Witnessing Japan's Rebirth
Four Places, Four Faces
Nearly a year has passed since the Great Tohoku Earthquake. Through the eyes of a housewife, an engineer, a reporter and a volunteer worker, we look at how the lives of the Japanese have changed, the fears they face, and the lessons they have learned.
Four Places, Four FacesBy Ming-Ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 491 )
On the eve of the first anniversary of the massive earthquake and tsunamis that devastated Japan last March, Tokyo's streets remain as bustling as ever, the trauma of the natural disasters and ensuing nuclear crisis hidden behind the seemingly calm faces and hurried gaits of Tokyo residents.
But nearly a year after the horrifying upheaval, homes in two of the most seriously affected areas – Miyagi and Iwate prefectures – are still caked in mud, reconstruction nothing more than a pipe dream. Piles of garbage rise as high as mountains. In towns swept away by raging tsunami waters, houses appear to have been devoured by monsters. All that is left behind are windows and doors that gape like black cavities, or simply the buildings' foundations.
Devastated areas have yet to recover, and the fear has yet to recede. But a sea change in the values, behavior and commercial models of the country and its people has emerged.
A disaster victim who lives in a tiny prefabricated house discovers her family has grown. A normally detached Tokyo resident treasures family as never before, but also finds himself more uncertain about the future. A journalist, who has covered Japan from Tokyo to Iwate and who lost more than 10 relatives in the disaster, finds himself cherishing every moment, writing prolifically and investing time in rebuilding his home. A once conservative Sendai resident opens her heart to foreign volunteers.
Four places, four faces. Amid anxiety and confusion, a sense of rebirth and newfound openness has emerged.
Story No. 1: Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture
Housewife Hitomi Asano:
Procrastination Not an Option
The house Hitomi Asano drives home to in the Kazumaminami district of Ishinomaki is surrounded by silence. Almost everybody has abandoned the neighborhood.
The grass outside the front door has turned brown, the beautiful flowers and lawn of the past no longer evident. The kitchen cabinet, ruined by flooding, has been taken away. All that's left are plates and dishes Asano couldn't bear to throw out, packed in cartons marked "relief supplies." Tsunami waters that flooded the house have etched a heartless 1.6-meter high watermark on the wall.
The calendar in the living room quietly remains suspended in time, at March 11, 2011.
Touching the knives in her kitchen – which she has owned since she was married – Asano dreams about cleaning and reusing them someday. Before the disaster, she often used the knives to slice sashimi for her family, but the high salt content of the seawater that stormed in on March 11 left them so badly rusted, they cannot be salvaged.
Every year, Asano would pickle a batch of plums the way her grandmother taught her and store them to eat a few years down the road. But the tsunami washed away her cache, and the new apartment she lives in receives too little natural light to resume the practice.
When the tsunami hit, Asano and her daughter fled from the place where they hang laundry and climbed up to the roof. The torrent of water rose to 2.5 meters high, submerging the first floor of their house, and it remained stubbornly high throughout the night. Snow was falling, there was no electricity, and, in some places, small blazes erupted. In the quiet of night, she could clearly hear people's screams and the sounds of cars and other objects smashing into each other in the water.
After they reached the roof, Asano's daughter, then in the fifth grade, told her mother, "I'm very scared." Afterward, she endured the ordeal without saying another word, as her mother hugged her tightly.
"I told her to keep looking at her mother and not to look anywhere else," Asano recalls. As the water level rose perilously, her main thought was how to protect her daughter's life.
The next day, when the water receded to a height of 50 centimeters, the two walked to a shelter set up at Kazuma Elementary School, which would become their home for more than six months.
Asano was made a team leader at the shelter, heading 100 people. At the beginning, she did not enjoy being with other people, and disliked doing things for strangers. She was not able to see her parents until two to three months after the disaster.
"I felt that I was sacrificing myself. The more I thought that way, the more I was unable to sincerely do things for others," she says.
But gradually, the mood changed as everybody started to pull together.
'Sorry, Thank You'
Once in the shelter, those who did not draw a prefabricated house faced even greater hardship and sadness. "Many people got angry and argued with each other. It made me really angry too," she recalls.
