SENDAI, Japan – Just next to the NEWSee Ishinomaki, a sparkling new journalism museum that in 2012 emerged like a sunlit phoenix out of the sodden rubble of this tsunami-ravaged town, there is a narrow whitewashed alley with a black streak running the length of its walls.
That lashing of soot, as explained by a humble little sticker plastered meters above the average visitor’s head, shows how high the waters of the March 11, 2011, disaster reached this spot about half a mile inland from the Pacific Ocean coast. Like most of Ishinomaki today, the courtyard around the NEWSee is practically empty at midday, an eerie, unsettled silence hanging in its air and reminding visitors of the more than 3,000 ghosts of tsunami victims that will haunt this town for decades to come. Inside, visitors can see seven days’ worth of hand-written newspapers, which the staff of the town’s daily newspaper, faced with no electricity or access to printing presses, wrote painstakingly on massive sheets of butcher paper and pasted around the city in the week following the disaster.
After the waters receded here, there were only two things left: rubble, and memory. Bike a few hundred meters down Ishinomaki’s sloping hills toward the coast, though, hugging the only paved street that exists these days so close to the water, and you’ll stumble upon a clapboard monument erected in the center of what looks like a massive abandoned lot.
“Ganbarou! Ishinomaki,” the sign reads in giant Japanese characters, its message a Japanese turn-of-phrase that roughly translates to “Hang in there, Ishinomaki.” Take a few seconds to inspect the wilted, brown overgrowth of the lot and the scraps and flotsam still lodged in its mud, and you’ll realize you are in the middle what used to be an entire neighborhood – schools, businesses, and paved roads aplenty – before all was scooped up, like doll house figurines, by that moving mountain of water as tall as a skyscraper and as angry as the inner earth itself.
Our guide, a Japanese-Australian student named Kensho Tambara, points to a small glass-enclosed lamp at the monument and explains that its flame has been stolen a few times by locals. In Japan, a country with an astonishingly low crime rate and nearly obsessive levels of respect and communal deference, such vandalism immediately rings as strange.
“Some people didn’t feel they should have the monument,” explains Tambara, who was born to Japanese parents, grew up on the island state of Tasmania, and is now volunteering in Japan with the Israeli NGO IsraAid as he takes a year off from his psychology studies at Harvard. “They felt it was better to move on.”
On the other side of the road, time is frozen at the Kadonowaki Elementary School, where a horrific combination of fires, flooding, and exploding, flying cars took the lives of 362 students and 19 teachers. For a while, the school served as a monument and meeting place for residents to express their grief, but city officials later sealed it off from visitors.
The desire to stuff down the trauma of the massive 9.0 quake and its ensuing tsunami, the most horrific natural disaster to ever occur in this country, is a typical Japanese response. For a culture that cherishes privacy and stoicism and has little practice in the unbridled honesty that comes with Western-style psychosocial care, the horrors of March 11, 2011, are difficult to talk about. When volunteers from IsraAid, which operates in 22 countries around the world and offers psychosocial training in regions including Jordan’s Syrian refugee camps and the nascent cities of South Sudan, arrived in Japan four days after the quake, it was clear that in addition to food and housing, the tsunami survivors needed trauma care. And after a few stops and starts, they developed a program that seems to be working.
Today in Ishinomaki, Tambara will set up a video camera and conduct two interviews for IsraAid’s “Voices of Tohoku” program, a video archival project that allows survivors to add their stories to a growing library to testimonies, one of which now serves as the only oral and visual history that demolished communities will have to hand down to their later generations. The model for the interviews closely follows that which has been applied to dozens of Holocaust archival projects, most notably Steven Spielberg’s video library of survivor testimonies for the Shoah Foundation. Created by oral history expert and IsraAid academic advisor Amia Lieblich, a Hebrew University professor and herself the descendant of Holocaust survivors, the program has been successful, says IsraAid founder Shachar Zahavi, because interviewees are eager to make sure that later generations have the opportunity to hear their stories.
Interviews are conducted inside private homes and are mostly freeflow. There are no set questions, demands or restraints. Survivors are simply asked to touch upon three points: their life before the tsunami, what happened during the tsunami, the state of their lives afterward. How they fill in those blanks is entirely up to them.
At the end of the interview, each subject receives a DVD, with an additional copy placed at the city center, town hall or library. For the half-empty town of Ishinomaki, whose museum of Manga – the beloved Japanese comic style – once brought tourists flocking, it is the NEWSee, and its upstairs “Resilience Café,” that will house the local archive.
“You think a DVD is simple, but for these people, this DVD might be the only memory that they have,” says Yotam Polizer, IsraAid’s Asia Regional Director. Polizer was on the ground in Tohoku by March 15, 2011, and has been at the forefront of IsraAid’s projects in the country, which in addition to video archival include a successful training program in nonverbal therapy methods, including art therapy, drama therapy, and movement therapy. “Their whole house washed away. That means their photo albums, their computers, their USB sticks, whatever. So we give DVDs and in every community we open an archive so that the future generation can learn about what happened in their community.”
Today in Ishinomaki, three years on, there are signs of recovery. Along the city’s still streets, the statues of Manga characters dreamed up by local boy-turned-anime sensation Shotaro Ishinomori are freshly painted and grinning. The Ishinomori Mangattan Museum, a spaceship-shaped shrine to his work and characters that sits at the mouth of a Pacific Ocean bay, has been reopened after a year of repairs. On the day that we visit, the city’s cherry blossom trees are in explosive, stunning bloom, and dozens of families and packs of school children are partaking in the traditional hanami ritual – a festive picnic beneath the delicate pink blossoms.
Japan is one of the most developed countries in the world, with economic output and a population that both dwarf Israel’s. But when it comes to staring down trauma, to speaking about the unspeakable and tackling the unsurmountable, the Israelis behind Voices of Tohoku believe they can make a difference here.
“I don’t see this as aid work,” says Eitan Oren, who grew up in the red Judean hills of Kfar Adumim and now, armed with fluent Japanese and doctoral work from the University of Tokyo, is taking over as IsraAid’s Japan Project Manager. “If people from one country give something that they have to other countries that need it, that’s great. It’s not that we do things better than Japan. But obviously there is a lack of awareness of the post-traumatic here, and we have a sensitivity to it that we can share.”