Witness: Japan's tsunami recalls devastation of World War II

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2011 9:07 AM

Yoko Kubota is a Reuters correspondent based in Tokyo, who covers political and general news in Japan. Aged 29, she grew up in Japan and the United States and joined Reuters in 2007.

By Yoko Kubota

TOKYO (Reuters) - Having grown up in Japan, I have seen many photos of Japanese cities destroyed in World War Two, wrecked by bombs, twisted and burned.

Those photos taken more than 65 years ago were always in black and white, so as someone born almost 40 years after the war ended, I never quite grasped what destruction meant -- until I saw the scenes of the tsunami-struck coastal towns after Japan's massive March 11 quake.

Early in the morning of March 13, two photographers and I drove into Rikuzentakata, an aging fishing town once known for its blue sea, lovely beach and a pine tree forest. It was still dark when we arrived. We found a single road that had been cleared of rubble that allowed us to enter the town.

In the dim light of dawn, all I could see was sheer destruction on both sides of the road. Pieces of plywood and soft, wet mud covered everything. The smell of mud was especially powerful. Thick twisted wires dangled from knocked-down electrical poles and trees were uprooted.

Cars were flipped over. Houses that had not been destroyed were squashed and tilted. A mud-drenched shoe poked out of the rubble of what used to be the train station.

At first, I walked only on the road, as I could not bear the thought of stepping over where victims may still be buried.

For me, the line has been clear between life and death and they do not mingle closely. But gradually, I started to walk on the rubble, writing down what I could while looking for possible signs of life. All I could hear was the hooting of an owl.

With the destruction so astounding, it was the small things that kept jumping into my vision. A brightly colored plastic toy mobile phone remained nearly intact despite the force that destroyed all the big things. A recipe book. An unopened package of baby diapers. A family photo half buried in the mud. A sliver of shiny plastic used to wrap crackers.

I kept wondering how such small things retained their shape while the big things meant to protect them or use them had been devastated. Definitions of big and small, strong and weak, alive or dead seemed precarious.

I was wandering around alone for about an hour. Then the military and rescue workers started driving by to begin their humanitarian missions, and I couldn't hear the owl anymore.

BLACK WALL OF WATER Even as the nuclear crisis in Fukushima diverted public attention, I continued to visit Rikuzentakata, with a population of about 23,300, several times over the following week. In this town where more than a third of the population is 65 or over, about 740 had been killed and more than 1,700 were missing.

I also went to fishing towns nearby such as Otsuchi and Yamadamachi, both of which suffered from extensive fires after the tsunami, and the charred ruins gave them the appearance of bombed cities. The tsunami waves had heaved a ship onto the roof of Yamadamachi's post office, and a local construction worker jokingly said: "This is not an objet d'art."

Survivors described the tsunami waters as black and said it had been preceded by a sandstorm. The waves left a carpet of mud, which gradually dried in the ensuing days into dust, creating little dust storms that followed the rescue workers looking for the missing. The dust stuck to the faces, hands and hair of those standing in the debris, and also crept underneath my growing fingernails.

All the survivors had long fingernails, a sign of time passing, a sign you are alive.

I saw both cries of pain and joy while I was in the area.

Survivors out in the city and in evacuation centers kept bumping joyfully into family members and friends, asking each other what happened to their loved ones.

In the schools and community centers that had been turned into temporary shelters, evacuees, many of them old, hardly complained. Wrapped in blankets and huddled around stoves to keep warm and to chat, they were grateful to be alive and seemed bolstered by the idea their pain was a collective one, that they were going through this together with tens of thousands of others that had seen the same devastation.

"Everyone is having a difficult time, so I just need to carry on," said Sakiko Kono, 85, sitting on a tatami mat in the corner of a big room of a nursing home open to evacuees. She held in her hands a package of rice crackers that a volunteer had just distributed, touching the plastic package repeatedly with her fingers.

Koji Yamaguchi, a 75-year-old retiree who ran away from the tsunami with Yukiko, his wife of 48 years, and Choco, their puppy, said he still cannot grasp what is going to happen from here. "Frankly speaking, I have nothing now...I can't specifically picture how I will live with my wife or with my son."

"But that doesn't mean I am very pessimistic. I feel that it will somehow work out, that I will somehow make it work out."

I went in, reported the story, and I left. People there are continuing their lives as survivors. It will be a long hard path and things will never be the same for them. Many, especially the young, will probably leave the destroyed towns for a new life somewhere else.

I could only grasp my pen tight and continue to listen when men around my father's age shed tears over the future of their towns.

"My wife and my children are fine. When I see their faces, I feel that I need to do my best," said 47-year-old Sakari Minato of Yamadamachi, who had just returned to a shelter from combing through the debris around his destroyed house.

"In a situation like this, I do not want to say bad things about others or blame them. It makes me sad," he said, as tears rolled down his face.

"We need to continue telling what happened and I need to see through how this town changes. It would be easy to leave this place, but I can't do that."

(Reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Mark Bendeich)