37 Frames : Great Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami 2011 Japan… The Black Mouth

A report from photographers Dee & Trace, originally published on 37 Frames http://www.tokyophotographers.com/2011/03/37-frames-great-tohoku-earthquake-tsunami-2011-japan-the-black-mouth-1.html

If tears were words, these reflections would have written themselves a thousand fold. We are back in Tokyo after our northbound Tohoku visit to aid with relief efforts and to start the process of documenting what is undoubtedly one of the most horrific natural disasters in recent history. The words won’t come easily, sometimes having a lens as a filter is a much preferred medium. Although I think my hands were shaking too much to be of any good. Hard-hitting journalists we are not. It’s not in our nature, with no avenue of disassociation. Hopefully simple, connected storytellers, we can be. I hope to make some kind of sense of the past few days, share our memories as best we can, keeping in mind what is most achingly obvious – that this is all just so raw. A huge, gaping hole of agony. A coastline ravaged beyond recognition. Families, communities, towns and cities torn apart. That the trail of destruction led by the tsunami, is of a scale you can truly only realize with your own eyes. It is simply massive. And obscene. There’s no real way to even describe it.

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We had been warned by the advance team and tireless, incredible workers at Peace Boat but it simply doesn’t prepare you. I can’t believe my stupidity now…I am so embarrassed by my ignorance that I just have to share it. I was initially worried we weren’t getting there fast enough, it was already 10 days since March 11th. Seriously. Thinking that even a day delay would result in too much of a clean-up to effect a thorough documenting. I am so ashamed. Not only will there be no clean-up anytime soon, except perhaps for the crude shoving of homes, boats, towns, schools, lives, to the side of the road, and the diligent room-by-room mud and debris removal of schools and shelters but it will clearly take years and years and yes, years. While the news might go onto a new story, a more recent conflict, a bigger tale of tragedy or celebrity, what remains in Tohoku is not anywhere near a recovery phase. At this stage it is merely existing. Survival mode. One thing I know though after spending time among the proud and modest people of North Eastern Japan, is that if anyone can surmount this, they will do their very best with a defining sense of morality and warmth of heart that not even a 9M earthquake, dark 10 meter waves or a fatal combination of both can destroy. The love and kindness bestowed on us, the grateful, sobbing thanks sometimes met with eyes, sometimes not, sometimes with hugs and most often tears was both humbling and cripplingly sad. The warmth and openness to share in a time of endless mourning was overwhelming. And so was the shock. And they simply need so much help.

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In the midst of a landscape now defined by trucks wrapped around traffic lights, fishing boats spectacularly moored into main street buildings, cars elegantly dangling upside down in trees or unceremoniously stuffed in houses, we find ourselves so small and shockingly helpless. There is utter despair combined with the scent of lingering death, bodies not yet found. The local cemetery so defiled, ancestors now shack-up with delivery vans, roofs and dingys. The toxic fumes waft our way from the port and industrial area. It was here on the bridges connecting Ishinomaki with the once picturesque Nakaze island, by the now tranquil flowing Kitakami River, that we understood. All we can do is make a difference on a human level. Try and help, assist, listen to one person. Touch one. If we could all affect this, volunteer even for a day, reach out to just one person then collectively tides of survival give way to those of recovery and life beyond. Well this is what we told ourselves in an effort to stay sane, get in a mindset to do what we had come to do, a drop in a 200km plus bucket and all.

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Let me start from our start, create an image of a journey with a purpose. To remind the world that a headline one day replaced with another the next, is still a life for someone. That the world will not forget and is thinking of Japan and in turn is thanked and awareness created.

We left mid-morning after gas runs to Esso and an overwhelming local Japanese response to our departure. We only had time to tell a few and from 9pm til 7am the doorbell didn’t stop ringing with relief supplies for us to take. Friends, neighbors, acquaintances dropped off blankets, water, food, toilet paper and other much needed aid. Gas money was donated by family and friends and we were so, so overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity and concern. The people of Brisbane especially – even after a disaster like the floods in January, still contributing daily and we thank you enormously. For our many international friends who have offered help, and packed care boxes we are still waiting on all those bulk packages and are hopeful now that postal services are kind of back to normal that everything will arrive soon and we will take everything on our next trip north. We have also been so touched with messages from local schools, collections in supermarkets and even at our local bakery and for the little buzz the Photographers Unite for Japan page is creating. So with the shout-outs done for now we find our 4WD fully-loaded we were soon ready to go.

