On the afternoon of March 25, shortly before the two-week anniversary hour of Japan’s 9-magnitude earthquake, in the fishing town of Otsuchi, Kaoru Kikuchi, 59, catches sight of his cousin, Kouji Abe, 62, in the dirt courtyard of an evacuation shelter at Akahama Elementary School. As the men meet, they grasp each others’ shoulders, embrace, and Kikuchi, who wears light-green work gear, briefly weeps. Because the Japan Self-Defense Forces only recently managed to clear the roads here, this is the first contact that Kikuchi, who lives inland, has made with Abe, a fishing-boat builder with a wild shock of grey hair who wears a sweater and, jewellery-like from his neck, a squid lure. “I love fishing but my boat has been destroyed,” Abe says. “I will mend it.”
That same day, on one of the mountains encircling the coastal town of Onagawa, 100 km south of Otsuchi, soldiers salvage the body of 52-year-old homemaker Henna Kimura. Originally from the South American country of Suriname, Henna arrived in Japan after marrying sailor Satoru Kimura. Her recovery delivers relief. “I feel lighter,” says their son, Hitoshi Kimura, a commercial caterer who fled the March 11 tsunami by climbing a mountain, remaining there all night. “Everybody here has lost somebody,” Hitoshi says, using a sharp gesture of the hand to indicate an auditorium spread wide with unrolled futons and sleeping bodies. “We found our mother.”
Also on Friday, in an inland residential area that the quake and tsunami left largely undamaged but which remains without power and starved of food and gasoline, soldiers unload cardboard boxes packed with cup noodles and toilet paper. Alerted by loudspeaker, the residents scramble, running, toward the unarmed military men. “We are two, we are two,” an elderly woman, clutching the hand of another, frailer woman, tells the soldiers as she snatches up double her ration of five cup noodles. Nearby, a boy in a toque lunges at the food and an elderly woman waddles away holding a canvas bag overflowing with toilet paper in her right hand, another roll held firmly in her left. This is the second time in 14 days the soldiers have come with supplies. There are no complaints.
Such is life amidst the chaotic mulch Japan’s northeast coast became when the tsunami toppled seawalls, overturned buildings, splintered homes and stores, and scrubbed town after town off the landscape. From Sendai to northernmost Honshu, Japan’s long, thin main island, each decimated place took on its own particular colour and consistency according to the way the wave came. The town of Rikuzentakata, where 23,000 people lived, is now bone-white and lies razed, flat and sprawling, half its residents gone. Ishinomaki, a larger, denser city of low-flung highrises and fast-food outlets that spreads deeper inland than many neighbouring communities, is caked in grey clay, and largely without electricity—the darkened businesses are shut and, here and there, the windows of grocers and liquor stores smashed by looters.
Further inland, in the rivers that wind in and out of the mountain passes, debris floats: overturned boats and broken wood deposited by the tsunami after it snaked in through the low hills, then withdrew. The rice fields are filled with sea water, and a rank salt smell permeates the air along with the rot. The outskirts of Minamisanriku took the wave after it had been channelled through the mountains, where it picked up a surfeit of blade-like debris and churned the stuff up into a smooth, dark-brown paste. The town has been otherwise wiped clean from the map, with only the streets, shovelled and scrubbed by soldiers, left to describe the landscape. When a taxi glides inexplicably through the night, its interior lit like a lantern, the effect here, where it can be seen for miles over the flattened town, is otherworldly.
In the way it reordered human things, the tsunami itself followed an otherworldly logic—enlisting the tiled roof of a farmhouse to shelter a strip-mall pharmacy, an oyster farm in a mess of nets and buoys to festoon a hospital. A piano lies in a rice field, a bicycle sits in a tree. Then, in an endless motif, there is the strange majesty of boats crowning homes, crowning fish factories, adorning streets. If the wave dismantled the concrete, visible stuff of quotidian life in northeast Japan, it also pulled apart the communities that once occupied its neighbourhoods, shaking the inhabitants free of each other, drowning many, reconstituting the rest higgledy-piggledy in gymnasiums, community centres and recreational facilities up and down the coast.
Round a bend into Onagawa, piles of junked cars squeezed into tinfoil give way to a broken landscape veined by paths cleared of rubble. Homes and apartment buildings stand cracked open like dollhouses. Soldiers in smooth-domed helmets shrink amid the devastation, standing sentinel while backhoes punch holes into toppled buildings. They are waiting to collect the dead (when a news photographer approaches, the soldiers turn their backs on him in one fluid, collective movement). Elsewhere, soldiers surrounded by eruptions of debris scrub and polish the dust-laden streets with spades and old-fashioned straw brooms, a Sisyphean endeavour.
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