It seems remarkably privileged to say, but it can be a bit much to immerse yourself in tragedy. Even Japanese tsunami survivors are shrouded in it, because everyone on the Sanriku coast of Tōhoku lost something, someone, or both. I don’t know how real journalists do it. I suppose it helps to have some distance — a lack of a personal connection surely helps. But if I’ve learned anything on this trip, it’s a healthy appreciation for people who spend weeks face-to-face with horrible things. After only a few days in Kesennuma, I’d reached a bit of a saturation point. But it just so happened that on Tuesday, we had an appointment in Yoshihama, about an hour north of Kesennuma.
In the years since the tsunami, I have looked for stories that connected me to the landscape from across the Pacific. Stories of loss and recovery abounded. But for the most part, they were all so temporal, so pegged with the timeliness we have come to expect from journalism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it is what it is. Turns out, we want to read things laden with meaning in the here and now, and that’s what journalism provides. There’s a reason most articles are just a few hundred words: and it has to do with the desire to consume one moment before moving on to the next.
I discovered a handful of stories about “tsunami stones,” some of which date back millennia, and for the most part, served as warnings regarding past Sanriku tsunamis. The meaning within the frame of a news article is obvious; here’s this old thing that everyone forgot about that warned of exactly the type of event that necessitated the article in the first place. Timely, meaningful: exactly the type of thing we like to read about.
But I began to wonder if the stories written were only telling one side of the narrative, whether there wasn’t something deeper that would require a more in-depth telling, unconstrained by the moment itself.
Enter the Yoshihama tsunami stone.
I can’t give too much of the story I plan to write away just yet, but on 3.11.11, Yoshihama suffered only one fatality while its neighbors to the north and south were hit much harder. In other words, Tuesday was good.
This is Hanōkizawa-san, one of the discoverers of the Yoshihama stone, and myself at the the locals call tsunami-ishi. I’m looking forward to telling its story.