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.
…it is four years since the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku. At 2:46 pm on Friday the 11th of March one of the largest earthquakes to have ever happened struck just off the north-east coast of Japan. the huge tsunami that crashed ashore later killed around 18,000 people and made many tens of thousands more homeless. It also caused a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant that is still affecting large areas of that prefecture today. Indeed a large number of people are still suffering from the aftermath of this disaster, with many unable to return home as rebuilding efforts have stalled. A dishearteningly large minority are even now stuck in “temporary” housing.
I remember that day well, the confusion of not being able to find out exactly what was happening and where. At the time I did not have an iphone and access to twitter and facebook so information was hard to come by. I walked miles to get to Shinjuku where the large TV screens (above) showed the news.
It was a strange day with a sense of impending tragedy that the pictures on the TV screens did not help to reduce. Even as we watched whole villages be swept away, the scale of this event was not something we could not even guess at that time and even now it seems unbelievable. But despite the worry in the air it was also a day of reassuring calmness: The office workers stranded by train network closures didn’t complain or demand, they either just resigned themselves to a long plod home or settled into cafes, bank lobbies and hotels for the night, where the people working there just carried on being courteous and serving them well past their usual working hours.
I hope never to experience such a tragedy again but I have to admit I am glad to have lived through what I consider both the best and the worst times of my time in Japan.
I will think of all those who died and had their lives forever changed this afternoon at 2:46 and urge you to do so too.
Been incredibly busy the last week or so. Managed to grab a quick evening shot of Tokyo Skytree while out shooting on Monday.
I like this shot as it was taken from near Edogawa where there are many older, traditional houses and buildings which provide some nice foreground for this iconic, modern addition to the Tokyo skyline
Will be posting back soon.
His fellow hostage, Haruna Yukawa (who Goto San returned to Syria in an effort to free by negotiating with ISIS) was supposedly killed a week ago; a few days after they were first shown on screen, kneeling in the desert, as prisoners of the self styled Islamic caliphate. (top photo)
At first their lives were to be ransomed for 200 million US Dollars. This amount matched the pledges of non-military assistance Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had made, in a shockingly inept piece of international diplomacy considering he knew Japanese hostages’ lives were at stake, to those fighting ISIS terrorism while on a tour of the middle east.
Having convinced the world that they were serious with the cruel death of Yukawa san the demands got strange for a week. The usual videos were replaced with audio recordings that might or might not have been Goto San and obviously photoshopped images helped move the demands on to the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, an al Qaeda prisoner and failed suicide bomber, from a Jordanian jail where she is facing the death penalty for terrorism attacks in Jordan in 2005 that killed 60 people. The Jordanian government were surprisingly open to the deal at first, dependent obviously on the additional demand that a fighter pilot of theirs, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh whose plane crashed over ISIS held territory in December 2014, was also released.
For a while, at the end of the week, there was even a feeling of very cautious optimism that Kenji Goto might actually get out of this alive. Rallies of support tried to pressure the Prime Minister to do more to ensure that and an “I am Kenji” campaign started; mirroring the “Je suis Charlie” movement that grew in response to the terror attacks in Paris. As the Thursday sunset deadline for al-Rishawi’s release came and went though the hope began to ran out. ISIS were unwilling and perhaps unable to prove that the pilot was still alive and the deal that people so desperately wished for seemed to stall and then fade.
Over Friday and Saturday the silence from ISIS on the fate of the two captured men was deafening. A last, hopeful rally by around 200 supporters outside the Prime Minister’s home on Friday night (photo 2 and 3) showed how much the story of this man’s life had affected the population. Despite reports, like this one in TIME magazine that many people didn’t care and actively blamed the hostages for their predicament, I feel many people really saw something nobel in the efforts of Kenji Goto especially to help the much weaker, and perhaps judged as much less worthy, Yukawa.
Sunday morning many people who had followed this convoluted drama for the last week or so woke up to find the TV showing a worryingly familiar image on the screen. This time though there was only one man kneeling in the dust wearing that orange jump suit. This time the distracting talk of digital manipulations and them not really being there as captives was pointless. Jihad John roughy held Goto’s neck and angrily told the people of Japan that they were now targets in an “unwinnable war” as he waved a knife around. He then apparently decapitated Kenji San with that knife.
I know not one person who is not sad and angry at this. Kenji san, who I never met, was a good man by all accounts. He cared deeply about the lives of those that suffered and were affected by conditions they did not control. This is probably why he foolishly went back to held Yukawa san gain freedom because he had suffered many unlucky situations in his personal life and been drawn to the danger of reinventing himself as a Military contractor in Syria and Iraq. The world has lost a good man who died to help a man whose story he felt equally sad as those of the children and women afflicted by war that were the staple of his reporting. I hope we do not forget them as we are bound to forget the man who dedicated his life to telling their stories.
RIP Kenji Goto San
Extremely busy for all the Christmas things I need to do. So a quick Merry Christmas to all sungypsy readers.
This year has been one of the most successful in the history of this blog. Indeed perhaps the most with my greatest number of visitors to date, especially for my post on the Gaza Support Peace Protest in Tokyo in the summer.
Hopefully onto even bigger and better things next year.
Have a great Christmas and a wonderful new year everyone and see you in the 2015.
Feeling the air of Autumn now in the morning. A different smell and taste here when you wake up. Where I live the mountains are not exactly close by but on certain mornings you are very aware of them.
I spent a lot of my twenties in the mountains both in the UK and abroad. Cold, hard snowy peaks or forested slopes all over the world were places I sought out. Mostly the exposed rocky ridges of temperate ranges where I would test my nerve on climbs to be true but later, as my ambitions drifted eastwards towards Asia, I found myself in tropical forests too. The air is very different in the jungle but there is an unmistakable familiarity to any vertical geography and even in the crater lake of Danau Maninjau in Sumatra, Indonesia above, despite the palm trees and monkeys, the fishermen and the hideous insects, I felt at home.
This is an old photo I took one morning when I walked down early from the lodges I was staying in the middle of the forest. I wanted to shoot a bit around the edges of the lake itself and enjoyed the refreshing, early-morning temperatures as I descended through the trees that a few hours later would be humid hells. I loved the moist, cooling lake breezes when I arrived and the light as the sun burned the sky and brushed detail into the forested slopes that surround the lake . Maninjau is an amazing place and if you ever have the chance I highly recommend going there.
Off to work in the very urban Tokyo now