October 9, 2013
The day before our journey ended, Peace Boat pulled into the small port town of Ishinomaki, Japan, where the organization had galvanized tsunami disaster relief efforts that still continue today. The town no longer needs the masses of volunteers to clean up what remained, the tons of debris the ocean did not sweep away. Like any area still healing from catastrophe, the town needs to know they’re not forgotten, once the news cameras have gone away. That’s why we’d stopped by. To say hello.
But is showing up enough? I wondered as our tour bus pulled away from the port and our eyes met the town we’d seen swallowed by an unfathomable tide on TV. Or, what remained of it — the buildings and lives not washed away two years ago (and now, over three).
Fields overgrown with weeds and yellow wild flowers flanked the road we drove along. In the middle of the field, a single, plain, beige house stood alone, the only remaining sign that this was once a neighborhood. Cement box outlines remained rooted in their dirt, like fossils, signs of former lives buried under the tangles of new growth. As we drove by, I pictured a child riding her bike along this very road. My heart ached.
Still it was easier to conjure images of former happiness than the catastrophe that swept it away, especially on this bright October day. The sky so blue now. The clouds light and wispy.
Survivors of the biggest earthquake in Japanese history could have optimistically asked, “How much worse can it get?” But then it started snowing. And then hundreds of miles of coastline were soon swallowed by a tsunami whose waves reached heights of 133 feet in some areas. Just as destructive as these walls of water was the current that sucked almost everything in its path back out to sea. Throughout our voyage, Japanese participants had referred to 3/11 with a similar since of dread and disbelief as Americans refer to 9/11. A day of doom stamped into our history.
I’d seen news reports about the massive 9 magnitude earthquake, and the tsunami and nuclear meltdown that quickly followed. Each a catastrophe on their own. Their swift succession seemed less like reality and more like the makings for an apocalyptic movie. Though we may be moved, watching global news can feel just like that – a TV movie. From a distance, we can be horrified, then change the channel. Turn off.
As our tour bus pulled further away from the coast, just a few miles inland, the neighborhood seemed to be like any other sleepy town. Streets lined with businesses and homes the tsunami’s wrath did not reach, and if so, with less force.
The destruction we could not see with our eyes — 15, 853 lives lost (over 3,000 in Ishinomaki alone), over 6,000 injured, over 3,000 still missing, thousands left homeless. In nearby Fukushima, 160,000 people were displaced due to the nuclear meltdown, most of whom will never be able to return to their homes in zones deemed too contaminated to enter let alone re-inhabit — we sensed later when listening to the stories of those who’d survived.
I will never forget the story of a man who clung to the roof of his house as it was sucked out to sea and later made it back to shore in a boat that miraculously floated by.
Or the monk we met at a local temple. I think it was the transparency of his humanness that struck me, the range of emotions he was willing to bare: the jolly laugh he let out after kidding us about staring at his rounded belly to the sadness in his eyes as he remembered aloud the moments of mourning and prayer he shared with the people who came to him – so many who had lost everything — seeking guidance. What unimaginable pressure.
There is nothing you can say to make up for what has been lost, just be with them in their sorrow, he said (through a translator), and I know that’s exactly what he did. Before beginning his story, he had apologized, jokingly, about his appearance, as he opened his mouth and pointed to the gaps in his smile where teeth had fallen out, physical signs of the immeasurable stress and sadness he took on while empathizing for and with his people.
Like him, many nearby heeded the tsunami warnings and evacuated to the hilltop, from where they screamed and wept as they watched the destruction unfold below. The splintered remains of their homes, like piles of driftwood, being swept out to sea, along with those who’d stayed behind. While horrified by what happened, the monk could understand why people wanted to stay with their homes. Why they did not flee.
You are raised to confront the difficulties you face, he said. But you also have to understand – Nature is more powerful than anything you can confront.
A similar closing message came from our tour guide, who revealed that he’d considered committing suicide after the tsunami. His business was destroyed; he had to lay off his employees in a time when he knew they needed the work the most. During the flood, he had fought to keep his head above the frigid water as it rose to his neck, had clung to a pole in his office, straining against the tide receding back out to sea. And, for what?
To be left with nothing. To be nothing.
Our group was silent. Shocked maybe? It was difficult to imagine this man, who’d beamed with pride for his community and hope for the future all day, ever thinking about taking his own life. But, he revealed, he knows he was not alone in this sentiment.
Nor was he truly alone, he realized as more and more volunteers began to appear. People from around the world came all the way to their tiny seaside community to help clear the mud and debris that the families and shop owners would never have been able to clear on their own.
Our tour was the first of English tours the group is hoping to host, to bring people to their community, to hear their story, see their progress, and cheer them on. It may not feel like enough to bare witness, but even by showing up, without speaking, we say – you are not forgotten.
Nature is powerful, but people are powerful too, he said, pausing to look at each of us, standing in front of him in a semi-circle. Beyond family, nationality, religion, people are people, and people can help people.
The following day, we stood on the deck of the ship we’d called home since October, bending our heads back to peer up at the underbelly of the Yokohama Bay Bridge, just as we had done when heading in the opposite direction 80+ days prior. Last time, the whole world was ahead of us; now, our normal lives neared as we approached the pier, crowded with family and friends waving hysterically, the pier that, unlike us, was just as it was when we left.