The decision was made to take our own car for several reasons. The Peace Boat vans had gone up the day before with the second wave advance team. More trucks were expected by the week’s end. By taking our car we would have both the freedom to head into smaller areas to look for other shelters/survivors not yet receiving aid and also to have an extra vehicle on hand.  We thought about it – the risks of damage to the car, the still crucial gas issue, security and safety but the pros seemed to far outweigh the cons. And we were off.

The main Tohoku expressway was at this time still closed to the public; open only to those assisting in relief efforts and aid vehicles. A rumbling road-train of army trucks, tanks, vans, semi’s, bulldozers and utes with portable toilets stacked high continued north. Help was clearly on the way. The outrageous yakuza trucks packed to the rafters, along with trucks from every company you can imagine in Japan kept us entertained with their loads the whole way.

Going up was laboriously slow. Passing by Fukushima we tried to hold our breath. Trace wanted to text her Australian friends and family about stopping in at the Nuclear Plant to check on the reactors for ourselves. But we both quickly agreed, it was much too soon, way too soon for humor. Even hers.

Our usually broken navigation system was going berserk with warnings and for the first time gave us current updates, at this time letting us know an exclusion zone was not so far away. Snow flurries truly welcomed us to Tohoku. It took some 12 hours to get there, all the while thoughts firmly northward and at least knowing we were on our way.

We passed through Sendai and arrived in Ishinomaki in the very late evening for which we will always be thankful for. About an hour before we arrived we could make-out the first signs of the destruction that lay around us, hidden in the darkness, even blacker with no power or twinkling nightlights. Before that we had noticed blue sheets covering roofs on Route 4, where clearly tiles had fallen from the shock of the earth’s quake. Now further north we saw crushed compact cars, already removed from their final resting grounds now lining National Route 45 for miles. Awaiting further disposal. More intact cars were lined up in front of closed gas stations waiting for the morning rations of petrol. Steamy windows told us people were sleeping inside. Others left without passengers, who would return in the early hours to be sure they kept their place in line. It was eerie and silent, a wasteland now. Less than 2 weeks earlier it was major arterial where locals and travellers would have been stopping for dinner. Noodle shops and family restaurants side by side now dark and closed indefinitely. The infamous tsunami sludge obvious on store fronts, building sides.

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Roads were closed here and there. In the darkness it was unclear what was blocking our path. We often had to make our own way as it was very unclear what was a road and what used to be a house. The bitumen on the road washed away. At intermittent zebra crossings fishing vessels now waited where pedestrians should stand. Look right, then left, then right again. No people, just electrical lines dangling dangerously unplugged overhead we headed a little more inland, a welcome breathe away from the coast. But another giant wave would have surely been enough to unhinge us from the road.

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We finally found Ishinomaki Senshu University now the base for all volunteer activities in the region. Just down the road from the SDF camp, only a few bridges away from utter chaos ocean side. Very M*A*S*H. We met the Peace Boat gang in the darkness and bitter cold and they welcomed us with such warmth it was overwhelming. Over cup ramen we had our first briefing, enjoyed Futoshi-san’s amazing original “amasake”, and then it was time to rest. We slept in our car, protected somewhat from the subzero temperatures. We were not alone in our vehicular accommodation, several other 4WD’s like us, vans and cars shared the almost vacant lot together. Warm at first, the cool night crept through the car eventually and we pretty much froze the entire night. We slept with layers and layers and hot kairo’s plastered everywhere. Not comfortable by any means for this high-maintenance camper, but at least with a roof over our head and keys in the ignition to fire up some warmth if needed – all the while keeping an eagle-eye on the gas gauge.

Morning came early. And indeed it was a comedy of errors to get dressed and get out of the car. We also soon realized a crack of the back car window had been left open all night which did not make us any warmer by any means.  We had been prepared to really rough-it but there were portable toilets on site with TP. No running water of course, but we had fully bought everything with us and were basically prepared. Knowing fully that we had a home to go back to, so many nearby did not.

