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.
The emperor of Japan visited the Kawauchi Elementary School last Autumn. There is a commemorative stone near the entrance to mark the event. The school children run past it on the way into school in the morning and out again in the afternoon. If they notice it they seem not to react to the honour. It makes their school special for parents and newspapers. But for the kids, their is school is special anyway.
The building is spacious and airy; the windows large and the floors and ceilings all polished wood and beams. The building is very beautiful but that is not what makes the school special. At 3:30pm as the school day finishes, the teachers (all of who seem to be quite young and wearing tracksuits) walk the children out, past the Emperor’s stone, and line them up to wait for the buses to take them home. The yellow-hatted first graders giggle and squirm as they wait. Noisy and naughty like six-year olds everywhere they are feral at this time of day and after climbing onto the buses rattle around the insides looking for distractions. Indeed as the teachers wave them good-bye, two small hands flap against the back window of the second bus; wishing the teachers desperate farewells. The hands are small against the emptiness of the bus’s back seats, the boy and girl, unable to continue the amusements of the queue in their isolation, look sad to be leaving. They are the only two children on the bus and they have nothing to do but wave. They are heading home to a town in a landscape that does not have a lot of young children anymore. This time two years ago in fact no one lived here at all.
After the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11th 2011 the town of Kawauchi swelled as it took in over a thousand homeless people from Tomioka on the coast. The tsunami could not reach this hill town of course but the sound of the explosions at the nearby Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant could and by March 15th the town was empty due to fear of radiation.
Yet Kawauchi is slowly recovering now it seems. One of the first places affected by radiation to re-open, the contamination readings are quite low and people are starting to make their lives here again. A lot of the topsoil has been removed and people are planting crops and setting up homes among the fields once more. A vegetable factory recently opened. Though if the area can ever regain the trust of the food consumer remains to be seen but there is hope that Kawauchi’s famous mushrooms will be a favourite of Japanese dishes as before. Most importantly however is the fact that some children have returned.
Even before the Fukushima disaster rural Tohoku had a problem with shrinking and ageing populations. Fears of radioactive contamination, and pointedly its effect on children, has unfortunately kept many from returning after they evacuated. In 2011 the number of students at the school stood at 114. This year there are only 24 across the first 6 grades. The first grade has a mere seven students: five boys and one girl. Grades three and four however have just one student each.
The teachers, all of whom were sent to the town from other areas of Fukushima when the school re-opened in April 2012, seem genuinely to love their posting here. Living in a school apartment building with other teachers from the elementary school and nearby junior high school and away from family and friends who are often in distant parts of the prefecture, they take the care of these kids very seriously. That reopening year there were only 16 students yet they have been surprised at how easily the kids have coped with the trauma of evacuation and a somewhat lonely return. Only one child was unable to get over the sounds of the explosions at the plant: Every-time it would thunder she would get very scared. All the teachers and other staff had to help her; talk to her; tell her it was going to be okay. It took just two weeks for the girl to believe them.
There is a deep skill and love in their teaching here. They know that the children are missing out on the normality of many friends and classmates and it is difficult for them so they fill in the spaces with a generosity of spirit that is humbling. We watched children practising athletics in the dusty, de-contaminated sports field. Athletics is a sport that individuals can do against the clock or each other because there are not enough students for a football or baseball team. All the teachers I met in this school seemed very genuine and gentle. Most importantly though they seemed to recognise that the children themselves were special. Just dealing with unreality of their school days here on the edges of the Fukushima exclusion zone takes a degree of bravery and determination that many children could not easily match.
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.
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.
When the tsunami and earthquake struck the Tohoku coast on March 11th many people lost their lives and loved ones. Many that survived lost their homes and with them the memories of the lives they had lived and the people that didn’t survive. Like the wedding photo in the image above, these mementoes to that time are irreplaceable and their loss must be incredibly painful. Nothing is quite as sad as seeing these orphaned mementoes lying in the mud. The tsunami carried houses and belongs far from the places they were once cherished. There have been attempts to reunite people with these reminders of their lives before that day, but for most the Spring rains and Summer’s bleaching sun have erased those faces and happier times forever.
The people of Tohoku are strong, indeed they have been able to carry on despite destruction and loss that would defeat most but it is hard for them to start building lives again that have no foundation in the memories they have lost. Just as the images fade and run in the unclaimed photos, the faces of the lost must also be fading in the minds of those left behind; which makes any memories they make know, any photos that show those they still can love, doubly intense, important and precious.
Which is where the photographer Brian Scott Peterson comes in. Setting up Photohoku a short time ago he is regularly travelling north to give gifts of cameras and photo albums to the people trying to make new lives there. He also take his own photos of the people that survived and donates the prints so that they have the beginning of a new set of memories to carry with them into an uncertain future.
He is not exactly giving them their memories back, that is hard to do, but he is giving them some new ones and a place where they can keep them to see this time of stress, sadness and stoicism from a future that is hopefully easier and less raw than now. You might ask why they would want to record this time in their lives but it seems obvious to me. As time advances the tragedy of March 11th will fade and with it the forgetting of the events and the people that filled that time before. While looking back at their time in a refugee centre or temporary shelter may seem masochistic or taking pictures of the remains of your house may seem morbid and unhelpful to us, each of these harsher memories must have attached to it the gentler reminders of a person who was lost; even a bad memory keeps alive a good one. They will also be able to remember the troubles shared and the emotions that sprung from this time as they become unexplainable to others, and though overwhelming on occasion, these emotions will be keenly felt in the sense of togetherness that was important at that moment even as the children grow and leave home and the old people die and disappear.
Anyway it’s a good project with a generous and talented leader. A worthy cause worth supporting if you have any old cameras or can do something like webdesign, or sort out the paperwork hassles of setting up a charitable foundation within the labyrinth Japanese legal system.
Here’s the Photohoku web address again. http://photohoku.org/