The Drowned and Rubbled Land

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A building that survived the 3/11 tsunami in Kesennuma. If it looks strange, it’s because the quake dropped the land in this area by a full meter+. Reconstruction has required filling the area back in to bring it up to sea level.

For those who were following my posts from Japan earlier this year but don’t follow me on social media, my first two stories have posted. The first is a feature for VICE that looks at human fallibility in the face of disaster, and the second is the story of that peculiar stone in Yoshihama I blogged about during the trip. Of course, if you want to see both in one place, you can just visit my Pulitzer page.

It’s of course gratifying to see the stories publish and I remain indebted to the folks who got me to this place. But as a writer, it’s also hard to know what the impact of your stories is. You don’t really know who’s reading them, or whether they make a difference. Even knowing if they rise above the constant deluge of information is impossible. It would honestly be lovely to know, but that’s not why we write. At least, that’s what I remind myself once a story is published. I wrote these stories not because I felt like there was anything in the here and now that pegged their importance, but because they gnawed at me personally and caused me to dwell on one sliver of the human condition.

The crazy thing about these stories is that in the sixty days that have elapsed since I left Japan, two more disasters have struck Japan: a torrential downpour that caused landslides and flooding, and a deadly earthquake near Hokkaidō.

So, I suppose there is a bit of timeliness to what I’m writing after all. I’m wrapping up a third, and maybe final story from my Japan trip. Onward, as they say.

So Many Words

Today was my last day in Japan. Yu and I wrapped up one last interview of a scientist this morning in Tōkyo and that, as they say, was it. With a few hours to kill, I went to Ueno to check out the National Museum. And as usual, I found inspiration in yet another unexpected place.

This is a photo of a Buddhist text written a godawful long time ago. It’s long, as you can see, but what you don’t know is that the scroll still has several yards way down there at the end. Look at that text. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? It looks like it was shot off a laser printer, the lines are so crisp, the black so deep. The crazy thing is, we’re looking at the end of the text right here. The beginning is rolled up and tucked away. Couldn’t see it if you wanted to.

Last count, I’ve got 100 pages of fairly small print of my own scrawl in a black Moleskine. It’s solely from the last two weeks. Sitting in my backpack, just begging to be put to use. And so the work begins, I suppose. Of finding beginnings and endings and middles and all the parts that belong, and the so many that do not.

Thank you to everyone who followed along over the past fourteen days. To the folks who left comments on Facebook, retweeted me on Twitter, or had just enough time to thumbs-up an Instagram photo: thank you, and I hope you stay tuned for the stories as they publish. It’s been a hell of a trip. Thanks for joining.

All My Best,

Matt

Return to the Tsunami

Passport: check. Clip-on lenses for iPhone: check. Voice recorder: check. Weather forecast: checked. Hotel and rental car reservations: kinda check. Notebook, ready pen, and open eyes/ears: yep.

If you know me at all, then you know that in 2011, the tsunami in Japan killed my Japanese grandmother, and that I subsequently deployed in support of Operation Tomodachi (friend), the U.S. military relief effort. Since then, I’ve told a highly-condensed version of my tsunami story for Anchorage’s Arctic Entries public storytelling event. I also wrote a short piece about watching Des Linden’s remarkable 2011 Boston Marathon from my hotel room in Japan.

But whether or not you know me a little or a lot, you probably don’t know that in the intervening years, the tsunami has loomed large in my imagination. That every time I run along Anchorage’s Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, I find myself wondering what it would be like to watch the Cook Inlet of the Pacific Ocean rear, then swell with pitiless energy. That when a recent midnight tsunami warning sat me up in bed, despite what I knew about the elevation of my home and the slim likelihood of a tsunami ever affecting Anchorage, I was seconds from bundling my family into the car in order to drive to high ground. That I set “Japan Tsunami” as a Google Alert and every morning wonder if my email will notify me that another tsunami has struck Japan.

But it’s not just about me. In the intervening years, I have discovered remarkable stories of the 2011 tsunami that deserve telling. Of survival and sadness. Of resilience and memory. About a year ago, I decided it was time to tell them. I started the process of researching, then pitching story ideas to editors at a variety of outlets. And after I landed the pitches, I applied for a Pulitzer Center grant to help defray what I knew would be a costly trip, and to my surprise, I was approved.

So. Here I go. I’ll be blogging the experience during my trip, so I hope you’ll consider following along here. If you want condensed versions, you can check out my Twitter and Instagram profiles.

Last thing before I go: a recent Google Alert made me aware of something called an edge wave. An edge wave has to do with the way that waves refract and bounce along shorelines. In the case of a tsunami, depending on how a coastal shelf looks, edge waves can extend the period of time a tsunami can effect a coastline. It seems a fitting metaphor. Eight years after 11 March 2011, I’m still speeding to and from the northeast coast of Japan in my mind, riding the tsunami’s edge waves like a piece of flotsam. But now it’s time to not just imagine it, but do it for real.

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Sendai Airport, March 2011. Taken from an Air Force Pave Hawk helicopter about to drop me off for what was supposed to be an hour, but turned into two days.