After the Disaster: A Return to a Devastated Japan

By Baresch, David | Contemporary Review, September 2011 | Go to article overview

After the Disaster: A Return to a Devastated Japan


Baresch, David, Contemporary Review


Editor's Note: In our last issue, an English teacher in Japan recounted his experiences in the Japanese earthquake. He left Japan and returned to England. Now some months later he went back to the devastated area, where a tsunami, set off by the earthquake, did such horrific damage.

THE train headed towards the tsunami-hit area. Here, acres of rice fields met my eyes. My thoughts returned to newsreels shown in the days after the great earthquake. I remembered an aerial view of a fleeing car. The car sped along a road that cut through farmland, similar to that which now passed by. A mass of sea-water rushed in from the left. It had already spread across the road behind the vehicle. The driver accelerated forward, intent on making a rapid escape, but, from our view from above, we could see that the incoming wave was pincer shaped. The driver was unaware that he, or she, was racing towards the other arm of the tsunami.

Without warning, a great wall of water stormed across the road, about one hundred metres ahead of the car. The driver braked hard. The vehicle angled sharply to the left and stopped.

Perhaps the driver was now fully aware of his predicament. An encompassing wave was flooding in from the front, the back, and the left. On the right lay muddied rice fields. Trapped.

The car remained motionless. What was going through the driver's mind at that moment? Seemingly, he had run out of ideas. The car remained motionless.

In the same shot, someone else was seen racing through the fields, trying to outrun the tsunami. The footage ended. Such are my memories of rice fields.

The train chugged on and passed through small towns. Most roofs had been damaged and were patched up with blue tarpaulin. Aftershocks are expected to continue for another couple of years yet. So, plastic sheets are used as makeshift roofs for the time being.

Matsushima was the next and final station. On this stretch of track, the train rattled through a string of tunnels. With thoughts of the earthquake and tsunami in mind, claustrophobia hit. The tunnels seemed unnervingly long. I sensed relief whenever we exited into the bright sunlight and, greater relief still, when I stepped off the train and onto the platform al Matsushima Station.

It was a warm, sunny, spring day, the sky clear blue, typical of Japan. The small station seemed to have been untouched by the disaster. It was inconceivable that I was just a few of kilometres from one of the world's worst ever tragedies.

I made my way through the sleepy town. Here and there, snaking fractures scarred the streets. On each side of the breaks the land had either been lifted or had sunk. Jagged steps of about 25cm in height had formed and were surrounded by safety-cones. In other places, heaps of fallen masonry had been shovelled up against walls. Suddenly, the smell of dust, mixed with damp burnt wood, filled the air. Here, mounds of household wreckage met my eyes.

A sport's field, consisting of two football pitches and a baseball diamond, was being used as a dumping ground to separate the wreckage from the tsunami-hit homes. There were mounds of wood, mounds of bedding and sofas, mounds of twisted metals, mounds colourful plastics, and all were clumped together and coated in dust.

The biggest mound was that of, yet to be sorted, debris, which looked like a pile of giant jigsaw pieces. Familiar objects poked out at odd, undignified, angles. Mickey Mouse, his lower body ensnared, grinned and waved his one free arm. CDs glinted and caught the eye. 'Hello Kitty', dressed in her most shocking pink, craned forward as if gasping for air. Brightly coloured towels and curtains entwined computers, chairs, and tables. Partially trapped futons spewed forward and flopped down as if in exhaustion. And all were bound and knotted together under the weight of a great disaster.

The jumbled lives of so many could be seen dumped onto that playing field in Matsushima; and what of the occupants? …

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