Monday, August 17, 2015

Japanese Peace Movements #7: Tsunami in Words

Last week I met with Yoko Ito, a resident of Otsuchi. She lost family members, her house and her coffee shop in the March 11, 2011 disaster. She herself was fortunate as she was visiting her mother at the time the tidal wave smashed into her town. She returned hours later via icy backroads to witness the destruction the wave had brought. She took pictures of what she saw and later combined them with images of Otsuchi before the catastrophe to create a photo book to document the tragedy of 3/11 in her town.

With the Popoki Peace Project I spent the morning with Ito-san, driving around Kamaishi and Otsuchi looking for signs of that disaster. Even four years later, we found them everywhere. Marks that indicated the highest point of the tsunami wave on buildings. Even signs inside of buildings that remind those who see them that the water level reached this point within the building before it receded. Even the lack of signs, were themselves landscapes of haunting beacons. The absence of houses and stores in Otsuchi, the town now just a wide flat expanse, with small clusters of temporary buildings and huge mounds of dirt meant for rising the sea level prior to any rebuilding taking place. It seems that in Otsuchi there are more dump trucks and excavators than human beings.

By this point all the mangled metal, concrete and bodies has long been cleared away. Although a further reminder of that violent day is the fact that across the coast of the Tohoku region hundreds of people still remain officially missing and some bodies cannot be identified as their is a lack of living family members in order to run DNA tests. But Ito-san's book, her photos and her stories keep alive images of what was there before and what was lost. Her eyes were alight as she would speak, imploring us and the rest of the world to think about the example of Otsuchi, to learn from it. To remember what this force of nature is, to never let human hubris fool us into thinking we are ever completely safe.

She punctuated this point by asking her several times to consider what a tsunami is. Most people think of the images and videos that were made on 3/11, where mountains of water slowly push aside fleets of cars and ships and knock down building after building. She showed us one such video, a film of the tsunami slowly tearing down building after building in her beloved town. The video was filmed in the cemetery close to where we were standing, looking down upon the now largely empty plain below.

She cautioned us as we watched and talked about the wave. She said that it is easy for people to see something like this and think of it has something that is not so bad. The damage is bad and it makes us shriek and cry when we see it, but the ocean itself doesn't look so bad. It is something that you could easily survive. She said that some younger people have told her that they are good at swimming and they would be able to navigate the waves and stay safe. She shook her head when she recounted this, marveling at how problematic a notion that was. She reminded us all that when we see images and videos of tsunamis we are almost always looking at them from above. We see them primarily through whatever is on the surface and in some cases, it just looks like an ocean of water and nothing more. We lack the images and the videos of what it looks like within a tsunami, within the typhoon of debris and waste. If we were able to better imagine what that was like, people would take these disasters more seriously and prepare for them better.

Ronni Alexander, who is in charge of the Popoki Peace Project who was also the  translator on this study trip, recalled what one survivor of the tsunami had said about what it was like. He said it was like being in a washing machine, filled with glass, churning at the highest spin cycle. An important point, as we tend to think of tsunami's as pure natural force, and it is, but there is also danger in what the tsunami rends and shatters along the way, which becomes part of its destructive power. As Ronni translated Ito-san's descriptions and warnings, I found myself embellishing them, trying to find my own ways to fill in the imagination gaps with words.

From above, from a distance in what appears to just be brackish water, we find the waves have dragged down and carry with them all the castles that men build to their greatness. All the things he has invented and concocted to give him a sense of dominance over the world is mixed into that avalanche of force. When you open your mouth in the water, their crumpled and splintered forms rush in and through you.

When a tsunami washes over a place like Otsuchi, it brings with it oil, glass, cars, doors, boats, dirt, wood, electrical wires, pipes, appliances, bodies, all the building blocks of modern life. They become tortured beyond recognition in the angry currents formed by the wave breaking over the land. When the waters recede and leave behind the detritus of human living, there are often terrible fires, which feed off of the remnants of peoples' lives and can last far longer than the wave itself.

The cover of Ito-san's book has a boat sitting atop a building. Most likely it was ripped from its moorings or its anchor and tossed atop the land and left behind after the waters had reversed. The helpless machine barely balanced in the air, over a squat, struggling form seems to fit both the power and the uncanny force of the tsunami.

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