Ishinomaki Update #3 – Impressions of Ishinomaki

Cherry blossoms are not the only signs of new life in Ishinomaki. The formidable strength of the human spirit is evident in small corners of Ishinomaki as residents struggle to restore some sense of hope for the future.

Camouflaged by the beauty of the Spring cherry blossoms, lies the devastation of Ishinomaki. Brightly coloured koinobori (carp kites, pictured above) flutter in a strong breeze creating an eerie and unsettling contrast with the surroundings. Colourful flowers painted graffiti-like on the shell of a home echo emptiness and loss.

This area was a prosperous residential settlement of over 1700 homes. Look carefully and you will see that the few houses are skeletal remains only. Those totally destroyed have been removed, adding to the towering mountains of rubbish – the equivalent of 103 years of normal landfill – that line the approaches to the town. Those remaining are either deemed to be habitable, with second floor intact, or their owners cannot be found, so legally they cannot be demolished.

Having never experienced a natural disaster, Byron and I did not know what to expect as we drove with Paul Johanessen and crew to Ishinomaki. Paul’s first documentary, Then & Now, and recent footage shown at our fund-raising event highlighted the continuing difficulties one year on…but the actual experience is numbing.

It is hard to put into words the sense of desolation of tsunami-ravaged Ishinomaki. It is the total absence of life that is difficult to come to terms with: A pink rabbit, a Toy Story hero amongst muddy rubble should evoke emotion, should recall the lives of the children who happily played with these. Instead there is nothing… a questioning in one’s head as to why there is no immediate emotional reaction. The absolute deadness of everything is overwhelming. One expects that the remaining signs of life – gumboots, rice cookers, a solitary smashed car, curtains billowing in the wind – will recall that life, but instead there is a total absence of life or any connection to it. There is no empathetic association to parallel the physical ruin. A second visit to the site the next day is devastating in impact. The deadness is cold and sterile, the lack of any vestige of life is beyond expression.

There is a natural tendency to blame government and local authorities for what appears to be lack of progress. But after only two days there and a small insight into what conditions were like immediately after the tsunami, we have a growing appreciation of the effort it has taken to achieve what we see as impossible living conditions. After hearing more stories and talking with people who have been helping up and down the coast, it becomes evident that the perception of lack of progress is due largely to the huge amount of work still remaining. Even with the international effort, it is just not enough. To hear that there are more than 100 towns along 1000km of the Japanese coast that are in similar, or worse, situations than Ishinomaki is overwhelming, again numbing.

Many people spoke to us about their personal stories and experiences, often with an unexpected openness. They stressed the importance of people willing to listen, of sharing stories and creating environments for people to come together and express their emotions openly (something uncommon in Japanese society). Fujita-san, head of the local citizens’ recovery group, told us that a Y10,000 ($100) wood fire stove was one of the most important things he had been able to purchase because it gave the community centre warmth, a place to bake sweet potatoes and brew tea, creating a comfortable environment for open communication.

These small contributions keep the human spirit alive and thriving in Ishinomaki, small but achievable and with measurable impact. They enable the local people to keep going, to have the courage to tackle larger issues.

Our most recent project was to collect summer clothing for women, babies and toddlers in Ishinomaki and surrounding areas. Our sincerest thanks are extended to Witchery for donating a large amount of women’s and children’s clothing. Lesley Kehoe Galleries has paid for the shipping of the clothes, and they are on their way to Ishinomaki. Our thanks to Ikedo-san of AC Systems in Japan for providing information to help the shipment get through Customs. The Japanese Government have special provisions in place for Relief Goods.