The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

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Okawa School Memorial

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On my trip north at the beginning of the month one of the most harrowing places I visited was the Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki. Though quite removed from the shocking destruction of that large city and far inland, in a wide river valley to the rural north, it spoke of the power of the March 11th 2011 tsunami more than any place I have yet visited on the Tohoku coast.

The thing is you cannot see the ocean from the school; the valley is all fields, wooded hillsides and bucolic peacefulness. It feels safe and far removed from any danger. A perfect place to build a school in fact and it was that sense of security perhaps that led to delays in evacuating the children after the earthquake struck at 2:46pm, a delay that cost 84 staff and students their lives when the tsunami later swept up the valley.

Today there is still a lot of anger about the indecision of the teachers, who apparently waited 50 minutes in the playground after the quake before eventually deciding to move the kids towards higher ground that was much further away than the hillsides that rise just next to the school. The blame for these delays has led to law suits and suicides.

For some parents and relatives the school buildings themselves are a sore reminder of their tragedy and they have called for the remains of what, in its day must have been an amazing place to come and study, to be demolished.

Over sixty percent of Ishinomaki residents however want to keep the ruined school as a memorial to those that died. This dilemma appears to have been solved for the moment. In a news conference on Saturday March 26th the Mayor of Ishinomaki, Hiroshi Kameyama set out his plans to make the school into a monument to the victims of that day.

“It is an important place to remember and mourn the victims as well as educate people about disaster preparedness and pass on what transpired.” He said. Adding that there are no plans to reinforce the building or attempt to repair any of the damaged structures.

“To raise awareness about disaster preparedness, we need to keep what we have as it is.”

He plans to shield the ruined classrooms and gymnasiums with trees as a compromise for those that cannot bear to look at the building where their loved ones died and build a memorial park around the site.

While I can understand the pain the parents of the children who died must feel, I am glad they are keeping the school. It is a beautiful place despite the tragedy that overtook it. Yet I think there must also be many happy memories associated with the walls and playgrounds here that have not been entirely wiped out by that destructive black wave and it is important to think of those also. Mostly though we need such memorials to remind us not to under estimate nature, nor take it for granted that beauty is always benign. I can understand why the teachers thought they would be safe here: it feels safe, it feels relaxed; nothing much could or should happen in this wide, quite valley surrounded by fields and trees. But nature is unpredictable and this ruin with its ghosts tells us we must never forget that. As I have said before.

More images of Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki at my archive site here.

Later Damon


Recovery

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I went back to Tohoku this past week to shoot events around the fifth anniversary of the March 11th 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Busy days visiting the radioactive fields of Fukushima and the amazingly tidied-up Ishinomaki before heading north to Kesennuma and Minami Sanriku. The last two are places I’d not been before. In 2011 I had headed down from Morioka with Daily Mirror journalist, Tom Parry, interviewing survivors in Iwate. We made it as far south as Rikuzentakata which along with Minami Sanriku were places famously wiped from existence by the tsunami and places that will forever be a shorthand for tragedy. Five years later my thoughts on reaching Rikuzentaka still affect me and seeing Minami Sanriku, the other small coastal town synonymous with the worst of that day, was moving.

It is hard to put a score to tragedy but Minami Sanriku has perhaps an unluckier tale than other places: with the names of it victims so well known and their memorials still so stark and raw even as the landscape around it changes forever.

Jin Sato, the mayor of this towns escaped to the three-story building of the town’s Crisis Management Department or Bōsai Taisaku Chōsha (in the picture above) when the earthquake struck at 2:46pm He was one of only 30 people, from a staff of 130, who managed to reach the roof as the tsunami engulfed the town a little later and only ten of those survived as the water washed over the top of the building. Two day later however he was organising the recovery of his town and set-up a headquarters for disaster control at the Bayside Arena in Miyagi. Many people in Japan hailed him as an ispiration.

 

The most famous hero of Minami Sanriku though was a 25 year old employee of the town’s Crisis Management Department called Miki Endo. Her job was to give disaster advice and warnings over the the town’s loud-speaker system from the Crisis Management Department’s building. These warnings, telling people what to do and where to go to escape the tsunami, are credited with saving many lives and she continued to give them even as the tsunami overwhelmed the building and killed her.

There was talk that the steel frame, that is all that remains of the building, would be demolished. Huge stepped islands of brown earth rise across the valley now, like Mexican jungle pyramids. These earthworks are raising the town up higher, safer from any future tsunami. The Crisis Management Department building stands these days in a valley of dust with the earth reaching skywards behind it and diggers and cranes drone busily above. But looking at that red metal frame I saw only its missing walls; the doors through which 120 people left this world and noticed the fragility of the building’s thin tower of aerials where ten others clung desperately to stop themselves getting swept away. I hope they keep the building the way it is as a both a reminder of the power of nature and the bravery of people like Endo San.

Later

Damon


Developments

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Been working on a few photo stories about development in Tokyo. Lots of the older areas of downtown Tokyo are being demolished and rebuilt as modern consumer towns. Those these areas might be more attractive to younger families and women the loss of traditional Shotengai, or shopping streets is a shame. Equivalent to the High Street in the UK, the atmosphere and diversity of these areas is one that would be more attractive to foreign visitors. Japan tends to see the modern, identikit shopping and residential complexes that it is building over once lively, uniquely local communities as more favourable though. It is a cleaner image to show the world and one that is more familiar to the increasing number of tourists that are visiting.

