The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Japan

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

Update: To see the fruit of my labours with the Journalist Richard Smart and the Urban land Institute magazine, down load the app here and have a read.


Summer Fun

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In Japan summer means fireworks. This year we haven’t been to any big displays, as we did a couple of years ago, But many people also buy some smaller explosives such as sparklers and Roman candles and go to the local park to set them off. The kids love it and the smell of gunpowder is a constant companion on summer evenings.

Been very busy these last few months so apologise for the lack of posts on here recently.

Later

Damon


Sealing Their Future

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A large demo by student activist group, SEALD (Student Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy) took place on Friday night in Tokyo. The anti-nuke die-hards can still be found outside the National Diet Building almost every Friday and this demonstration continued more or less where that one left off. Though the size of the anti-nuke demos are considerably less than before, when people were calling such massive displays of outrage at the government the Hyacinth Revolution,  I was still impressed that four and a half years on from the March 11th disaster at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant, people still turned up to protest their hope for a nuclear free Japan. Especially, as I have written before, both sides seem to be aware that the protests are futile.

The SEALD group is composed of mostly younger protestors and though it grew from that same anti-nuclear activism, it’s focus is broader and mostly against the right-wing and nationalistic policies of Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe.

Japan has a long history of student activism and at times the energy of the young radical has caused seriously problems for the Japanese establishment. I have done a fair amount of work with student radicals like Zengakuren and covered the issues at Hosei University, where political activism has been, often violently, suppressed.

The SEALD group is new, and new to me, but they seem determined, intelligently so, to demand a change in Japanese politics. How these young people will go about getting their demands heard and acted on with a government as single-minded as Abe’s is something that is going to be interesting to watch play-out. At this moment the students are policed lighter than the more radical activists at Zengakuren.  But as they find their voices bouncing from the walls of the Kantei unheeded though, I wonder if they will remain so polite.

More images of the SEALD demo in Tokyo on July 11th at my archive site here.

Been a busy few months so not had time to write here as much as I would have liked.

Will try and write more soon.

Damon


Pilgrims

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Had a photo shoot down in Matsuyama in Shikoku last Thursday. Took the opportunity afforded by someone else paying for the flights to spend a couple of extra days there trying to get a feel for the Eighty-eight temple pilgrimage that has been a photo ambition for years.

Unfortunately the weather didn’t want to help me so much and my explorations ended-up being quite limited. You really need more time, and a car, to truly get a feel of the beautiful scenery the pilgrims walk through on the 1,200 kilometre long pilgrimage route.

Well not many pilgrims walk the route these days, and certainly not in rainy season, but did see a few come through the very beautiful Ishite Temple which is just outside Matasuyama. By far the biggest group I saw though were on a bus tour doing the whole pilgrimage in a week.

I loved my time in Shikoku though and would love to get back and spend more time photographing the pilgrims as they tramp between the temples. Not in rainy season though next time.


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