The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

A New Life

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Am sunburnt and tired from my rather rushed tour of the tsunami coast near Sendai this weekend. But met some amazing people on this trip: ones I hope to see again with more time and more direction to the images I take. Their stories deserve that.

Not least among those people were the residents of the temporary housing village I came across in Watari.  In a striking collection of ordered shantiness,  ninety small, identical houses filled a gravel car park next to the police station with row upon row of tedious practicality. Not that the scene was completely without some charm, as is the Japanese way, flower boxes stood at the end of the “streets” and around some of the entrances to the homes; splash of colour were painted on a wall here and there and the slowly developing sense of a real home was visible in the additions and decorations people had begun to add to their houses. People only moved-in here on May 22nd and living conditions were still makeshift. For example I met a man adding an awning and porch to the house of one of his friends in an effort to diffuse the sound of the rain which, he informed me, could be deafening. The wood of the new porch was fresh, rough and bright yellow. People expect to be here for two years another resident told me and will make the best of the situation. One street over another house had exactly the same awning, maybe soon everyone will have it.

Some aspects of normality remain: the sound of such DIY one of those, but people also like to enjoy their Sunday evenings relaxing and of course I could hear the murmur of televisions or the sound of a cup being put on a table or a plate scraping from a shelf as I walked around looking for people to talk to. Such sound didn’t travel far but were clear when you stood next to where they came from, the other side of the thin walls barely hiding the identity of the action beyond. Everyone I saw was speaking in whispers. Every window was open and every door ajar and it was easy to eavesdrop or peek in on the lives inside. Privacy was at best fleeting and though I thought this openness a result of the sense of community each refugee must feel the more I sweated on my wanders the more I realized the July heat must be magnified by the flat-roofs of these tiny houses pressing hard against the sky. Shishido Musotaro, whom I photographed as he squatted for a cigarette at the end of his row, was certainly glad to escape the heat inside for a moment of tobacco-fueled relaxation but the view that accompanied his escape can not have been as comforting as similar breaks he took in the nearby coastal village of Arahama where he and everyone else here had originally come from.

People I spoke to were not complaining though. Even tough these tiny houses were obviously not perfect they provided a more comfortable life than the forced intimacies of the evacuation centres many had been in since the quake and tsunami struck on March 11th.  Even surrounded by friends and family it was obviously good to be able to shut the door on them sometimes and deal with your own emotions privately. Two older women excitedly swopping vegetables for their dinner tonight told me that they even liked it here.

“The house is tiny of course, but it can’t be helped.”

The thought of fresh food and a more daring menu provided a chance to smile for both. Husbands were at home waiting on dinners and life was more normal than either dared to believe it could ever be again. Both their families had survived however and perhaps it was easier for them adjust as they took all the important things with them as they moved through this life of uncertainty.

Not so Kazuko Takuyoshi, who I met when I had asked to photograph her 4 year old granddaughter, Noa. I had seen no other children in the village but Noa was unforgettable. I first saw her dancing around the streets in that way children have of celebrating the simple act of movement. Catching up with her at her house I’d asked to take her picture and she’d said “Yes!”

Wanting to clear it with an adult first I asked if her mother was there and very quickly she had answered, in English, “No!”

She then called out for her grandmother and as she did so I knew exactly what had happened. I felt sad and stupid at doing that: a simple request at any other time and place here could be loaded with rage, grief and a rapidly clarifying empathy. I felt cruel for asking, for not even thinking about the possibility and being more careful.

Her grandmother and older brother, Ryotaro came out and I took some pictures. The kids put up peace signs, which I ordinarily hate, but this time I didn’t mind. There was a normality to it that belied the understanding I drew from the picture I had just taken. As the children ran off to play, Kazuko San confirmed for me that the parents and one other child were still missing. She never said dead only missing and marveled at her grandchildren’s happiness. At seventy years of age I was most impressed with her own energy at carrying-on. It cannot be easy to look after two young children at that age and though they were having fun now there must be times when the loss hits them and her heart must break because she knows that despite feeding, clothing and doing all she can for them she is and can never be their mother. That pain was easy to see in her eyes. Grandmothers do a lot of child rearing in Japan usually and Japanese women live long so there is hope that she will be able to send these amazing kids out into the world at adulthood but the uncertainty must weigh heavily upon her and I really felt for her at this stage in her life to have so much responsibility again.

Amazing people that I hope to see again.

More later

Damon

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2 responses

  1. Enjoyed reading about the people you visited in Tohoku, how they are dealing with the situation and your feelings as well. The photo isn’t loading up via mobile though, maybe OK from PC however.

    July 9, 2011 at 2:17 pm

  2. Pingback: Splash of Colour | sungypsy blog

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