Morning was spent in briefings and a mobilsation to action. The relief supply shed was filling up fast. There were all kinds of supplies already waiting delivery and arriving by the minute. Aid clearly for both rescue & recovery phases. The rows and rows and rows of shovels and wheelbarrows in the supply shed were a sight to see. We weren’t initially sure why they would all be needed. We soon found out why…  NGOs & NPOs were arriving, medical teams setting up, a little tent city developing where last night an empty field lay. We made sure to document it all, then help out where we could before taking off into Ishinomaki to start the process, with another quick and grateful gas station drop in (3 hours later we had 20 more liters…)

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Ishinomaki town is still in a state of despair and mourning. We had been sent this email a few days earlier to let us know of the conditions… and truly little had changed…

“In Ishinomaki City…every day at the SWC (Social Welfare Center) headquarters and the volunteer centers, information is posted of people confirmed dead. At this board we see people relieved to confirm that their family members are alive, or people collapsing in tears upon news of the death of a loved one, and neighbors supporting each other. The sight is just overwhelming. The local government office cannot keep up with the number of people applying for death certificates, and has had to put extra staff on just for this purpose.

There are still so many people whose whereabouts are unknown, so we are travelling around the town by motorbike looking for people still in need of help. The town has been entirely destroyed. There is mud and debris everywhere. People are now trying to clear roads with bulldozers, but as they comb through the rubble more and more dead bodies are being found.”

Our emotions working overtime.

It was a cool but sunny day, the frost gone and if it weren’t for the flotilla of non-stop helicopters overhead, the army trucks of every shape and size, the sirens from every type of emergency vehicle one could almost be forgiven to think it was an ordinary mid-March day. Except of course it wasn’t.

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As we moved closer to the coast and tributaries the damage was clear, what was ahead coming into focus. Mud stained streets, desperately showing signs of cleaning by local neighborhoods, soon gave way to piles and piles and piles of tsunami soaked refuse. Furniture, tatami mats, stuff of every kind and sensibility. It was all too much to process. Buildings generally remaining in tact, for one or two streets and then we came to the railway crossing. A look up the line to see cars wedged between tracks, down the line to see homes ripped from foundations. Then once in the heart of the Chuo area we rounded the corner to see large boats now anchored in buildings, cars in places you cannot imagine, stores now floors, homes on top of homes and any other combination you can think of. The 2nd bridge had just been cleared but a major concern was the glass, nails and other dangers still on the ground which could puncture tires and render vehicles useless. The full force of the catastrophe a revelation on that Nakaze bridge. A city of six merged towns ripped apart. Known for it’s famous Manga museum, Ishinomaki also boast(ed) the eastern hemispheres 2nd largest fish market. The emblematic Black City Pine Trees fully uprooted. Fully in shambles.

The whole town in shock. We’d seen shock on an individual level before but not on this mass, collective scale. An entire conscience rocked to the core.

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(That’s our car parked on the corner… an in tact car a rare sight for sure).

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(Trace again, driving through the tsunami soaked streets…)

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It was here from the bridge and after continuing on the Onagawa Highway through the town to the sea that we finally understood probably the only thing that we can. There is not much sense to be made other than this… And that is the scale. It is simply epic. Beyond comprehension. This was just one place in a coastline of many. Relief and aid was arriving but how about in the quaint coastal villages? It seemed impossible amid the destruction that we could even get around. Those little fishing towns must be completely cut off. I am absolutely sure I am making no sense and I do apologize. The words cannot adequately express what is in the heart, so better to let the images say something for a bit.

We found our way to the Minato Elementary School where Peace Boat are currently working and saw firsthand the progress made already. Forget about the car dramatically parked in the swimming pool and the new fence of flotsam misery, the 15cm sludge caked school grounds, the gym is now a shelter with a working mobile kitchen that services those evacuees staying in house and the large number of local residents who remain in half homes. It is cold and dark, the radio playing in the background, the volunteers doing their very best to provide warmth in smiles and meals. Supplies including clothes, toiletries now available. Inside the school we met several teachers and local officials who took time to explain where things are at. Our new friend Katsu did such a wonderful job taking care of us, translating and introducing us when necessary. We were free to document as we liked but to be honest the exhaustion and shock on the faces of all those primarily affected by March 11th was enough most times to leave the cameras down and just talk and connect.

The Minato Elementary School…

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Hand-written notes outside each room detailed who resided therein, what area they previously lived in. Quiet scribbled order. The walls at the entrance were plastered with notes looking desperately searching for loved ones. Not all memos were hopeless, some were to inform where survivors had gone, “don’t worry about us, we are fine”, that kind of thing.

