Today marks one year since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan. In the span of minutes, destruction on a catastrophic scale changed the lives of millions of people. In the aftermath, the world responded to the trauma, sending workers and volunteers on an unprecedented scale. The statistics were staggering. At a 9.0 magnitude, it was the largest earthquake to strike Japan in known history, and one of the 5 worst ever recorded. The resulting tsunami reached heights of over 40 metres, or 133 feet, and in some areas travelled up to six miles inland. Nearly 16,000 were confirmed dead, with over 3000 still missing. The World Bank estimated the economic cost to be $235 million, the most costly natural disaster on record.
A year later, and life in Japan still goes on. Photographs and video show the tremendous achievements in terms of cleanup and rebuilding that have begun, and that still carry on. They reveal the efficiency and the determination on the part of the Japanese people to remain strong, and to keep fighting. What these photographs do not reveal is that the struggle is still very much a part of life in Japan. Families have lost loved ones. Entire communities have seen their industry destroyed. The clash of cultures is thrown into sharp relief: old and traditional fighting to keep the status quo alive, while the young and progressive wish to move forward and look to the future. The Japanese government has no long-term plans or initiatives in place to provide a recovery structure, and the people are left to move ahead in uncertainty. There is still much work to be done. Japan is on the road to recovery, but the journey will last for years to come.
I travelled to Japan in May and again in August of 2011 in order to participate in cleanup and recovery work with All Hands Volunteers, an organisation dedicated to disaster relief all over the world. The trip itself was long and arduous, and when I finally arrived in Ofunato, a fishing town with a population of about 41,000, my mind struggled to take in the scenes. The destruction was beyond comprehension. Over the weeks I spent working in Ofunato, and neighbouring city Rikuzentakata, I witnessed many inspiring moments as well as moments of despair and heartbreak. As volunteers, we lived in the town with the residents and interacted with them daily, worked with them side by side. We shared their joys and sorrows, and became like family.
Reflecting on my two visits to Ofunato and Rikuzentakata, I find that my love and affection for the people and the community is undiminished. If I had the chance to go back today, I wouldn’t hesitate. I was so moved by the experience, and so humbled to share in the recovery efforts, that I hope my heart and soul are profoundly changed for all time. I find that words are such insufficient vessels to convey all that I want to say. I find myself turning memories over and over in my mind, savouring them as deeply as I can. From the hauntingly beautiful lantern ceremony, to the tears shed over recovered photographs of loved ones, I hope to keep all these scenes fresh in my heart for all time.
Japan: I visited your shores to help you in your time of need. I lost my heart to you, and I don’t regret it one bit. Your spirit and your beauty should inspire us all. In your darkest hours, you stood strong and emerged with great dignity. Thank you for allowing me to participate in your journey.
It’s been six months since Japan was devastated by earthquake and tsunami. I count myself privileged to have been involved in part of the recovery efforts based in the cities of Ofunato and Rikuzentakata. To say my two trips there were life-changing is to understate the powerful effect this journey had on my life.
Japan will be recovering for years to come. Nothing I can tell you, show you, explain to you can truly communicate the devastation. And yet, to say that its recovery will be so long is to do a disservice to the heart and spirit of the Japanese people, and those compassionate souls helping them. I was in awe of the way people worked selflessly, tirelessly, happily, and with unimaginable determination. To have seen the communities and volunteers working side by side, and to have seen the shocking amount of work they accomplished is to have been inspired… and humbled.
There are others out there who are working hard to share their experience, and the plight of Japan as well. I want to share one such effort with you. This video was made during the six months All Hands Volunteers has worked in Ofunato, and it is wonderful. Each of the people interviewed, I had the honour of working with. I can’t say enough beautiful things about them. I managed to make a brief appearance in the video, about 0:55. It’s my lovely black overalls and military boots (and an unfortunate view of my backside) that you see working alongside Yukiko-san, digging and sweeping. It’s absurd, but my heart sang that I got to be included (albeit barely) in this video that was able to bring me to tears yet again.
Watch it, and be moved. <3
Some of you remember when I returned from Ofunato in June, and I showed you photos and video of the damaged landscape. This trip to Japan, I spent a fair amount of my time in neighbouring Rikuzentakata. Ofunato fared a little better in the tsunami than did Rikuzentakata, although both were devastated.
