A month on from the earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan a wrecked car blocks my path.
Every window is smashed, the bonnet crushed and covered in sludge. A brief look inside reveals a baby seat in the back. From then onward the ground is covered in a film of dried mud and reeds, and my way is obstructed by overturned car wrecks and sodden mounds of debris. The ground floors of shops, houses and restaurants are in ruins all around me, their furniture and wares strewn around neighboring car parks. Fences and lampposts are bent flat to the ground.
As I cycle further I see more wrecked cars, some piled four cars high. Some of the car doors are open and I can’t help but wonder if the people inside made it out alive. I look up as two chinook helicopters thunder by and notice the sign officially welcoming me to Tagajo city, Tohoku, Japan.
Not long ago, if you Googled ‘Tagajo, Miyagi, Japan’ you would have retrieved only a handful of images. Now the name evokes horrifying scenes of a city engulfed by waves. Even now, a month after the devastation of the magnitude 9 quake and subsequent tsunami, people here have a long struggle ahead of them.
I pass small businesses, noodle bars and hardware stores which have been decimated by the surging water. Whole family’s livelihoods washed away in just a few minutes. An elderly woman sweeps the bare floor of what used to be a futon shop; ruined futons and the remains of shelves and floor tiles lay in piles outside, useless to anyone now.
The scene is much the same in many towns and cities situated on the coast of the Tohoku region of Japan, north east of Tokyo. In fact, if pictures, video footage and friend’s accounts are anything to go by, Tagajo was one of the luckier areas. Kessenuma, Minamisanriku and Ishinomaki are just a few places which were hit especially hard.
People’s homes and businesses have been completely destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people now have to live in refuge areas. Japanese news has featured heartbreaking stories of children who have lost both parents, and parents who, even now, are unable to find their children.
I teach young children here and have so far heard news that one student, an 11 year old little girl, lost her life. Many more students are unaccounted for in the tsunami effected areas.
A coworker, who spent a week in a refuge area in Ishinomaki, told of seeing the bodies of families who had drowned in their cars. He managed to make it out by bus, but most people there don’t have anywhere else to go: their reality is the cramped and largely unsanitary conditions of the refuge areas. Japanese media estimates that, in Miyagi alone, 65,000 people are taking refuge in 506 shelters.
After having spent the night of March 11th in a cold school gym I cannot imagine what it must be like to have to live there indefinitely with limited food, water and clothing, some also dealing with the grief of having lost loved ones. With officials expecting the cleanup to take up to three years, and with some 330,000 homes still without water people will have a long wait before things improve.
All of this sadness and destruction, however, has not shaken the resolve of the people of this region. The Japanese are determined and resilient. There is even a word for this quality in Japanese: ‘gaman’, which means to display calm forbearance and dignity in challenging situations. Even after having lived here for almost three years now I am still in awe of the way in which people have reacted to an event which, according to police estimates, has claimed the lives of up to 18,000 people so far.
On my way to Natori, another coastal city of this region hit hard by the tsumani, I asked a man if he could direct me to the right bus stop. He smiled and answered in English: ‘follow me’. I walked with him as he checked every bus stop and then asked a bus driver who had just parked up. He asked me if I lived in Sendai and if I was here for the quake. I replied yes to both. He then told me that his sister and her husband had died in the tsunami.
Grieving but still smiling and eager to go out of his way for a complete stranger: so very Japanese. This is the type of kindness I have encountered throughout my time here, and it never ceases to amaze me. Like many, I am worried about the events at the nuclear plant in Fukushima, but I won’t be leaving here anytime soon. This amazing part of Japan and its people have inspired me greatly over the years. I hope now that I can help in their hour of need.