Japan | The Great Flood

More than a year after the earthquake-tsunami, Ishinomaki begins rearranging its memories

Abe Mitsuo and Chiba Takahiro stand outside the elementary school in Ishinomaki that was destroyed in the 2011 tsunami. CLARISSA SEBAG-MONTEFIORE FOR THE CARAVAN

IN THE HOURS after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, Abe Mitsuo was struck by how beautiful the sky was. Abe and his wife had fled their home in Ishinomaki to higher ground. “About one hour [after the earthquake] it was very beautiful with many stars, as there was a blackout for the entire city,” he recalls. At that moment—shivering on the mountainside among those who had escaped—he could appreciate the scene. Back then, he still believed his daughter was alive.

Abe came down from the mountain to find that his house had been washed away and his daughter and her two small children were missing. Three days later he found their dead bodies.

In the cataclysmic chaos that followed, Abe queued for more than 24 hours for fuel; transporting the bodies of his daughter and grandchildren by car became paramount. But supplies ran out before he reached the front. After hearing his story, others in the line pooled their meagre resources to share with him.

Abe survived moment to moment, sleeping in his car, “crying all the time”. Sometimes despair overwhelmed him; he tried to drown himself and took an overdose of pills. Eventually, he reached the decision that his “daughter could not be happy in heaven” if he took his own life. Instead, the 61-year-old began channelling his grief into photographing the desolate landscape of the disaster zone.

As a prop for his photos, Abe uses a century-old wooden clock which he asks passers-by to pose with. Its hands remain frozen an hour after Japan’s most powerful earthquake on record struck at 2:46 pm on 11 March 2011.

“The quake hit while Yuki [my daughter] was at home,” remembers Abe, waving his hand towards the empty plot of land where his house used to stand. “She said she was going to collect the kids at elementary school. I found my daughter’s body and her two kids inside a car 300 metres away from the house. Everyday since then I have taken photos. It’s so that I can pass on my memories.”

It is a blustery winter’s day when Abe and I first meet by chance on the decimated grounds of the elementary school near where his grandchildren died. He cuts a lone figure carefully picking his way—camera in hand—over the ruins. Time and again Abe has returned to photograph the burnt-out school and to capture the overturned chairs and books that lay for months unmoved among shards of shattered glass.

Ishinomaki, an industrial port along the northeastern coast, previously known abroad for its Ishinomori Manga Museum dedicated to the late manga genius, Shōtarō Ishinomori, was largely wiped out by Japan’s 3/11 disaster, which triggered a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, creating the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years. More than 3,000 residents—many the elderly and young, who could not run away fast enough—died, while 54,000 homes in the city were destroyed.

Fourteen months later, thousands continue to live in temporary housing; authorities say full recovery will take a decade. While international headlines have abated following the one-year anniversary and anxiety about a nuclear cloud over Tokyo has eased, victims like Abe continue to live in the shadow of catastrophe.

What Abe now calls home is a basic temporary house—one of dozens of makeshift bungalows lined up in rows in a former baseball pitch. Asked what he misses most, he says, “The time I used to walk together with my wife in my business. We were always busy. But now we have too much time to think.”

Abe is not alone. Chiba Takahiro—a rotund sushi chef with a wide smile—lost his mother in the surge of water. She was swept away from the basement garage of her home. “I didn’t feel fear. I felt something complicated,” he explains, looking for words to describe the moment when the tsunami hit. As he speaks, he picks at a vast home-cooked Japanese hotpot in his father’s house where Chiba, his wife Noriko, and their three children moved to following the destruction of their home and family-run sushi restaurant.

Six thousand residents fled Ishinomaki. Chiba, also, is planning his escape. “I want to become American,” he says earnestly. Last year Chiba—who speaks little English—spotted a tempting advertisement for a sushi chef in Rockland, Maine. A couple who ran a sushi bar wanted to employ someone from the disaster zone on a three-year contract with accommodation and visa sponsorship included. Despite being offered the position, Chiba and his family ran into visa problems and remain in Ishinomaki. “This is a family restaurant. My father [who opened the restaurant in 1972] thinks there is no point to continue running it without his wife. Without my mother, there is no point continuing to live here.”