Returning to Ofunato, it’s clear to see the work that’s been done to clean up the destruction. There are still piles of debris, although they’re neat and orderly, and there are still damaged, hollowed out buildings. Outward damage remains evident; the scrape mark along the side of a building where a car was dragged through water, the twisted railing where a balcony once hung, the pale scar where a building once stood. However, the rubble piles are fewer and they are orderly now. Instead of heaps of random debris, there are tidy heaps of twisted metal, of siding, of concrete and cement. The sights of June are not the sights of August.
Rikuzentakata is a slightly different story. The town sat between two higher points of land. When the tsunami hit, the wave was channeled right through the harbour, and the town itself. This is where it once stood.
Now, in its place, is an empty plain with massive piles of debris.
The highway that ran along the town, between the two hills, is pitted and pockmarked with holes. The worst have been filled in with gravel to make travel accessible. Guards line the roads, and phototaking is discouraged. As our bus passed the site each day, the normal cheerful chatter seemed to quiet to a murmur. I couldn’t say if it was intentional or even conscious, but it was palpable to anyone paying attention.
That’s not to say that everything is hopeless. The people are strong and determined to overcome. There is emergency housing to shelter the displaced victims. The rebuilding has begun. Slowly, slowly, people are moving along and starting to reshape their lives. For Rikuzentakata, it will be one step at a time, one day after another. But that’s how a journey happens.
Today was, sadly, my last day working with Project Tohoku. I leave in an hour on the overnight bus, and I really don’t want to go.
Today’s work was again based in nearby Rikuzentakata. It was a cloudy day, with some bleak and depressing weather… but quite an eventful day in terms of the Photo Project! NHK, the national news service, came to shoot video and do interviews. Wynne was interviewed multiple times, because a local group also stopped in to see what was going on. It was a little nerve-wracking to be so cautious and meticulous with photo cleaning whilst having video cams stuck in your face! So our photo team will be featured on Japanese news; no idea when, where, or how to find it though.
Today I took a lot of photos and some video. When I get to a place with better internet connection, expect quite a deluge!
Today marked my fifth day at the Rikuzentakata Photo cleaning project, as well as my first day as team leader. Wynne, the regular team lead, needed a mental/physical break from doing photos. Terri and I volunteered to each work a day for her so she could do something different for the first time in three weeks.
Usually, photo cleaning is a 3-day commitment, since it involves training the volunteers how to safely clean photos, and the more damaged photos require some experience. Wynne usually gave the more heavily damaged albums to the longest-term volunteer there; newbies got the least damaged and therefore easiest ones.
This is significant to explain, because today I had a team comprised of newbies, with one repeater. We have been joined at Project Tohoku by a group of Habitat for Humanity volunteers from Tokyo. They come down once a month, and only stay for two days. This was the situation for Terri yesterday and myself today. What this meant is that all the people working there the last two days have done only easy albums… but they did a LOT of them.
Terri started off the morning with me, sorting the albums they had cleaned yesterday. There were piles and piles of them. After we got a handle on them, Terri rejoined her group next door (who were sorting through valuables stored in a warehouse). The day before, one of our bus drivers, Sato-san, had looked at the photos and got very excited. He recognised friends of his in some of the photos the volunteers were cleaning. Terri mentioned this to me, but we both reckoned it would figure in much later down the road.
During our morning break, a car pulled up and a couple got out. They didn’t speak any English, and most of the volunteers working on photos didn’t speak much English either. They seemed to be asking where to get photos, so we were trying to explain how the Rikuzentakata community centre holds a photo library each weekend for people to look through and reclaim their pictures. The language barrier was quite frustrating, to all of us. As we were speaking, Terri and another HFH volunteer emerged from the warehouse and wandered over to us. As she got closer, Terri gasped and pointed to the man. “It’s Poser!” she told me.