An old man, whom Asano had not known before but who often lost his temper, came to see her one day to tell her he had drawn a prefab dwelling and would be leaving. He told her, "I'm sorry for getting angry at you all the time." The two then hugged and thanked each other, and Asano wished him a long life.
She began to feel that people are not inherently bad but need to feel a sense of mutual trust.
"For example, if somebody soiled the bathroom, we would think it was because the door was small and hard to enter or because a person's foot was aching, making it difficult to squat. We wouldn't assume somebody did it on purpose."
Thinking positively and sympathizing with others, Asano gradually became less impatient and ill-tempered.
"By the end, we were like a big family. When it came time to go, nobody wanted to leave. Everybody said thank you and gave each other encouragement," Asano says.
"To me, the meaning of 'family' grew much broader. There used to be a saying in Japan that went, 'a family eats a pot of rice together.' That was a family's 'bond.' Those able to eat together like that are genuine friends. At the shelter, everybody ate from a big tub of rice, just like a big family."
Before the natural disasters struck, Asano was a typical housewife, tending only to matters involving her own household. But once at the shelter, the women wanted to keep the bathrooms clean and recycle whatever materials they could. "I'm a mother. But now, if I see a child who's not mine not study, I will still scold him. If I'm capable of doing something, then I'll do it the best I can."
Asano used to think there was plenty of time to do things she thought about. "But now I feel that every day is important. Anything I think of doing today, I absolutely want to finish it today."
Having seen herself as an ordinary person, Asano once left tasks to those she considered more determined and more capable. "But now I will definitely say, 'I want to do it.'"
Once Asano moved to a temporary prefab dwelling, it seemed that her life would return to normal. She could experience the warmth of her family when she woke up in the morning, and was able to bathe every night because the house had natural gas, electricity and running water.
But the space of the dwelling is very confining, and with many people living together and the walls quite thin, Asano immediately knows when people next door are talking, cooking or walking around. Her daughter, who enjoys playing the piano, no longer can. "To me, this doesn't amount to returning to the life I originally had," Asano admits.
Yet despite the drop in living standards, the experience of having lived through such a traumatic natural disaster has changed her perspective on life.
"I want to cherish every day. I will definitely get a lot out of the rest of my life," she says.
Once an average housewife whose universe consisted only of her "family," Asano now lives in a much bigger world, and her family has grown considerably bigger too.
Story No. 2: Tokyo
Technical Engineer Yuichi Yamano:
Drawn Closer to Family
Thirty-three-year-old technical engineer Yuichi Yamane, briefcase in hand, arrives home in Shinjuku unusually early, just after 7 p.m. He normally does not leave his office until at least nine at night.
When the March 11 earthquake shook Japan, Yamane was giving a presentation in Odaiba – a futuristic manmade island in Tokyo Bay. Just as he was making his pitch to his clients, the building suddenly shook violently, sending everybody fleeing in panic.
After the quake, the subways stopped running. He walked to Tokyo Station, hoping to catch a bus home, but more than a thousand people were lined up at the bus stop. At every shop in town, all the food was cleaned out. In the end, Yamane simply went back to his office to spend the night.
In the week following the disaster, Yamane's company encouraged its employees to stay at home, and hired DHL to get needed supplies to them. In the year since then, however, his life has returned to normal, except that he visits his parents more frequently than before.
Yamane's parents live in Kashiwa, Chiba prefecture, about an hour's travel time northeast of Tokyo. "Before, I wouldn't see them even once a month, but now I go once or twice a month," he says. On weekends, he takes a subway and bus to where his parents live and stays the night before returning to Tokyo.
But Yamane admits to feeling anxiety over the future and says his desire to move overseas has grown stronger with time.
The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which experienced multiple explosions and leaked substantial amounts of radioactive material, left Yamane questioning whether Japan's government was capable of dealing with the problem. Even today, he only buys rice grown in the Kansai region (around Kyoto and Osaka) or further west in Kyushu, worried that rice from parts north of there will be contaminated with fallout from the plant's meltdown.