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Here at Minato Sho-ga-ko the tsunami reached the second floor, the students and teachers taking refuge in the 3rd and 4th floors where the evacuees now live indefinitely. We passed rooms with young and old, the old clearly not doing well. Their medical prescriptions washed away in the waves, now little to do but wait for replacements if they ever come. We found that the main school shelters in Ishinomaki are receiving aid and relief, but every day the needs change. We were told that with 30% of the city’s civil servants killed, local officials are ridiculously overworked. The majority of them have not been home even once since the disaster. Without knowing the whereabouts of their families, if they are even still alive, they are working hard for the people of the community. Keeping a track on numbers and needs is a concern and a job NGOs are starting to take over as well as seeking out evacuation centers which have not yet been found.  The local authorities still have no sense of the overall situation, outside of their immediate area, we heard. And the overwhelming issue is getting aid to the people living in hidden shelters, in homes, along roads so damaged by either the earthquakes, tidal waves or both that access is near impossible.

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The survivors remain calm and composed mainly, but the trauma seeps through on every level. While talking with a local congressman on how we can help and establish some introductions with international institutions wishing to actively engage in rebuilding the schools, at first glance it seemed he was looking through us, clearly somewhere else, thinking of a more pressing issue, enveloped in waves and grief, then he simply broke down and fell at our feet in thanks and gratitude. We got down too, and helped him up. We then had a smile all together when he mentioned how beautiful we were – yes, clearly he was completely in shock for after a few days of NO showers we were anything but. Believe me.

Trace was overwhelmingly and understandably concerned about the issue of orphans. Many children who survived on the upper floors of schools had the agonizing wait of their parents coming to get them. Many who never did. It’s been weighing on our minds just how many children will go into the system, if immediate family and relatives cannot be located – numbers still chaotic in the twisted jungle of rubble and confusion. But order is coming about little by little. And naturally on a local level communities will want to deal with it internally and privately. But still no one seems to have concrete answers yet.  Trace is determined to keep an eye on it and find people to talk to about it more, and access more concrete info as it becomes available.

From the school we then wandered through the streets, trying to capture what our eyes were seeing but never fully sure that it was. While Trace and Katsu were talking with an animal refuge group I discovered some evacuees had formed a bucket line from the now un-swimmable school pool to inside the building. With one small pan the leader scooped water from the pool into 3 buckets and one by one they were passed down the line. I later found the water was for the Japanese-style toilets. It was miserable and time-consuming. Balancing on split timber, once perhaps walls of a nearby home, in a basic attempt to maintain some hygiene and humanity the 3 buckets continued up and down that tragic line. That was until the snow came down and it was gladly knock off time for the day.

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And for us too. It was all too much and very hard to remain composed, tears came all too often, but a natural release just the same I guess. We wound our way back through the dilapidated town, back to camp and back to some decompression. All the while knowing we could while so many couldn’t. We got busy preparing some hundreds of meals for those displaced. We had our own relay line. Container, spoon of rice, ladle of minestrone, lid closed, rubber band, in the box. Soon they were done and on the way to empty stomachs. Not before a very sizeable earthquake had everyone swaying in the Miyagi dusk. The little AM radio was swiftly pulled out and tuned in. After a few tense minutes an all clear on the tsunami front was issued.

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The evening was again beyond freezing, and following dinner the nightly meeting discussed, processed and followed-up on the events of the day. With 50 volunteers due to arrive at the week’s end, the main priority was clearing the relief supplies from storage and getting them to the people, as at least 2 large semi’s were on the way with 4 tons of goods, plus all the other smaller vans and trucks overflowing with donations arriving on and off. The volunteer effort coming together to help plug the leaky bucket of government assistance, sometimes bogged down by bureaucracy. The NPOs and NGOs able to cut to the chase and fill needs somewhat more expedited on a local level, at least in our limited understanding. It was an entirely huge undertaking, in it’s initial stages with a long-term commitment.

A bitter wind blew through camp and had us scampering for some basic shelter. We were back to the car again. With windows firmly shut, we slept for a bit, froze and remained uncomfortable for the rest. Our new alarm clock the sound of choppers, how quickly life changes, new sights and sounds suddenly recognizable and not all together unexpected. Early morning briefings had supplies being dispersed, maps and courses of aid configured and trucks packed. Plus so much other stuff we are sure to have no understanding of.