“Poser” was the nickname the volunteers had given a man who appeared in almost every album they had cleaned yesterday, and a few we had cleaned this morning. She had seen his picture so many times that she recognised him. She ran into the photo room and came back out with one of the albums. She opened it and pointed to his photo, pointed to him in photos of a baseball team, and showed him. His surprise and pleasure were immediate. His wife, however, did not share his enthusiasm. She turned to the volunteer who came with Terri (the only Asian in our little cluster besides the couple) and spoke rapidly. He turned to us and asked if we had any more albums, and explained that they were Sato-san’s friends. We most definitely did. I got the ones I knew of, and brought them out. The woman reached for them with trembling hands and held them a moment before opening them. When she opened up to a photo of a little girl of about 6 flashing a peace sign, she gave a cry and held her hand over her mouth. Her eyes filled with tears, and she literally could not speak. Her husband laid a hand on her shoulder (an extremely rare gesture of emotion for Japanese people) and whispered to her. She cried there for a few moments, then turned to the HFH volunteer and slowly, gulping a lot of air, began to speak in broken sentences. His eyes widened, and he turned to us and quietly told us that the couple had lost their daughter in the tsunami, along with all their photos. They had been praying that some of their photos of her had survived, so they could have some memories of her. Not only had we found HUNDREDS and HUNDREDS of them, but they were all perfect. Most photos are damaged, some badly. It’s rare to find some in excellent condition, but these were like new. They both were so overcome that they could barely say thank you.
I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.
They returned in the afternoon to see if we had found any more of their photos (we had) and they took a look at the photos we were working on. They studied all the wet photos hanging, and looked through the finished albums. They found some photos of friends and some of theirs we hadn’t recognised as belonging to them. They were much more expressive this time, and thanked us profusely.
It was very moving, and above all, it was a reiteration that this work is important and meaningful to the people here.
Some work is satisfying in the sense that afterward, you stretch your aching muscles, look back over the job you’ve just completed, and see how much you’ve accomplished. Other jobs you can’t measure by what you can see. Yet others, it’s all about what you see…
Yesterday was such a day. One of the jobs here in Project Tohoku is a Photo Restoration/Photo Rescue. Becci and Tree work with photo retouchers all over the world to repair and restore precious photographs. The work is nothing short of amazing. But they and their contacts can only manage so much. It’s left to others to do some of the basic “rescuing” of the piles and piles of photo albums, baby books, and random pictures turned in as the communities clean up from the tsunami.
What the teams do is go through the piles, try to dry them out as much as possible, determine what is salvageable, and set about cleaning them. Different photos require different methods of cleaning, and each task has to be undertaken with the most delicate of touches, the most careful of hands.
Most of the photos I worked with were RC prints. They can be submersed in cold water to be cleaned, and so long as they are just covered in mud, it’s really easy to manage. Some of them are damaged as well, and if you remove the mud, they start to lose colours. Once the colours are gone, the damage is irreparable. It didn’t take long to see how even the barest of touches could remove everything if the photos are even slightly damaged. It’s painstaking work. We wear latex gloves, masks, and work with precision tools.
I got two albums; the first was a family album, the second a baby album. The first was more damaged. It was heartbreaking to see some of the photos lose colours and disintegrate in your hands. I think the worst of it was that the parents taking the photos had taken each others’ pictures with their children, and every photo of the mother and the son were ruined. I think I could handle seeing a few shots here and there of my own pictures, or a few of my girls, not survive, but the ones of us together? I think it would be like losing the memory itself. Thankfully, there were a lot of photos in the album, and the family has many memories they can once again relive through pictures.
The second album had been made into a sort of baby book. It chronicled a little girl from birth til about age 9 months. The photos were accompanied by little handmade captions, drawings, and postcards. Seeing how much love and time had gone into the album was moving. It drove me to take even more meticulous care than the last. The photos themselves weren’t good ones. The parents weren’t especially skilled with a camera. But the love for their little girl shone through in every shot. Even the blurred ones.
Even though we didn’t see the fruits of our labours from that day’s work, one of the drivers for All Hands, a local resident, glanced through an album we had finished. He gave an excited exclamation, and told Wynne, our project leader, that he knew someone in the photos.
The reason that’s something to note is that we had no idea whose photos we were cleaning. The albums were turned into a community centre, and they just stored them in a building. The citizens will have to come to the centre and look through them to see if they can find anything that belongs to them. Can you imagine having lost everything you own, only to find a few precious family photos, cleaned up and repaired by anonymous people from all over the world, who cared enough to take the time, never knowing if you would be able to find them or reclaim them? But as word spreads, more and more people are coming to see if they can find their treasured memories.
The lady in Rikuzentakata in charge of the photo “warehouse” came to see us yesterday. She showed Wynne pictures of the photo library they set up, where local citizens could walk through shelves of finished albums to try to find some of their own. Wynne teared up to see that what her investment has borne. It’s little things like that which make every aching muscle, every crick in the neck, every hour spent doubled over in painstaking effort worthwhile. Each of us would do it all over again, day after day.