What Remains


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.






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.

See With Your Own Two Eyes


First step: orient yourself.

My first full day in Kesennuma, my cousin Motō played enthusiastic guide to my dad and me. We first visited the family grave site, then the Kesennuma fish museum, which now dedicates half its real estate to the tsunami and reconstruction. A short video ran through seven-plus years of history, and it was a perfect way to begin my time in Kesennuma. In other words: gut-wrenching.

In the afternoon, tsunami walking tours in association with a public tsunami awareness event were offered. So, accompanied by Yu, the intrepid Japanese linguist I hired for this trip, we walked for two hours over a couple miles of  Kesennuma’s tsunami-affected area. I should note here that I couldn’t possibly have planned things so perfectly as to begin my Kesennuma stay with a period of initial familiarization aided by public events. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I had only a rough sketch for my thirteen days in Japan, and precious few sources to speak with. But a spate of coincidences have occurred that have in turn resulted in a cascade of doors that opened other doors, beginning with the public awareness event.

Our guide, a retired gentleman Hashimoto Shigeyoshi (family name first in Japan) who ran a Kesennuma evacuation center on 3.11.11, began with the photo pictured here, and it was a powerful way to begin the tour. The top image was taken from the top floor of the parking garage you can see in the background of my photo on 3.11. The enormous standing wave in the image is cresting near the height of the parking garage. It is one thing to see disaster electronically, maybe even feel it over long distances. But it is another entirely to stand on dry ground under a bluebird day as a band plays nearby and the scent of good food drifts with the wind, only to realize that in that spot, I’d have been some thirty feet underwater on that day in 2011.

For the next 120-plus minutes Hashimoto-san walked us around Kesennuma, and I’m not sure he stopped speaking with passion and conviction for less than a minute or two. It was only supposed to be a 90 minute tour, but I could not help but stop him every few steps to ask more questions. I’d like to say that I knew everything beforehand, that years spent staring at articles and papers and pictures and videos had told me everything I needed to know. But if that was true, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.

The old adage that seeing is believing is just true enough to make the saying last. I would amend it slightly: some things must be seen to be known more fully.