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.