Prior to the disasters, he had thought about buying his own place if the opportunity arose, "but now I'm not considering that possibility at all," Yamane says.
A Government that Can't Be Counted On
The radiation scare fuels some of his worries, but Japan's seismic turbulence, going from small earthquakes to a big earthquake and then to aftershocks, has also taken its toll.
"In any case, the earthquakes have already hit. Japanese housing prices can only go down, so there's no need to buy a home," Yamane says.
Even without the concerns over natural disasters, Japanese society today does not offer enough to keep him at home.
"Even if you work hard, there is not much difference in what you can get," Yamane says. Consequently, he is not surprised if there's a growing population of "herbivore men," a term coined in 2006 by Japanese writer Maki Fukusawa to describe a younger generation of men less interested in sex and money.
"As long as you march to your own drum beat, that's fine. You can be pretty happy that way."
Yamane feels that when he graduated, he did not get a very attractive job. At his new company, which he joined in 2008, he has yet to get a raise or earn a performance bonus.
"The experience of my parents' generation is that if you worked hard, you would move up in the world," Yamane says. "But in my generation, the curve doesn't veer upward or even stay flat. It moves downward."
If he had the chance, he would like to get a better-paying job or even try going abroad to work, taking a break before living overseas. But in the real world, standing on the typically bustling streets of Shinjuku, Yamane remains uncertain about what the future holds.
Story 3: Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture
Editor Kazuma Uwabe:
Every Moment is Precious
As the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011 drew near, Kazuma Uwabe, editor-in-chief of the Japanese bimonthly newsletter Health Report News, has decided to make a trip to his struggling home town of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture.
A year ago, 58-year-old Uwabe used his journalist's status to enter the disaster area a week after the quake and tsunami, when access was still limited to relief workers and search teams. With train transport crippled and roads mangled, it took Uwabe 20 hours by bus to get to the almost completely flattened town.
A few days earlier, on the day of the disaster, he had seen the massive damage that the tsunami had wrecked on Rikuzentakata on TV, but had not been able to contact his relatives there. That day he got drunk to drown his worry and shock.
When he arrived on the scene, he found that some 70,000 pine trees, planted along the town's coastline as a defense against tidal waves, had been toppled by the super tsunami. In the area where Uwabe used to live, 80 percent of the streets were submerged in seawater. He also found that more than a dozen of his relatives had perished in the disaster.
When the tsunami rolled over the town, it came so quickly and violently that few were able to escape to safety. At the town's stadium just three people survived clinging to ceiling beams, while witnessing 70 others being swept away.
Uwabe's brother, who was two years his senior, worked for the municipal government. When the tsunami hit, he advised others to evacuate to town hall. But in the end, he also died in the tsunami.
Uwabe left his hometown at the age of 18. Subsequently, he would visit home twice a year, in the summer and in the fall, and would usually end up quarreling with his older brother. More than once he vowed in anger, "I won't come back again."
But later on, with growing age and mellowing tempers, the two brothers began to get along much better. Then the Great Tohoku Earthquake struck.
"I still can't believe it. I wonder whether all this has really happened. I still have this feeling today," says Uwabe in describing his difficulties coming to terms with this cruel turn of fate. As Uwabe relays his story there is hardly any change in his low, dispirited voice, but his eyes well up with tears.
The Forgotten Scars
In April last year, Uwabe decided to record the fate of Rikuzentakata in this once-in-a-millennium earthquake in a book titled Miraculous Survival.
During the past year of research and interviews for the book, he felt very deeply that people in the big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka seem to have already forgotten the Great Tohoku Earthquake.
Interest in the recovery of the disaster areas and the fate of the survivors appears to have declined. When he now speaks before an audience of 200 people, he often only sells 10 copies of his book.
Recently, some experts have projected a more than 70 percent probability that another massive earthquake will strike the Kanto region, which centers on Tokyo, within four years. But Uwabe feels most people don't want to believe such a scenario, thinking, "It won't happen to me."
While many people are able to forget the past, for Uwabe many personal memories are linked to his hometown, which already existed in the Edo Period and was known as one of Japan's 100 most beautiful scenic spots. Before the disaster Uwabe would light fireworks with friends every summer at the Aneha Bridge in the nearby city of Ofunato.