As Japan readies for the 2020 Olympics it is easy to imagine more of these towns springing-up. The image above shows the plans for that most individualistic of places, Shibuya. While they provide high concentrations of employment and convenience for visitors, and it is true that a lot of the tradition, small, family-run shops that give shontengai their charming character are now run by people happy to sell up and retire, it is a shame that they will be replaced by international brands and large national chains housed in towers of glass and concrete. However beautiful these might end up looking.

Anyway it is a developing story in many areas of Japan and one I am sure to be following more.

Later

Damon


Happy New Year

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Been a busy year all told, my last post outlined some of the work I had been doing. Now I am relaxing getting some much needed down-time and preparing myself for what is promising to be a very busy 2016. Started well with a cold night of ringing the temple bell 108 times to see in the new year (in the photo above). Each yearI have done this something memorable and photogenic has happened in the spring. Let’s hope the luck holds this year.

To all the people who follow and read my increasingly infrequent posts (that is rather oxymoronic don’t you think?), a Happy New Year and I wish you all the best for 2016.

Damon


Sweeping

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Hello been a long time since I posted as it has been a very busy year.

Now the summer is really over it is a lot more comfortable to walk around in the city and take photos. so thought I would give you a quick update on what I have been doing.

The image above is from Ofuna in Kanagawa and shows the Ofuna Kannon-ji temple with a temple worker sweeping up autumn leaves. Just on of those quiet little vignettes of Japanese life that you can come across when out for the day.

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Last weekend myself and my colleagues at Japan Street Lens were asked by Sigma and the United Nations to photograph the “Turn the World UN Blue” campaign. This campaign celebrated the 70th anniversary of the formation of the UN by illuminating with blue light over 200 monuments and buildings in 60 countries. I photographed the Tokyo Skytree with a 12-24mm lens loaned to me by Sigma. Have to say I was very impressed with the quality of the lens and have used it a bit. The Kannon statue at the top is taken with it too.

Indeed we at JSL have being quite a lot of work with Sigma this year. Earlier in the summer I spent a long hard day filming tutorials for the Sigma USB dock and Optimisation-Pro software. I am somewhat embarrassed to be in front of the camera but the result is quite good mainly because the film-makers at ZEO were amazing: very talented and very patient wit my many mistakes. Have a look here. As part of process of filming I had to use the USB dock and software on lenses that Sigma had lent me for familiarisation. I had a 24mm, 1.4 Art lens and a big telephoto zoom, 150-600mm F5-6.3 Contemporary lens. I had to shoot some photos with them to put in the tutorials and show how the USB dock could improve them. Though to be honest they were pretty good to use straight out of the box, especially the 24mm 1.4 art lens which I truly love. Anyway some of the images I took from the summer are below:

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It was an eclectic summer from surfing and sunflower festivals to model shoots and temple details . Glad I could put the lenses through their paces though. Only wish i could have kept them.

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The last few weeks have been busy continuing to record the struggles and demonstrations against the Japanese governments reinterpretation of the unique Pacifist constitution which will allow it to send Japanese troops overseas to fight in wars for the first time since WW2. This year has sen the rise of the youth protest movement called SEALDs which drew worldwide attention to a new, media-savvy form of student activism in Japan. As Japanese young people are often reported as being politically apathetic it was certainly an interesting phenomena to find international titles interested in Japanese politics and my images of them. Even the domestic media here couldn’t ignore the protests as they usually do.

It remains to be seen if this movement has any staying power and how deep and thought-out their convictions are. Already the streets around the National Diet building are empty and quiet on the usual Friday protest night. With the passing of the bill the protests seem to have lost their anger but they certainly seemed to be able to draw on a deeper, general unhappiness with politics from the population at large, including the older people and even some frustrated politicians that have coat-tailed SEALDs’s popularity to find their own voice heard for perhaps the first time. The ultimate effect this summer of discontent will have on Japanese politics is, as yet, unpredictable however.

Of course I have also been shooting anything I hear about if it sounds interesting like the Kyogen plays I was lucky enough to go to last week, hopefully not for the last time.

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All in all a very busy years so far. Hope this keeps you up to date.

Later

Damon


Salarymen

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Been a very busy few months so not had a chance to write here for a while. Not all the jobs have been photo related either. A potential photo clients has even turned into a different sort of employer as I have started doing some tourist guiding for them.

Primarily the idea was that I lead photo tours of an area I know well for their clients but as that gets off the ground I have also been asked to lead a few ordinary tourist trips that take in the usual sights.

It has been an interesting peek into a world of luxury travel I could never have imagined myself doing in my ten years on the road, nor wanting to do to be honest. The hotel lobbies have been fantastically opulent places to wait in though and most of the clients have been amazingly nice people and I get to show off this interesting city of mine to those with fresh eyes upon it. Indeed I get to see it afresh sometimes through their eyes also: explaining this or that and realising that perhaps I know less than I thought as, living here, we take so much for granted.

My biggest issue has been finding somewhere upmarket enough to eat. For when tourists want an “authentic Japanese eating experience” my first thought is Saizeriya. 

I am only half joking because cheap, bad food and alcohol is the staple of many an overworked salaryman and I don’t think there can be a more authentically Japanese existence than being one of those. I have never quite taken salarymen for granted, and after the last few months, which have seen me work very long hours and unable to recall days off, even less so. I have always photographed them in fact, at work and at play, and grey suited addition of scale to a city scene, or the obvious locator.

Maybe there is a small collection here that I can get together into some sort of story or artistic ode as Bruno Quinquet has here.

Anyway would just like to share some salarymen shots I’ve taken these last few months. And keep in touch with you all.

Later

Damon


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