On the 11th of June I was in Hiraizumi in Japan’s north eastern region of Tohoku. With a Japanese friend of mine I was visiting the monuments around Chuson-ji, or rather what is left today of what this used to be back in the 12th century. In those days it was a centre of political power and of religious and cultural ferment enjoying considerable influence under the noble family of Northern Fujiwara. Its temples rivalled in beauty those magnificent ones of the capital Kyoto.
With the defeat of the Fujiwara clan and the beginning of Japanese feudalism centred in the new capital Kamakura, Hiraizumi returned to its peripheral calm and its buildings, temples and pagodas gradually entered into a downward spiral of irreversible decline.
When the renowned poet Matsuo Basho visited the area in 1689, the state of its dereliction inspired him to write the famous haiku poem:
Summer grass, all that is left of a warrior’s dream
This was a sober reflection on the impermanence of glory and the ephemeral condition of human life.
The reason for my trip to Hiraizumi was its recent inclusion on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, making it an almost obligatory cultural stopover before heading on to Kesennuma, one of the coastal cities in Miyagi, the prefecture worst hit by the tsunami of March 11th.
Having arrived in Kesennuma, a small town of about 70 thousand inhabitants before the tsunami and two thousand souls fewer (either dead or missing) after it, I volunteer to join the dozens of people who on a daily basis arrive here from all over Japan to help out with the reconstruction work.
Driving from the interior to the coast, what impresses me the most is how little visible evidence there is in the affected areas of an earthquake that at its epicentre reached magnitude 9 on the Richter scale: only a few buildings have collapsed, most roads are basically unspoiled, and life appears to carry on as normal, something that would be unthinkable in any other part of the world, no matter how developed.
The tsunami, though, is a different story, and its terrible footprint is still clearly visible as far as three kilometres away from the seafront.
Equally impressive, no matter how used I am to the peculiarities of the Japanese culture, is the impeccable orderliness and organization of the job being done by the volunteers.
Every morning at 9 o’clock a coordinator shows up with a list of tasks that the volunteers gathering at the local municipal office have to undertake that day. The officer briefly describes each job and the number of people needed for its completion. With a show of hands, people sign up to the task best suited to their skills, unanimously choose a group leader, and then share a car that someone among them has placed at everyone’s disposal in order to reach the site they have been assigned to.
My group of ten people has chosen to clean up what used to be a rice paddy before it was completely devastated by the gigantic wave. The paddy is located about one kilometre from the seafront, yet despite the distance there is an all-permeating odour of decomposed fish and seaweed.
After quickly taking stock of the situation and exchanging a few words with the 70-something-year-old couple who own the rice paddy, the group leader tells us what to do. It's as if he had always led a group of volunteers and we put our trust in him and his leadership skills without reservation.
As if our main occupation in life had always been to pick up soaking wet socks and magazines, pieces of shattered windows, plates, curtains, radios and tiles from what used to be a rice paddy, that is exactly what we all do. Sorting and separating everything into combustible and non-combustible rubbish, we pick up those soaking wet socks and soaking wet magazines, those fragments of window panes, those plates, curtains, radios and tiles that belong to people we will never meet, to souls who quite certainly don’t exist any longer, continuing for hours with patience and professionalism, interrupted only by regular breaks when the leader tells us to take one.
In the debris I come across a tiny plastic robot covered in mud. I ask for permission to keep it, to let my children carry on the game of some Japanese kid that was interrupted forever by the sudden arrival of the tsunami.
At lunchtime each one of the group members tells the others a little about his/her own background… where he or she comes from, how they got here, how long they are staying for and what else they have done as volunteers for the city. The conversation is quite laid-back, as if between old friends who haven’t met in a long time and need to catch up with each other’s lives.
Among us is a young woman from Kobe, the city hit by the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake. For more than three weeks she has been camping out at night in front of the municipal office, and in the daytime collecting debris from arable land for hour after hour in sunshine or in rain. When that past tragedy hit her hometown she had been just a high school student. She remembers very well that time and how people from other prefectures came to help them out. Now it is her turn to give back what she received then.
