A Tsunami’s Stone

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Hanōkizawa-san (left) and myself at the Yoshihama Tsunami-ishi

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.

 

What Remains

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Obā-san two and a half years before she died

Everybody dies. But not everyone dies in a natural disaster. Still, this does not make that that life more valuable, or special; nor am I made unique by relation to it. I’ve told myself this, over and over since 3.11.11 in order to resist giving in to the worst kind of narcissistic writing instincts.

But unlike dying at home in bed, in a hospital, or even in war; in a natural disaster the conditions surrounding the death, or fate for that matter, are often unclear. 24-hour media overloads you, by design, floods your mind with information. But never the information you want. That’s what it was like on 3.11.11 for my family. Imagine being halfway across the world, turning on the television, and seeing only a glimpse of a tsunami hitting your home town before the footage switches to something else even more horrifying before it cuts to yet something else before swapping with a talking head in a cool, air-conditioned studio. Do this, and you are now empathizing with my father. There is no information; the phones are down and so is the power. No one is reporting from Tōhoku; rather, they are reporting from above it. It will be days before you learn whether your loved ones survived, before you learn the tsunami took your mother.

We always had a rough idea of what happened to Obā-san, but I felt the need to distill this idea into the fact. Why I felt the need to do so has been the question I’ve struggled to answer on this trip. Because it makes a better, more complete story? If so, then I become the worst kind of profiteer – the kind who makes good on the suffering of others.

You should know that I found what I was looking for. But I’m still trying to answer that question about why I needed to know in the first place.

 

 

 

Ubiquity

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The “Dragon Tree” of Kesennuma

Everywhere I turn in Tōhoku, I can’t help but see symbols of the tsunami. Some are inferred, meaning that I see them a certain way because of what’s on my mind.  I think the correct phraseology is “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.” A carpet of flowers that has overgrown its bed and spilled into the street becomes an arboreal wave; a Japanese pedestrian becomes a tsunami survivor. But some are explicit. The miles of sea wall that Japan is sinking billions into as a means of tsunami defense, for example. Or the red skeleton of the three-story Disaster Preparedness building in Minamisanriku. A blue placard adorning a building in Kesennuma with a simple white line that marks the height of the tsunami.

Or this, the “Dragon Tree.” As far as widely-recognized tsunami symbols go, I wasn’t aware of it before making the trip to Kesennuma. Rikuzentakata’s “Miracle Pine” – the only tree of an estimated 70,000 to survive the tsunami – is perhaps the best-known natural monument to the tsunami. Meaningful enough that Rikuzentakata invested over a million dollars, once the Miracle Pine died, to preserve it artificially. The Dragon Tree is located on the peninsular Iwaisaki area of Kesennuma at the southern reaches of the city and forms the tip of the Kesennuma Bay. The park was a tourist destination even before the tsunami. I recall going there during one of our family trips to Japan, and I’m sure that one of my sisters or my mother could produce a family portrait taken there.

The Dragon Tree was just another one of the magnificent pines in the park before the tsunami. After, scoured by the sea on the 3.11.11, it took on new meaning and it wasn’t long before people began to notice the similarities between the tree and a soaring dragon. Once the tree died, Kesennuma cut off the dead wood, and preserved it much like the Miracle Pine. Now, it appears on every tourist map of Kesennuma I’ve seen.

And once you see it, it is what you make of it. I’m sure that depending on whom you talk to in Rikuzentakata, the Miracle Pine is either a symbol of hope, or grief. Maybe even both at the same time. As for me, maybe it was the weather – warm, virtually cloudless, a cool breeze blowing off the Pacific. Or maybe it was because I needed some reassurance. Perhaps the blunted snout that gives the tree a friendly, almost bovine quality. But oddly enough for a tree that resembles an ancient myth of wanton destruction, I saw hope.