Picking up the pieces – Hanne Arnold

Hanne Arnold is a Danish journalist and academic living in Tokyo.  This blog entry was originally published on her blog, Zen, Sushi and Ghost Stories, at http://zensushighoststories.blogspot.com.  The following entry is from August 29, 2011.

Ishimori-san has been having a recurrent dream ever since the tsunami swept away his house and left his livelihood as a fisherman in shambles. In his dream there is an other earth where everything is exactly the way it was before March 11. Ishimori-san travels on a rocket to this other earth and begins to live his old life. Then he wakes up.

It’s been almost six months since the 9.0 earthquake and following tsunami left the region of Tohoku in Northeast Japan in ruins. Especially the tsunami did unfathomable damage to the coastal areas. In Ishinomaki, a city of 162,000, 3,157 people are confirmed dead and 849 are still missing. I’ve come up here with a group of volunteers for the organization Peace Boat. There are about 5-600 volunteers in the area at a time, and the various organisations work with the city authorities and the locals to help them on their own terms.

I’ve seen enough photos and videos (just google “Ishinomaki tsunami” and see for yourself) to know that the city has come a long, long way already. The streets are cleared of mud and debris, and the process of repair and rebuilding is well under way. There are cars on the streets, school kids on the pavement, a baseball team practising in their park. The city is not exactly buzzing with life, but it’s no ghost town either. Even all the way down by the waterfront, where more houses are missing than still standing (and only barely standing), there are brand new buildings shooting up in between the ruins. Family houses, a French-style bakery, a shiny 7-11 with stickers on the windows screaming “OPEN”.

A lot of work has been done, but still the destruction is overwhelming. The scale of it is hard to grasp. As we drive to our work sites in the morning – my team’s job is to help fishermen in the nearby villages – we’re constantly reminded of what happened here. We pass temporary shelters, mountains of rubble, houses in various states of ruin; some have only a few scrathes and watermarks, some are missing windows, doors, and all interior of the first floor, some have roofs that look like all the tiles have been thrown up in the air and let fall back down randomly. And some consist only of their foundations, with the occasional toilet or bathtub sticking up from a tiled floor. So many lives were destroyed here, so quickly.

As the bus bumps its way along the damaged roads, it strikes me how beautiful this area would be, the mountains framing the sea (Ishinomaki translates as “wrapped in stone”), if only it wasn’t so scarred. If only you didn’t see traces of the horror everywhere you look.

A speedboat pinched between two trees, way up on the hillside. Part of a small, white chair dangling from a branch. Splintered bamboo.

One of the ports we work at is Ishimori-san’s Sudachihama. The earthquake made the area sink about a meter which means that the port gets flooded with every high tide. The homeless boats are anchored off shore. The few remaining houses in the bay are in poor shape. There is a small playground by the water, reduced to bent metal and torn rope. I keep wondering whether there was a child on the swing that day.

My imagination is too vivid for this place.

Our main task is to clean gutters. We shovel sludge into bags that are used to fence off the water. Sludge and all sorts of things that have somehow ended up in the gutters; rocks, roof tiles, pipes, glass, porcelain, fishing equipment, bottles, cans, a leaking battery, clothes, a pearl necklace, a metal pencil case, CDs … Bag after bag full of pieces of broken homes.

Most of the fishermen of the area have left, given up, but some have stayed and are working hard to get their homes, their villages, and businesses, back on their feet. I admire these people enormously. They are not repressing or denying the horror they’ve experienced, but they are not despairing either. They are picking up their shovels, starting up their tractors and jovially bossing volunteers around. They feel grateful for being alive and they have faith in the future.

If people who have lost almost everything can laugh and make jokes, maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad about actually having had a good time as a volunteer. It’s a strange thing, but in the midst of these heartbreaking surroundings you are also meeting wonderful people and you manage to have fun some of the time. Maybe it’s natural, maybe it’s neccessary, maybe it’s just the way it works. Despair leads nowhere, and even in the face of a disaster of this magnitude, people somehow manage to move on, and even smile. That is very reassuring. And it feels good to do something, even if it’s just getting stinky feet and sunburns while shoveling mud, and telling a proud fisherman showing you pictures that his son is very handsome indeed.

There is a story among the fishermen who have stayed in the area. Apparently there are abnormally many fish and oysters this year, and they say that the fish are feeding on the bodies of all the fishermen who drowned in the tsunami. Those who died have given their bodies to the sea, and their sacrifice will be the source of recovery.

On our last day in Sudachihama, while the tide is licking in over the sunk concrete of the port, Ishimori-san is thanking us and the rest of Peace Boat’s volunteers deeply. I need his words translated, but his face is easily read. He is very moved and very grateful. Gesturing at the ruins behind him with a smile and glowing eyes, he tells us that he will rebuild everything, even better than it was before, and he will do it within a year. He says that he can never repay us, but if we come back to Sudachihama next year, he will serve us the best oysters we’ve ever had. I want to believe him.


One Comment on “Picking up the pieces – Hanne Arnold”

  1. Asit Saha says:

    Having gone through the article, I come to know how the volunteers were working for the rescue of the ailing victims of 11th March,2011 Tsunami and how the restless works of the saved people, for reconstruction of Japan ,at the bank of Pacific ocean, have been indulging in dreaming a new land. A lot of thanks to the writer for such a valuable writing along with pictures.

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