and stood very close to us. Sheila and I both told each other later that it seemed she felt comforted by our presence, and that as all three of us cried, we both had to suppress the desire to hug her or at least put our arm around her. With physical touching rarely taking place in Japan, however, particularly among people of her generation, we had both held back and simply sent her strong thoughts of love and strength.
Below: Candles, before and after dusk, with messages received from residents of Yokohama City for the 3.11 remembrance ceremony
We made our way back to the shop after the ceremony to pick up our things, passing by several makeshift altars along the way that had been set out along the streets with candles and small canes of bamboo. A Buddhist monk was sitting in front of one of them lighting incense and chanting, presumably to comfort the souls of the dead. After being invited to pray, I joined others in pinching a fingerful of incense and bringing it to my forehead three times in succession, trying to send deep comfort to the souls of both the departed and the loved ones they had left behind. (Kanagawa-based blogger Ruthie Iida explores related topics in her deeply poignant essay “Tsunami Damage: Living with Ghosts and Spirits”).
Shortly thereafter, as we made our way to the bus to return to Tokyo, a light snow began to fall, gradually picking up and covering the ground with a freezing slush. I knew that this had to have been bringing people more painful memories, due to the snowfall that had compounded their suffering the previous year. As we pulled away from the city, it was this sense of deep empathy for their continuing sense of loss and pain, together with the warmth of the goodbye/see you again soon that we had just shared with everyone at the kimono shop, that settled in a strangely poignant combination inside my heart that would remain for days to come.
Text: Kimberly Hughes
Photos: Sheila Souza