As he continued to interview survivors and kept writing his book, Uwabe thought about how the situation in his disaster-struck hometown could be improved. When he researched the local employment situation, he suggested to the mayor that the city government hire local people to clear away the huge mountain of debris that is still strewn around the area. Some 300 tons need to be disposed of per day.
"Every moment is very precious. Every person has to be happy," he says. "For the sake of all those who died in this disaster, we need to do the best we can."
Story 4: Sendai, Miyagi PrefectureChurch
Volunteer Yuko Sato:
God Is Always With You
It is not yet 9 a.m. in Sanbontsuka, a coastal area in the Wakabayashi Ward of Sendai, but the air is filled with the voices of singing workers and the banging, hammering sounds of woodworking.
The area still looks desolate. All that can be seen are fallow rice fields – rendered non-arable because they are crusted with sea salt from the tsunami deluge – and damaged, abandoned homes. In the distance excavators are at work, moving rubble.
One after the other Michael, Kyle and Justin from the Samaritan's Purse, a U.S.-based international Christian relief organization, are showing up for work at a construction site. The three are helping rebuild the floor and roof of Etsuko Yamaguchi's Japanese-style home. The roof beams, which have already been installed, are carved in the traditional Japanese way.
The Samaritan's Purse volunteers arrived in Japan after the catastrophic quake. They have come for stays of different length and do not necessarily speak Japanese. But sponsored and mobilized by their church, they have rebuilt more than 300 homes in the most heavily hit areas of Miyagi Prefecture – Sendai City, Kesennuma and Shichigahama-machi.
Yamaguchi herself is participating in the rebuilding of her house. Wearing a windbreaker, she deftly handles a power drill to drill holes into wood and helps plane wood planks.
For the customary Japanese tea breaks at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., Yamaguchi personally prepares some snacks and sits down with the volunteers for a chat, speaking through an interpreter.
A High Dose of Love
The interpreter is 31-year-old Yuko Sato, a Sendai-native who studied music in the United States. Sato, whose husband is American, returned to Sendai only two years ago, not long before disaster struck.
Sato never took part in any relief work before. She started to work as a volunteer after helping friends in Ishinomaki, another city on Japan's northeastern coast, to clean up their mud-caked home.
Since working as a volunteer Sato has not only felt a strong sense of care in each interaction during the rebuilding process, but has also seen how the Japanese, usually cautious and reserved toward outsiders, have gradually begun to open up to the foreigners who came to their assistance.
"I think this is one of the best times of my life," Sato muses.
She observes that Japan used to be a conservative, traditional society, where people would rather slam their doors shut than face outsiders.
But when in the wake of the monster quake, many volunteers arrived on the scene to help with relief and reconstruction efforts, they also took an interest in the victims and shared their thoughts and feelings. Sato found that many Japanese also gradually began to open up as a result.
Yamaguchi frankly admits that she was quite nervous when she heard that American carpenters would help repair her Japanese-style wood and clay home with its black tiled roof. But gradually the carpenters' professional skills and enthusiasm dispelled her concerns, so that she began to accept the situation with gratitude.
In fact, Yamaguchi, who bought her house from its previous owner, had always felt like it was "someone else's home." But now that she is personally involved in its reconstruction and gradually sees the future kitchen and living room take shape, her feelings have changed. "Now this has truly become my house," she declares cheerfully.
Sato has seen others slowly warm to the foreign volunteers, forgetting initial misgivings. When sorting through the rubble, a couple, whose house is also under repair, found that a rock had smashed their household altar. They were stricken with grief, believing that the household spirits had already left them. But later on, the Samaritan's Purse volunteers told them: "God, in fact, is always in our hearts." These words gave them great consolation and cheered them up.
Even though the couple's home has already been rebuilt, they still prepare soup and vegetables every day at lunchtime for volunteers working in the neighborhood. They join the volunteers for lunch and then sing together with them.
A new kind of joy that springs from helping oneself and from helping others is spreading through the disaster-struck areas, furthering their rebirth.