Others who survived have also suffered from the abrupt severance of their former lives. “I keep asking myself, why, why, why?” says 71-year-old Takahashi Shizuo, who fled the tsunami by car. While Takahashi lived, roughly one in four of his neighbours died. “The houses are destroyed. The communities are destroyed. Friends have been split to different temporary housing so I never communicate with them.” When we met late last year, Takahashi was one of a few hundred—many of them elderly—earning ¥10,000 ($125) a day raking  tsunami debris in an apocalyptic landscape.

Japan’s costliest natural disaster (rebuilding costs are estimated at $238 billion) has left cities such as Ishinomaki partial wastelands. Japan’s northeastern coast is estimated to be saddled with 45 million cubic metres of tsunami debris—enough to fill about 18,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. More than 37,000 damaged vehicles are still being kept in temporary storage. And debates rage about how to rebuild communities away from danger zones. In the meantime, many victims live in limbo.

“There is a lot of pessimism—there was so even before the tragedy of 3/11,” says Tokyo’s Waseda University Professor Christopher Pokarier. “Many of the affected towns had ageing populations, had struggling local industries.” With Japan’s economy stagnating for the past two decades, the foundries and steel mills of cities in the tsunami-hit region had already been on the back foot. Adding to their troubles, their populations had declined, with younger workers seeking their fortunes in Tokyo and Osaka, leaving grey-haired denizens behind.

“For many elderly people in the temporary housing sites, their daily routines can be frustrating. With little to do, or even look at, and often co-located with strangers from other affected towns, many people don’t have much to look forward to,” Pokarier adds.

Despite this, many urban planners, architects, Japanese volunteers and some enterprising residents are positive about Ishinomaki’s future. The disaster, they argue, has provided opportunity to breathe life into a city that had been plagued for years by an ageing population and a stagnant domestic economy.

“[Some locals] believe the city of Ishinomaki is declining and they thought they should change [it] before the disaster—but there was no chance to change,” says Kuizumi Yoichi, a 26-year-old trainee architect who moved to Ishinomaki post-disaster.

Perversely, the disaster has provided an opportunity for renewal. Professor Kent Anderson, a Japan expert and pro vice-chancellor (International) of the University of Adelaide, argues that while the disaster will not trigger the emergence of a new Japan, it will bring about a transformation of the Tōhoku region.

“Yes, it’s a horrible tragedy,” says Anderson. “You have all of the people who were lost or who will not be coming back. But those people who do move back, I think, will rebuild a very different community to what was there before. It is not surprising that young architects and urban planners are excited by the opportunity.”

Many media reports have focused on the stoic strength of survivors, evident in even the smallest of gestures. Abe proudly shows me a sticker plastered on his car trunk. It reads “Never Give Up”. Another elderly man with salt-and-pepper hair, whose wife was washed away in front of him, sports a rain jacket with the words “Fight” emblazoned in both Japanese and English.

Yet grief remains all-abiding. Next to the shell of what was once the Okawa Elementary School, where 74 of the 108 students died along with all but one of the dozen teachers, is a small shrine. Among the teddy bears and flowers, a mother has placed a hand-written letter. “Since it’s getting cold, are you warm?” the letter begins. “Your trademark is a ponytail, can you tie up your ponytail by yourself? Your favourite blanket is soft, can you sleep without your favourite blanket? Can you sleep when mother is not right next to you? Every morning when I wake up I wonder if you are next to me. Are you with your brother and grandmother in heaven? I am going to wait for your answers forever.”

Today Abe makes a living delivering speeches about 3/11 across Japan and is in talks with a publisher about producing a book of photographs, with a percentage of royalties donated to the disaster area. “I tell volunteers to spread my messages about my experiences. Don’t use a car—go higher. Go higher,” he urges, describing how his retreat to the mountainside saved him. Among the photographs is that of the clock that froze when the water washed over it.

Remembrance is paramount. As we drive past immense piles of tsunami debris, Abe implores, “Don’t say debris. Please make sure to write down [a different] meaning. Each piece of debris is a person’s memory. All these memories are gone.”