August 12, 2011

Jake Price in Japan: Five Months On

August 8, Tōhoku, Japan

When I last saw the devastation that the tsunami wrought, the land was still strewn with cars and the soil black from the waters that engulfed the region on the 11th of March. Thousands were sleeping in densely packed shelters and defense forces were taking the initial steps to clear the rubble. Five months after the earthquake, the towns that I learned to navigate by using the wreckage as geographical markers have been transformed into a bare landscape; the future of these towns and their inhabitants unknown.

A school 30 km. from Fukushima: It’s feared that the ground is irradiated so parents leave their children there as they search for work in Sendai. The school operates 7 days a week and has been a refuge since the second day of the crisis.

Thousands who were sleeping on cardboard now have temporary homes in neatly arranged communities with fresh gravel on the ground and basic necessities in place. While these new houses will never replace the homes that people lost, it is a dignified and humane response to an enormous tragedy. The greater problems that surround people’s lives are issues of employment, particularly those who were living in Fukushima and have no place to return. They now commute daily to Sendai — a 90 minute journey each way — in search of work.

The tsunami affected a region that stretches for hundreds of miles. Imagine a wave destroying just about every town and port from Washington DC to Boston. The land that was submerged by the tsunami is now covered over with verdant weeds. Upon first glance the green covered earth looked pleasant, tranquil in the heat and humidity of the Japanese summer. But, green fields will only permit weeds to grow, depriving farmers — mostly elderly men and women who have worked the land all their lives — of their livelihoods. However, because so much is at stake, their connection to the land has not been erased. Despite the high summer heat, men and women take to the fields daily to clear out what they can with a tenacity that the encroaching weeds cannot match.

Being back in Japan in August has been an experience in contrasts, but not necessarily contradictions. August is the time of summer festivals which have traditions that date back hundreds of years, the celebrations deeply infused with the soul of Tōhoku. While the farmers toil in the fields, artists were busy creating Japanese paper installations to celebrate the Anabatic festival. Taken together, the toil and celebrations complement each other, one repairing what was washed away; the other holding onto what has been refined over thousands of years and will continue to define the country for years to come.

The clearing of debris is largely finished. Mountains of rubble, amounting to the remains of entire villages, accumulate in designated areas. Everything from housing insulation to car tires is stored in these piles, creating concern that toxic elements will get blown into the wind, furthering the environmental disaster.

–Jake Price


This is the second post of a series that examining how the people of Tōhoku are going about recovering their lives and making decisions for the future. See Jake’s previous posts from the disaster: Dispatch From The Quake Zone and Aftermath.

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