Japan part II, June 2013

I have a tale to tell.  A tale paired with one of calm and wonderment.  This tale is a tale of force, a force that flows, unending, creeping into tiny nooks and crannies, wending through every opening, flooding past obstacles and carrying all manner of flotsam with it, crashing over barriers and upending things that seemed so recently substantial.

March 11, 2011, a massive tsunami slammed into Japanís east coast.  While the warning systems estimated the incoming waves would be 3 to 6 metres tall (10-20 feet, and a Ďmajor tsunamií in the rating system of the time), what actually struck some portions of the coast was substantially larger.  The three surges of seawater were overwhelming, pouring past tsunami barriers, wiping entire villages and neighbourhoods off the map, pushing as far as 10km (6 miles) inland along riverways and across plains, and 40 vertical metres (130ft) up seacoast hillsides.

The damage to lives and infrastructure was astounding.  Two years after the event, most of the debris and evident damage had been cleaned up, but what was left behind was subversively and surprisingly powerful.  What had been sprawling clusters of houses and shops were just empty plains except for grass, clover, and the old roads.  An occasional testament to the power of the water was visible on brutalized buildings that hadnít been removed, but the magnitude didnít really sink in until I saw the bent swimming pool ladder.  A swimming pool ladder is something familiar, something you can put your hands on, something on a more human scale than a building.  Yet you can feel its solidity, a solidity that guarantees rest and safety.  And yet before me was this safety, casually twisted, upended.  It put a very human awareness to the strength of the force that swept over the land, a force that many people were caught in.

this was a neighbourhood now just full of grass, clover, and old roads local photographer a shrine to the departed un-construction
here, and not an old school building - flooded and burnt a look inside firetruck look closely - what's wrong? (Hint - look at the left side)
the previous building, right side up note how the entire slab lifted the water flooded this overlook 6 feet deep pilings at a school torn apart a casually bent swimming pool ladder

The magnitude of damage to lives and infrastructure sank in even more when we visited the coastline of the Fukushima prefecture.  The Daiichi nuclear reactor continues to pose a health hazard, and officials maintain a 20km radius (12.5 mile) exclusion zone where only authorized personnel (dressed appropriately) are allowed.  But there is another 10km (6 mile) band outside that exclusion zone where people are not allowed to live.  We drove past boat graveyards and the mysterious black-bag dump zones to the 20km checkpoint, and after being denied entry returned to a small village within the 10km band.  The landscape was surreal.  Mere days after the tsunami struck, the village was evacuated.  Two years later raw evidence of the tsunami was still everywhere; cars were wedged into buildings, structures tilted at crazy angles, sailboats parked askew in fields far inland.  But because of radiation concerns, pristine cars also stood abandoned around the wrecked and weed-filled village, windows intact, hubcaps in place.

All of this lent an air of Armageddon-esque disaster.  It felt like a science fiction novel, either set in the future where someone is exploring our familiar landscape abandoned precipitously some time long ago, or perhaps as though modern day explorers found a village wiped out by a virulent plague.  At some point the camera hangs silent as the brain and soul stutter to a stop, trying to absorb, process, understand what this means.  Our drive home was quiet.  That night, I washed the clothes and sandals Iíd worn to the village, but I couldnít wash my emotions.

boat graveyard breakwater reconstruction black bags of debris piled in decommissioned rice fields bus of workers headed into the 20km exclusion zone
a shop in the 10km don't stay here to long zone a beautiful township abandoned mere days after the tsunami raw tsunami damage note the boat far inland
overgrown railroad tracks, relatively pristine car full scope hard to absorb at some point, the camera hangs silent quiet drive home

Much is discussed about the economic impact of the tsunami, and some about the numbers of displaced or missing people.  But something happened in Japan with an abruptness, magnitude and arbitrariness not seen since World War II.  Thousands of families were split asunder, randomly, making thousands of rips in the social fabric of Japan.  Kids at school had no family or home to come back to, wives lost husbands, adults lost both their kids and their parents.  In a society where family structure is the social fabric, the randomness of family dissolution creates a conundrum for Japanese society.  Children grow up, establish their own homes and life, then eventually the aging parents move in, creating a home life that houses multiple generations and has built-in care giving.  The Japanese government and health care system arenít intended to provide long-term housing and care for aging parents or young kids.  While recovery from the infrastructure damage has been efficient and is ongoing, the damage to lives is less easily solvable.

