NATURE and NURTURE
writing and photo essay
Nature and Nurture“How would you describe this?” an elderly man asked me. I paused. I couldn’t think of a single word that fit. “Hell,” he answered, looking out over the devastated town of Minamisanriku, washed away by the March 11 tsunami. I was stunned by how little remained in the town. Houses were completely ripped apart, concrete buildings had crumbled, and none of the once recognizable city structures remained. I saw people fruitlessly searching for their loved ones, their shadows scattered among debris. “Look over there. At the top you can find my car.” The elderly man lifted a finger toward the hilltop above us: the Mercedes, only a few months old and covered with mud, deposited where the tsunami waters saw fit. The town was like a World War II photo of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb; there hadn’t been a war, but you couldn’t tell the difference.
On a quiet Friday afternoon at 2:46 p.m., a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the northern east coast of Japan, the largest in its history. It triggered a devastating tsunami that destroyed nearly every coastal city in the Tohoku area. I remember a moment that shocked me when I first saw heavy dark grey debris began to fill a whole site after drove hours on a narrowed valley road to Rikuzentakata. Houses were flipped upside down like a toy. The subsequent tsunami led to the destabilization of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As of June 1, the number of dead and missing stands over 23,000 people. This is the worst disaster in Japan since World War II.
The fourth day after the earthquake and tsunami, I flew to Koriyama city in Fukushima, which locates at 60 km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. I was assigned to photograph evacuees and their settlement in a makeshift shelter. “How can we make a living from now on?” a middle-aged couple muttered amongst themselves. They had lost everything and were forced to take a shelter in an abandoned elementary school. Given just a blanket, they had no heater and water in their shelter, nor did they know when and how they could return home. What’s more, they had been forced to change shelters three times already. A few days later, although AFP warmed me to evacuate from the area after an explosion at Fukushima Daiichi, I decided to stay since felt a strong sense of mission. After Fukushima, I traveled to the North to document coastal cities affected by the tsunami. In Kesennuma, chemically polluted waters caught fire, spreading flaming waves that burned everything they touched. In an interview with survivors, I’ve heard Shouganai: “that’s life’ or “can’t complain.” In such a difficult situation, their silence and acceptance of life, despite what has occurred, allowed me to think of the virtue of life in Japan.
After the 49th day of the disaster, I was back in Rikuzentakata. While I was hoping to see a hint of recovery, the severe shortage of medical care and vast numbers of survivors in shelters meant there was still much to do in the recovery process. Instead, local small entrepreneurs and their never-give-up attitude showed me their confidence for new start. I also felt that a community bond in small coastal towns would make sure for the town to come back.
As part of a society steeped in agricultural traditions, Japanese people have always sought harmony and coexistence with nature, but nature has not always responded in kind. As I grew up in the coastal town, Takanabe in Miyazaki city, it naturally came to me to understand the importance of the sea to our local life. The sea has kept us alive by giving us foods and jobs. Nevertheless, on March 11, the relationship between nature and men had flipped: Once what locals had been given suddenly all has been taken by tsunami. When I observed that absolute force of nature in devastated areas, it left me with a big question: At the risk of another large disaster, why aren’t survivors leaving their destroyed homes in coastal towns in search of lives in a safer city? Why do they still want to stay? I believe that this is has to do with their ties to the land and the sea, and a belief that this connection will keep them alive.