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We took off for a little while to do our own deliveries in the early morning light. Locals cycled down battlefield-like lanes and over broken bridges, nodded and said good morning. Often we would see people fixed in a spot, frozen, simply staring at what was, what had been, what was lost, missing, waiting to be found.

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I followed one man while we searched the debris for a little while, until I realized he was in deep mourning, praying, somewhere in a not too distant memory.

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The outlook so different from just 2 weeks ago. And I think that was the one of the most difficult things to process. Just 2 weeks ago on a morning like this the streets would be bustling with life. It was a place people lived, built lives and memories and futures. Much like the official Ishinomaki citizen charter…

This is what we want to protect:
Our people’s life and the rich nature.

This is what we want to convey:
Our ancestors’ wisdom and pride in our home.

This is what we want to cherish:
Our human bonds and hearts of gratitude.

We live on in Ishinomaki.
Together, let us make a brilliant future.

Ironic, prophetic, hopeful somewhere in the present hopelessness.

Route 192 running on the north side of the river alternates between local roads, now with remnants of the tsunami still barricaded by the wreckage left behind. Passing through massive tidal puddles, dead fish float alongside clocks, tea-cups, details of daily life ruined. On the left side we passed a home that looked still somewhat basically intact from the outside, while the surrounding buildings and homes had all but collapsed.

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In the remains of a front garden, we would never see, stood a lady tending to a make-shift charcoal grill. We slowed the car and as we passed, she looked up at me, smiled and said “hello”. We continued past until both at once Trace and I said “Stop, let’s go back and check on her”. This is how we met Chiyo.

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We exchange hello’s and within 30 seconds she had invited us into her shell of a home to meet grandmother. The tsunami swept through her 10 year-old house, strong walls and foundation probably saving it and her from what she described as the end of the world. The sludge flakey and not quite dry, clearly marked on the walls how high the water had come. It was the first Japanese house we have ever entered in gumboots. The kitchen was demolished, the toilet smashed beyond usage, but incredibly the family photos and ancestors gazing out from high in the rafters were untouched. We climbed the not so sturdy stairs to the second floor and here, with a polite mat of plastic trash bags we deposited our footwear and called out to grandmother again to let her know the Australians were here.

We entered the once sunny-room and in the corner on a tiny stool scrubbing with a toothbrush the prized family hanko’s we met 93-year-old Kiko. “These are important. I was able to save them. These are the family stamps. See, here this is our address. This is our home.”  We cried before we could even get the introductions out and in my pigeon Japanese tried to explain why we were here. I guess it was clear on some level they would understand why. All at once, simultaneously both Chiyo and Kiko told us their stories and shared their experiences of March 11th. Please forgive me for not understanding entirely but the gist was clear. The earthquake occurred which was bad enough, immediately cutting power. With all access to communication off, the Tsunami hit with little warming for a 93-year-old who cannot walk with ease. Of course they didn’t know what was happening, what had happened until at least a full day later. With no way to get to higher ground, Kiko could only make it to the 2nd story. It is here she described in tears the terror of seeing her neighbors balcony washed away. Then their homes. Her own home from the second floor shaking and moaning. She was never sure when the foundations would give way. Opening her hands she described the tsunami was like a “big black mouth, like a yawn”. Just coming and coming. Roaring through the street. The noise deafening. Kiko cried as she remembered, she trembled as her words poured out. We truly wanted to try and photograph some of this raw emotion as she spoke, the powerful words, but fully aware our humanity rightly trumped this photo op. The cameras simply remained down on the still intact tatami. Both hands needed to hold her, to let her know we hear her and that people care.

Again Chiyo in a faraway trance said she thought it was the end of the world. Kiko wondered when would it end. The water, a trickle at first, kept coming and coming, swirling black, the big mouth not too far from reaching the 2nd floor. But eventually it retreated and they were alive. Now surviving on the 2nd floor, as best as you can at 93. How cruel to endure this at the end of a life or anytime for that matter. During our visit Chiyo’s sister came to visit. She had a large backpack filled with blankets and other needed supplies which she had collected for her family. We exchanged greetings, then Chiyo told us abruptly that her sister’s husband had died. Also a colleague from the office. To date more than 1900 perished in Ishinomaki. There are still 8,000 missing. There were simply no words.