An opportunity exists for the social fabric of Japan to heal.  There has been a surge in non-governmental non-profits and organizations in Japan focused on stitching families and neighbourhoods into some sense of health and happiness.  For example, my friends at iLEAP in Seattle foster significant international connections.  They have brought many Japanese social leaders to Seattle for training, inspiration, and to establish connections betwixt themselves and to other organizations.  Indeed, I was in Japan with iLEAP Directors Britt and Izumi and cinematographers Eric Becker and Gabriel Bienczycki to document a gathering of four Social Innovation Forum Japan (SIFJ) groups and follow Miori, Yuji, Terumi and Kenjiís efforts in particular.

travelling crew SIJF gathering Britt and Izumi Gabe and Eric Gabe videoing
SIFJ graduates in discussion soft skills and truths pounding rice Miori's cafť Invincible
Yuji Terumi a monk we visited with Terumi Terumi enjoying quiet not found in Tokyo Kenji and partners at 47 Dining
Kenji pointing out an area he is working on a touch of class bringing life back to town lend a great atmosphere a happy Kenji

The very nature of social fabric implies people working with and for other people to stimulate the very human desire for meaning, comfort and interaction within a community.  New buildings and financial aid donít address these basic social needs, though they can support the community.  Our hearts and minds are not bricks and mortar.  Rebuilding social fabric involves people making connections, trading time and skills, showing compassion, and creating an inspiring vision for a future.

As I continue exploring my complex world of connections, the practice of reveling in life gets richer and more layered.  The ball of yarn unwinds, welcoming all the grand and sad moments, the challenges and the gifts, the grit and the passion, and I knead these experiences into the recesses of my awestruck heart and soul with happy hands.

And now a tale of this different force, this human force, a force of compassion, caring, and connection.  It, too, flows unending, creeping into tiny nooks and crannies, wending through every opening, flooding past obstacles and carrying all manner of flotsam with it, crashing over barriers and upending things that seemed so recently substantial.

We had dinner with the old Japanese lady in Inshinomaki.  More appropriately described, she hosted us in an unstinting style, constantly bringing dishes out of the miniscule kitchen, filling a table completely full of food for her three friends and the four of us.  She was jovial, welcoming, and laughed often.  It took us a while to piece together her whole story, sitting on the floor in the cramped dining-living area, getting translated snatches of running conversations.  This lady with her dancing eyes was a fishnet mender, and had an arranged marriage to a handsome whaler.  They would enjoy each otherís company for the few days a year he wasnít hunting near Antarctica.  The whaler eventually retired in 2008 and they lived like newlyweds, each loving the otherís presence in their tiny home and long life.  They were at home on the plains of Inshinomaki when the tsunami alarms sounded.  For whatever reasons, he stayed behind at the house for just a few extra minutes before leaving to join his wife at the local hillside safety station.  He never made it to safety.  Just two years prior to our almost festive dinner, this bubbly lady had lost her husband, her house and her neighbourhood in one fell swoop.  Now she lives in a temporary housing trailer, one amongst many in a parking lot, one amongst tens of thousands of people trying to figure out where to live and find some stability and sense from what little of their life they still have.

And even with all of that around her every day, she thrives onwards, sharing with friends and strangers her mischievous smile that wends into your heart, her unending joy of life and her compassionate openness flowing unchecked.

a full table in the telling of tales a whalers shrine connectedness
dancing eyes and a mischievous smile

For more information: iLEAP, Kenji, Miori, Terumi, and Yuji.

2011 Tohuko earthquake and tsunami, or Great East Japan Earthquake: Wikipedia

Google maps of the tsunami image areas: Inshinomaki plains, Washinomaki, Nirashima, and Tomioka train station.

Peter Newbury's Published Adventures