On Friday I took a long day drive from Tokyo to the tsunami-hit Tohoku area and back, accompanying two volunteers on their sixth trip. For me, it was as much a case of "bearing witness" as anything. With a lengthy car journey there and several meetings for the volunteers to attend, there was little chance to photograph outside, but the scale of events could be brought home to me, to bear witness – from knowing to experiencing.
Even two hours from our first destination the roads were being fixed. Small buckles and twists. In some places, many houses had damaged roofs – although, considering the size of the quake, there was remarkably little physical damage – that was left to the tsunami. (Which is not to ignore the physical damage there was – in three, cojoining earthquakes lasting five minutes and shifting parts of Japan metres to the east, there was physical damage.) To drive for two hours through minor fixing, reveals the first indication of scale.
In Soma, where evacuees from neighbouring Minami-Soma (South Soma) and many hard-working Self Defence Forces are housed, we met the mayor, Hidekiyo Tachiya. He gave the volunteers maybe an hour of his time to discuss their thoughts and plans: still energetic and even humorous despite the amount of work going on in and from his town, showing something of the spirit to overcome.
The radio room-cum-Disaster Control Office, Soma
The music duo also accompanying us, Cousin, appeared on the local radio – operated from the Disaster Control Office in the Town Hall – to express support. Local Fukushima TV filmed them while volunteer radio presenter (Sayura Horishita, a singer songwriter herself) interviewed them. In a small room in the corner of the town hall, the engineer in disaster uniform, Sayura reads out the local radiation levels before she introduces the guests. Buttons are occasionally mis-pressed (cutting off a CD track) but everybody only laughs: this is just a small part of keeping people both informed and occasionally entertained.
Volunteer radio presenter, Sayura, interviews Cousin, filmed by local TV and with the engineer in the background
At a local evacuation centre, people are appreciative of a small musical interlude, but the schedule means its almost insultingly short and rushed – perhaps a mistake. But the volunteers can meet with the coordinators, whom they know from before, and make future plans.
We drive across the flat plain of fields that are familiar to many now – if viewed from above. This is the area appearing in an early TV report of the tsunami spreading out across the fields. It's a big plain, with no high ground to quickly escape to. The road we are on was inundated, but is cleared now. Some early fields are clear, but in later ones the SDF are only starting the process of clearing. I'm in the back seat surrounded by boxes and we're on route for a meeting so can't stop to photograph anything. It's misty, and the image of a line of SDF moving through a field, with the discarded cars and debris and houses will remain with me. We pass an open gas station, with tsunami-damaged trailer still next to the forecourt and in the midst of muddy, debris-littered fields: but it is open again for work. Further fields have yet to be approched – destroyed cars, buildings, trees cover the plain.
Then we head for the sea itself. This damage along this plain is huge. Further north of it, other towns are inundated, further south, others yet, but we drive this road along the coast for an hour.
At the coast, in what is/was Arahama, people are at work clearing up, small groups dwarfed in the size of damage. The road itself is clear, but everything to the sides is so much… what can you call it? It's debris, but it was homes, businesses, trees – things. Now its just the remains. Cars range from the hideously mangled to the just overturned. A large school building remains standing, but the surrounding is tangled detrius. Houses tilt where they remain, but foundations are all that are left of many or most. Now we are now only metres from the sea. It's a misty and grey day, but the sea is familiar, no longer the suddenly engorged stranger it had become on March 11. Only the damage it left behind bears witness to its special destructive power. I only photograph for 15 minutes. I don't know where to start. It's terribly awesome, but really it'll be the next day before I can process just what I've seen.
On the way out toward Sendai from the seafront we pass houses still standing amid destruction – in some, perhaps people are returning, cleaning up. This is after all, the only home they have, they are the "lucky" ones. A car repair shop is open for business. Immediately beyond the tsunami-ravaged area, a convenience store is open for business. A member of staff is cleaning the floor. It looks like a continuous job – today is wet anyway, but people and recovery workers from the area must come in from an outside that has been inundated with water and sand and mud. The shelves are less than half full. We buy snacks and use the toilet. The staff have made those little triangles on the first sheet of toilet paper, like they do in hotels. It's a small touch: a moving indication of a return to normality and respect for those in the area. This is another sign of spirit. The American author Norman Mailer once said that everyday manners are an expression of love. This little show of "manners" is similarly a show of love.
We eat at a local restaurant before heading to another evacuation centre. This one is in the Soka Gakkai (a religious group) building. Half the large centre is unoccupied because of earthquake damaged. They had 1,600 evacuees at first, but as people return and move on now group members who have lost their homes remain. Maybe 30 or 40 people of all ages are there. They are positive and welcoming as Cousin perform again. It's not a false positivity – there are some in tears during the songs – it is a healthy attempt at rebuilding, at support, at care. The children play and the adults play with them: but the child on a parent's shoulder explains simply: "My home was washed away."
"My home was washed away": a child plays at an evacuation centre. The sign on the back wall says, "Tohoku, do your best!"