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For now Kiko and Chiyo will remain in their broken and perhaps unsafe home. Certainly worried about yet another concern – now robbers and looting – a rumour going around town. People are all struggling to survive by any means. Kiko said that the night is dark, scary and long. Only candles and silence. Fires in the street people warming their hands, these proud people now looking like a homeless community, spawned overnight.

Then it was time for Kiko to freshen up. Before she excused herself (and we will both never quite get over this), she offered us some umeboshi and drinks. Seriously. That sent me over the edge. We said that it was our pleasure to check in on her and the immediate needs of her “chome”, and that no, we didn’t need any refreshments. But she insisted that we needed to take care of ourselves. We looked around her small room and saw very, very limited supplies of both food and water. We politely declined and she understood. Her touching kindness, concern for others, simply too much to bear.

We soon followed Chiyo back downstairs where she carefully and almost maternally tucked my pants into my gummies and she took us around what was left of her demolished home. Upon leaving we asked “Is there anything you need?” “Oh, no. I don’t need anything, I don’t want to trouble you”, she said. “It’s no trouble at all, truly is there something we can help with?” “No, really we are fine”, she said again. On the third try she tentatively inquired if there were any extra trash bags? Sure, we could try and find some for her. “And how about socks?” Yes, we could try. “And would there be any long underwear, inner shirts to protect from the cold and”, in whispered tones…”some ladies underwear?” Leave it with us, we said. We will do our very best. So we left Chiyo. She walked us to the front and said goodbye as we met, tending to her hot coals, smiling and waving. But of course not really there.

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The rest of Chiyo’s street… As of now, still 80% of this street’s residents still missing.

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We made our way back to the volunteer center where we assisted loading a little of the trucks and getting ready for the next supply trip. I found trash bags, socks, inner-liners but no underwear, which by the end of the day seemed to be one of the current requested needs. Dirty clothes are bearable with at least new underwear.

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We followed Katsu on his run and visited several shelters and schools. The volunteers took note of data collection and what goods were needed and not. In the back streets running off the town center and shopping areas we found communities not completely devastated but clearly affected by the water and flooding of the tsunami. Mud-stained, in clean-up mode. We passed several water stations where people patiently lined up to fill containers of all sizes. They very willingly chatted with us and were so pleased to see us and so grateful the world was aware of what was going on. While I was meeting and talking with locals at the water station, Trace chatted with those in charge of the community center. When Trace offered water from the truck to those waiting in line, the response from the Japanese lady she was assisting went something like this… “I don’t want to take your water. Save it for someone who hasn’t had the joy of seeing your smiles and holding your hand.” Truly.

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We moved on and found ourselves at another elementary school very badly affected, Kaihoku ES. We met the principal, completely shell-shocked, gazing out the window on a life that once was, now covered by mud, more cars in pools and roads so badly damaged there is still no feasible way to drive vehicles directly to the yard. I will never forget the way he just stared out that window, lost and helpless, hopeless. Other windows in the school now decorated by colorful SOS signs to call for help. To let people know they were there. The children and teachers here waiting for assistance for over a week. He was unable to communicate and deferred to the Koto-Sensei who put it in the most simple, exact terms. “This is hell. It’s just… hell,”. No argument here.

In the halls of the upper school floors, now operating as a shelter we met a young boy reading. He was beyond surprised to see us, in a good way. A flash of some big, big smiles was heartening. We had Uno cards in our pocket to hand out to the kids, and books in the car. But it’s not even up to that stage yet. Perhaps in another few weeks they will be ready.

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About this time we also heard about the unspeakable situation at another ES in Ishinomaki, Okawa Sho-ga-ko. Out of 108 students and 13 staff, 84 are believed to have perished. After the earthquake, everyone made it to their evacuation area – the playground. They were standing on the playground when the tsunami hit, sweeping away all but 34 students and 3 teachers. It really was, simply hell.

I think it was around our visit to Kaihoku ES that we realized the extent to which residents wanted to remain in their homes. If your house was somewhat standing then that’s where you stayed. If it was completely gone then the only choice was a shelter.

