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.

 

 

 

See With Your Own Two Eyes

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Vacant Land

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This vacant lot was the site of the home my father grew up in.

I began writing about 3.11.11 nearly four years ago exactly. It was late in the spring of 2014, and I’d just begun a three-year Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing through the University of Alaska. The program there is a low-residency format, which at UAA translates to one semester of online followed by a two-week residency, then two semesters of correspondence with an assigned mentor. It was at the end of the online period, with the residency approaching that I tackled the problem of producing manuscripts for workshop during the residency.

How I decided on the tsunami as an essay project is now lost to me. I’d posted a few times about the tsunami in 2011-2012, but incompletely. More than likely, it was feedback from an Academy classmate named Brandon Lingle, who’d stumbled across the posts and recommended I pursue further writing. That in combination with the requirement to produce a couple dozen pages probably made the idea of repurposing existing material attractive.

So I wrote an essay for workshop about the tsunami. And it was an absolute mess. Eva Saulitis, whom has since passed away, gave me feedback during the actual workshop, which turned unexpectedly emotional for me. Eva wanted us to read a selection before falling silent to receive feedback, and tears came unbidden as I read, out loud for the first time, what I’d written. My vulnerability did not spare me tough feedback; I still have Eva’s handwritten notes on that draft and while they are kind, they are also clear.

In the years since, the essay has lain fallow on my computer. I’ve pulled it out from time to time to work on for short periods. But I was troubled by my inability to speak from firsthand experience about Kesennuma. When I was here in 2011, I was able to travel no further than Sendai, still a few hours south.

Over the past two years, I’ve read everything I could about the tsunami. Watched the videos. Clicked on the pictures. Set Google Alerts for breaking news stories. Pored over imagery from Google Earth, scrolling overlays from pre- to post-tsunami. But I was never able to find the exact site of my the family home I recalled visiting in 1988, 1997, and finally in 2005.

And now, I’m here. In Kesennuma. My feet touch the same places, but the land has changed. It was lowered by the quake, erased by the tsunami, then razed and raised in order to reconstruct. The places I remember, all gone.