Two years after the catastrophe: A newspaper article and a TV Documentary

I have just come back from a trip to Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, where I filmed a documentary with the Japanese TV channel NHK. I was investigating the role of local media right after the tsunami, and thinking about the differences between how local, national and international media report from such large scale catastrophes. I also wanted to look into how, as journalists, we chose to cover recovery and reconstruction processes. The documentary will air on NHK World on April 9th, and on NHK BS on April 10th.

Onagawa in March 2011

Onagawa mars 2013

(Photo from Onagawa in March 2011 by Kiichi Fukuda)

(Photo from the same spot in Onagawa in February 2013 by Naoyuki Kubo)

On March 11th 2013, I wrote an article about people I met during this trip to Ishinomaki for Sweden’s daily newspaper Aftonbladet. An English translation of the article is available here below:

Two years after the catastrophe

                On March 11th 2011, Japan was hit by the strongest earthquake in the country’s history. 9.0 on the Richter scale. Half an hour later, a tsunami washed in over the Northeastern coast, the nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi was destroyed and radioactive materials leaked out.

I was there then, and now, two years later I have travelled back to the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture. About 3,500 people lost their lives here and about 30,000 families lost their homes. In some places in the area, the tsunami reached 30m up mountain walls and left cars wrecked on top of four storey-buildings. Today, the city’s central parts have been reconstructed, but closer to the ocean large areas have been left deserted. People still pay off loans on houses that no longer exist. Locally, the state wants to higher the grounds five, six metres by using materials collected during the tsunami.

The waves crushed the fishing industry in this region that already had an aging population. Now the soaring unemployment rates have led to social problems and many people work with the debris.

I climb up a narrow staircase at one of the recycling stations where people sort through the debris. I enter a room where women and men wearing protective clothing are going through the trash by hand. I see half a soccer ball pass by on the conveyer belt amongst music partitions, books, a letter, and pictures.

– There are so many challenges left! Yuuhiro Akiyama exclaims.

Akiyama heard on the radio that a tsunami was on its way after the earthquake had occurred, but he did not think it could be that severe, so he drove out on a bridge to take pictures of the waves arriving.

– Suddenly, the water washed over the barriers, and I jumped back into my car. In the rear-view mirror, I saw the waves swelling. I drove straight into a traffic jam, opened the car door and just ran, Akiyama explains.

We look out over the turquoise-coloured sea. It is hard to imagine that this calm ocean could swallow entire communities but now we know that it can happen at any moment.

I meet many people who try to move forward. Yukiko Abe was in her family-owned restaurant when a five metre high tsunami wave washed in from the river.

–          It is only now that I can cry, says Abe. Now I realise how lucky we were to survive.

Abe thinks it is important to rebuild the business because she feels responsible towards past and future generations.

All along the Northeastern coast, around 300,000 people still live in temporary housing. Many of them have lost family members, and try to move forward despite their memories.

I visit a Buddhist ceremony honouring the victims of the tsunami. A priest chants mantras and reads prayers out loud. Every now and then, he hits on a large gong. About 80 people sit in the congregation with their heads lowered. One by one, some people stand up and share thoughts about their loss and their mourning process. One woman walks up to the altar to speak, but her voice cracks, and I can hear that she is fighting back tears. The air fills with incense.

–          For other people in Japan and in the rest of the world, life has moved on, but we are still mourning, says Yukie Takahashi.

Takahashi was working in the studio at the local radio station Radio Ishinomaki when the earth started to shake. Now she puts on the recording from March 11th 2011, and we listen to it silently. Suddenly she bursts out in tears. It is too difficult to remember.

Takahashi explains that people started to send messages to the radio station right after the earthquake had occurred. They were looking for lost family members. When it was no longer possible to reach through the mobile network, people walked through the inundated streets and wrote messages by hand.

Miura-sensei is the head teacher at Yamashita middle school, and he managed to call the radio station before the batteries on the cell phone that he was using died. He wanted to announce that all the 97 children under his responsibility were safe. He had then spent the night with the students in the school, completely cut off from the rest of the world.

I want to interview some children in Ishinomaki, but their teacher interrupts me. There are school psychologists available for children who want to speak about their memories, but there are no specific guidelines defining how to talk about traumas from the tsunami with school children.

As for the nuclear crisis, nobody wants to talk about it.

Around 150,000 people were evacuated from the area around the nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture. Today, people are allowed to return to some of the villages around the nuclear power plant, but most people do not dare to move back.

–          The state has said that we can move back in two years’ time, but I do not know if that will be possible, says Minoru Endo who is from Tomioka in Fukushima prefecture over the telephone. No one wants to invest in new businesses close to the nuclear power plant.

Life goes on in Northeastern Japan, but nobody knows what the new cities will look like.

–          Elin Lindqvist.

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