The boys pulled up the truck nearby, down a road they could go no further because it was so damaged. Within 5 mins, emerging from the rubble people came to get what they could. Aid clearly not ever reaching here before. They were grateful beyond explanation. “When will you be back?” Masks doing very little to hide eyes red from endless tears. Hugs helped for a little while and the need for human contact and understanding. What struck us was the number of elderly, now having to face life’s end in the bleakest of circumstances. One couple pushing a tiny supermarket trolley with water, socks and warm jackets from the truck. Bent over in unwarranted shame for asking but thankful always. _7002778
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We moved on. This time to a local community center where the line up for bread and onigiri’s which occurs once a day had the residents in a queue at least 500 deep. We dropped off all kinds of aid from Uniqlo towels, more socks, heat-tech wear to water, hot pockets, daily necessities, which are rationed in a basic kind of flea market. The local elders take care of all this. They were friendly and inviting. They gave rousing applause as they opened a box with new socks.

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In the street keeping the very orderly crowd even more orderly and informed was Taka. He’d been to New Zealand and was very sure he could speak English. He then went on to explain to the crowd over the mega-phone that the Australians were here. The world was thinking of them. People clapped, bowed, kids greeted us and there were many peace signs when the cameras were pulled out. It was such a small thing, but hopefully something of a distraction for a little while and for them to know the world understands.

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While there may be other serious issues in Fukushima and (unfounded) concerns some believe are hurtling towards Tokyo, these are of absolute little direct consequence to the people Tohoku. And this is something that truly needs to be remembered. They simply need help and imploringly – if you have the means, please give what you can then a little bit more. I know whatever choices people have made over the last few weeks have been made primarily for themselves and loved ones. It is completely natural and understandable. Right now it’s time to think of others. Just something to feel strongly about. From the community center we left the boys once again roadside giving out supplies and headed back to visit Chiyo.

I truly don’t think she really thought we would come back. But there we were with a few items we could rustle up. We met her neighbor who now proudly sports an unexpected aluminum blue shed in her front yard. She came out of the rubble that is now her front yard to see us. Chiyo was overwhelmed with the few supplies and promptly shared them with neighbors on both sides. She went to check if her neighbors needed water. And this is where we almost broke down again. She is 63. To get to her neighbors door now she must scramble over stacks of dangerous timber and debris. Struggling with footing every step but committed to ask if the need was there and to not require any help in the process. How suddenly things change. Less than 2 weeks ago she would have simply walked out her door, a few steps down the path to next door. Now it is a laborious and dangerous task. One she does in someplace else, not quite here or there. They are fine for water, Chiyo’s supply low for her and her mother, so she happily and thankfully takes it and we leave again.

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On some level I know she is so pleased we have met. She has been keeping a little diary, in a basic notebook since March 11th. In it she has written what happened each day. A record she told us in case no one came to rescue them. A record that they survived and lived. She said everyday was the same. For March 25th she wrote something different; Tracey and Dee from Australia came to visit.

I also truly believe we were all wishing to never have had paths cross. Wishing away natural disasters that would never have bought us together. Perhaps we should have kept driving down that street, creating a more faceless experience, not turning back. The images of Chiyo in her blacked home, Kiko upstairs cleaning stamps, tending to a grill in an apocalyptic state is almost too much to deal with. These images, the stuff of nightmares. Of course I do not have to live them, which is of little solace really.

These are just a few of the many experiences that filled our time in Tohoku. We remain committed to going back soon, for what is definitely an uncertain time for everyone. We are amazed by the work of the Peace Boat and the volunteer effort as a whole, which is mobilizing, from all over Japan and the world actually. The NPOs, NGOs and their volunteers all starting to work together to co-ordinate. Until just a few days earlier they had all been working independently, but with databases being created, information can finally be crudely coordinated. And roles are being divided according to each group’s strengths, and dividing localities within the city also.

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All we can give now is time, we know that in the vast scheme of things it is so little. We would absolutely encourage everyone to do the same, if possible. A week, a day, an hour. These people truly need help, on the ground. In Tohoku. As rescue moves to recovery, hopefully soon, the sheer scale of cleaning-up and getting messy and the need for actual hands using those shovels and wheelbarrows is tremendous. And so is the need for human support and comfort. For those now staying in evacuation centers, who have lost everything the glaring realization is this is not just temporary situation. These conditions will prevail for a long time. The need for volunteers, helpers, care managers, counselors, people who can get things done, reach out and connect is tantamount and indefinite.

