The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Posts tagged “2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami

Hard To Believe


…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.

More stock images of the effect of the March 11th 2011 earthquake on Tokyo at my archive here:


Splash of Colour

dc fukushima 201305018237

Young Hina adds a splash of bright red to the drab temporary housing that many people in Tohoku are still living in even two years after the March 11th 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

As I wrote before; the ability of kids to make the best of these less than ideal living conditions still never fails to impress me: both the strength of the Tohoku people and the underestimated determination and sensitivity of the children themselves.

It is sometimes harder for the adults: the houses are small and noisy;privacy is minimal and they have the memories and the greater sense of loss. But the kids adapt quickly it seems and their happiness must be something that keeps the people who look after them going through bad times that were promised to have been over by now.

Busy on other Fukushima stories that I can’t show you until the client has used them.

Been a great couple of weeks of  some quite amazing encounters.


A Trip Down Nightmare Lane


The sun may have been out and the ground drier but due to the fact that not many people have been in the two years since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the scenes of destruction in Tomioka were very reminiscent of the time I was working in Iwate just after the disaster. Add in some radioactivity and you have a nightmarish landscape that was just a little too familiar to be comfortable.

Off out to the zone again today.



More images of Tomioka Town inside the Fukushima exclusion zone at my archive site here:

Ghost Town


Night in the abandoned streets of Tomioka inside the Fukushima 20 kilometre exclusion zone around the Daichi Nuclear power plant.

A freaky, frightening kind of day in areas that are pretty unchanged since the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11th 2011.

Shooting up here for the week.

More images of Tomioka Town inside the Fukushima exclusion zone at my archive site here.


Second Anniversary

Japanese earthquake March 11th 2011

Was busy yesterday but wanted to remember something about the events of two years ago on this blog. Amazing how life goes on so normally; how we are busy; how we worry about different things now when just two years ago yesterday our minds were concentrated on one event only.

The power of the earthquake was shocking, even in Tokyo. In the photo above you can see old and young, men and women bedding down in the foyer of a bank, late at night. The bank had stayed open to let people trapped by transport stoppages, find a place to rest. It was an humbling day of collective  stoicism that has forever changed my view on the Japanese.

More images of the Great East Japan earthquake’s effect in Tokyo here.

The effects of the tsunami in Iwate Prefecture, Japan March 2011

A few days later while working in Iwate with the Daily Mirror journalist, Tom Parry I met people picking their lives and losses out of the mud of the tsunami. I had never met people who just had the ability to carry-on like that before. Memories were strewn across the flattened coast and for those that survived, harsher ones replaced them. It was as I said at the time, on my first day there, a day of boats in fields and houses in the sea, and also one of a recovering hope in human nature and respect for the raw power of nature itself.

In Kamaishi (above) we interviewed some people whose stories will stay with me forever.

More images of the effects of the 2011 Tohoku tsunami at my photoshelter archive here.

Arigato Farm project

What I didn’t do at the time of course was visit Fukushima. the earthquake and tsunami caused the now famous problems at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant. At the time fears of imminent nuclear catastrophe kept most sensible people away. Mis-information and out-right lies by the government and TEPCO worried and falsely reassured us in equal measure. Only a few months later as the borders of the 20 kilometre exclusions zone shut tight did I venture to its edges and record the struggle the people of that area are having as they adjust to the new reality. It is the elephant in the room: a massive, ugly thought that invades all references to the place. It is fear and loss. Perhaps not as clearly understood and obvious at the tsunami damaged towns along the coast. But even sadder in some ways. Among the poisoned fields are places that are still beautiful, still missing the people that could so easily return to them if the “beep! beep! beep!” of the Geiger counter didn’t advise them of the opposite.

Again here I have met people that though angrier (this was a man-made disaster after all and identifiable individuals and companies are culpable), are nevertheless just struggling through; just trying to make the best of what is left them, and are even succeeding in that it seems, like the Arigato Farm  Project of Iwaki in the image above which is trying to make farming a local, reliable business again.

More images of the Fukushima exclusion zone here.

Their stories will be occupying me for the foreseeable future. Because as we move on from that time and the memories dim; the fears, empathy, anger and sense of awe at both the power of nature and our own human strengths we felt will fade also. It was a horrible time and I hope to never repeat  it in my life. Yet it was a time I ma glad I lived through and got to experience first-hand for the very real understandings it gave me on the priorities of my life and the futures of the world we all inhabit. I hope never to forget those feelings

The Key to Recovery

When the tsunami of March 11th 2011 hit Rikuzen-Takata it obliterated the town. The tsunami reached over 13 metres in height destroying 80% of all the buildings in the town. Rikuen-Takata effectively ceased to exist. Indeed the emptiness of the landscape that had once been a bustling town of 23,000 people was something that affected me deeply on my own visit there last year while working as a photographer covering the disaster for an English newspaper.

Of course the Tohoku people are strong: they struggle on whatever the odds. From the detritus of destruction that covered the valley floor people picked out belongings and salvaged the remains of a life swept away. Many things were smashed and broken beyond usefulness though. Yet even this trash, the broken bits of plastic appears to have been salvaged and turned into something useful with the keyring pictured above.

Called the Re:Key Holder it is handmade by people from Rikuzen-Takata and other areas in Tohoku and is (according to the packaging) to be carried as a symbol of  hope and good luck. Some might think it macabre but I think it is a great idea. It raises much needed cash for the victims of the tsunami as they try to rebuild their lives; it recycles the rubbish caused by the destruction of the town thus avoiding having all of it dumped in landfills. Most importantly though, as I made clear to my sons when I handed each of them a keyring, this is not just trash plastic, these are pieces of people’s lives. I have no idea where the pieces in each keyring come from: they could be part of a traffic-cone or shop display; but they could just as easily be part of some child’s favourite toy. It is hard not to forget that possibility when you reach for your keys every day and look at the scratched and bent coloured plastic hanging from them. Then again the loss the people of Rikuzen-Takata suffered is not something we should ever forget.

The Re:key Holders are available here.

It’s a small investment in the long recovery of the Tohoku coast, so cheap easy to do and yet making such a difference to the people there. I would like everyone who visits this site to buy one or two please.

Many Thanks.