A man from Iwate, a neighbouring prefecture affected by the earthquake, used to spend his summers surfing in Kesennuma. For the past three months he’s been volunteering every weekend for the city. This summer he won’t be surfing. The sea has changed; the waves are not the same as before and, what’s more, he tells us he now feels unease at bathing in waters that have swallowed up so many lives. He takes a picture of our group that he will be posting in the blog he has created to tell people what he is doing to help Kesennuma recover.
However, as is to be expected, the one person among ten to arouse the most curiosity is me, an Italian woman resident in Spain, a mother of three children who speaks Japanese…
From their looks and the many heartfelt "arigatou" (thank yous) that the 70-something lady directs my way, I can feel that they are sincerely grateful to me. But, to tell the truth, the one who is most grateful of all is me — me, the one who has been able to truly experience the meaning of the word “solidarity”; me, the one who has had the opportunity to meet unique people wishing to help fellow human beings; me, the one who has been able to share with them the taste of hope.
When we hand him a compact camera and a framed diploma, valuable personal belongings we have found among the debris, tears well up in the old man’s eyes. He shows us a picture taken with his mobile phone on March 11th. “The roof you can see was on the upper floor of this house,” he says. What is left of the ground floor where we are now standing — a few pillars and parts of walls — was completely inundated by the sea.
At 9 o’clock in the morning on our second day as volunteers my friend and I join a small group working at the municipal office. Today’s task: to classify by gender, age and season the items of donated clothing that have been shipped in thousands of boxes from all over Japan. These will be distributed to local people in the most incredibly orderly manner, as I have a chance to witness later. We also have to clean up those personal belongings that have been rescued from the disaster zone.
My friend, who is IT manager at one of Japan’s main financial institutions, tells me that people in this region rarely hold bank accounts and that most of their savings have traditionally been kept at home. That is why they have basically been left with nothing. Nevertheless, what they look for is not money, nor jewellery, nor clothing. What helps them to recover psychologically are their memories, the piecing together of their pasts so they can build up their futures. And their photos are key to those memories.
These are pictures just like those taken by anyone else in any corner of the world: pictures of births, birthdays, religious and graduation ceremonies, weddings, first children and first grandchildren. They all look pretty much the same to those who look at them, but they are unique for those featured in them.
As gently as I possibly can, I attempt to clean off the mud from the pictures one by one, taking care not to let the colours fade. I hang them on a thread to dry in the sunshine before placing them in a clear plastic folder. A zealous public official, sent out here to help from the Tokyo central government, will register each one, assign them a number and display them on a table where their potential owners, if they still exist, will recognize them among many others.
With us today in this small group of four people is an old lady from Kesennuma. During the break she tells us about her personal experiences of that ill-fated 11th of March. With no electricity or TV she did not realize that there had been a tsunami until late in the afternoon when an eerie silence made her suspect that something even worse than the earthquake might have occurred. Only then did she gradually find out that friends and relatives living in one-storey houses had been swallowed up by the sea, while those lucky enough to have been living in buildings of two storeys or higher had survived…
And I cannot help thinking back to Basho’s haiku. I cannot help thinking how all our lives are ephemeral, not just the glory days of great heroes. Even more ephemeral are our lives in this era of “disposable” information. In our society of “fast news”, where only what is shown by the media is real. News, no matter how dreadful it is, ceases to be news within hours of its happening.
But these people — their broken lives, their strength, and their willingness to carry on building their futures, even if the television cameras from around the world were switched off over three months ago — these people and their bravery are still very real to me.
It is to them all I dedicate these notes, because the post-March 11th Japan must not become a new Hiraizumi.
Editor's note: Renata Piazza graduated in Japanese Language and Literature (University of Ca’Foscari, Venice, Italy); MSc in Politics of Asia (SOAS, University of London, UK); has lived and studied in Japan and worked for Japanese companies overseas. Since 2002 has worked with Casa Asia (https://www.casaasia.eu), where she was in charge of relations with the Japan Foundation and of organizing the majority of Japan-related cultural events up to the year 2007. Currently she is a Project Coordinator at the Economic Programs and Cooperation Department of the same institution.