Whatever choices were made over the last few weeks, particularly within the international community in Japan it is certainly absolutely time to start thinking of others. Believe me, the people of Tohoku don’t care whether you’re a ‘stayer’ or a ‘flyjin’, their concerns far outweigh any mention of the great debate in The Big Mikan right now. Whether they can eat, or find warmth, find the bodies of loved ones to finally lay to rest far outweighs any tippy toeing around delicate egos. So please try to do what you can. When you can. It will be so, so appreciated. I know there will come a time, probably very, very soon as life hurtles back to the speed of light, when we will all have had enough, be done with hearing about this again and again, have felt we’ve done our bit as the sodden remnants of tsunami desensitization soak in and moving on firmly takes hold. In those moments, help will still be needed. And it’s not really such an over-ask, or an over-reach. Please consider. Sorry – bit of a rant… thanks for the indulge.

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Our small hope then is that through images and some accompanying words (definitely an edited version of this saga…) they will go someway to keep Japan and the people of Tohoku in the hearts and collective mind of the world. The amount of aid donated to support Japan far lags behind that of other recent natural and man-made disasters. Sure, Japan is an affluent country and may have the means, but there is absolutely no price to be put on human suffering and loss. That is for sure.

Upon finally leaving Ishinomaki we made a huge mistake. We visited the port area. Once a bustling harbor, providing berth, access, trade and industry beyond the shores. It is now a toxic swamp of horrific tsunami BO. It clings to the pores, the demolished fabric of place left behind. There are still occasional fires ignited from gas and cars. Body searchers still comb the tanged earth, vacantly working like zombies. Still bodies wash ashore all these weeks later. Certainly the waters not washing anything clean.  Thankful our Nikons cannot produce images with scent. But perhaps a befitting ending, a scent you can just not shake.

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We farewelled our many friends back at the volunteer center, missing a few who were still out on tasks during the day and met new ones. More tents today, more people on site. The Canadian forensic medical team working hard to assist in all DNA matters, a truly inspiring group. We also met Ollie, a local English teacher who survived the earthquake in Ishinomaki, was still in town and there to help. Simply amazing. When asked about his experience, he said quite simply, “ I thought this was the end.” Hopeful that this volunteer movement continues with such vigor and enthusiasm for as long as needed. And encouraging anyone and everyone to do it, if possible. Yes, it’s difficult, traumatic, uncomfortable. But as the last few weeks have shown life can be certainly more so.

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For us it was time to head home. And of course as we left we ran straight into the police – but it was truly, a very positive experience. Are you ready for this…? The police thanked us – “Please tell the world. Thank you for helping Tohoku and please come back.” We’ve been welcomed, thanked and sent through tolls all week for free thanks to our highway waiver the police wrote for us, and we’re hoping to go back again this week and beyond. At least once a month, or more if schedules permit.

If there’s one thing that we took away from this experience, it’s that just the act of reaching out, holding a trembling hand, a smile in the street, an ear to listen – that emotional aid has been almost as important as the physical relief.  Every person we met on the streets of Ishinomaki had lost someone, was consumed with grief. So tiny extensions mean so much. Kindness. Time. Human contact.

This morning we felt another little earth shake here in Kanto. In Tohoku it was a 6M and enough to send out another tsunami warning and have the evacuees relocate to higher ground. It is too much to handle and in writing this jumble I guess we have all suffered a form of shock, awe and exhaustion. But no complaints, just a very uncertain future, all round. Not for the first time in the past 2 weeks we wish we were not small business owners. Job search may end up being firmly on the agenda. I know this is home; weird, wacky, loveable even after 14 years. If it were my Nan (she’s 94), our families, our loved ones in such circumstances than we’d want the world to help. Me-time done. We generally choose our words with more of an attempt at refinement, but I seem to be too over holding back now, channeling some QUEEN – don’t stop me now…

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So we are back, this disaster changing everything on so many different levels – it’s hard to comprehend.  We’ll all never quite be the same, desu ne? We are thankful not for the first time of the many things we take for granted. And knowing we now have to relieve it all in photos; bitterly painful, with heavy, grieving hearts but always mindful of a greater responsibility to tell and share a story. I’d like to think when Shakespeare wrote “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break,” that he was also referring to a more a modern photographic application. So that’s what we’ll go with for now. And hope it speaks to just someone.

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One Comment on “37 Frames : Great Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami 2011 Japan… The Black Mouth”

  1. […] Tohoku, the area most affected by the earthquake and tsunami.  Their photographers Dee and Trace have written of a recent visit to the region: In the midst of a landscape now defined by trucks wrapped around traffic lights, fishing boats […]


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