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Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

Photohoku Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

“If a photo is a thousand words, what’s a whole album worth?”

Photohoku–a portmanteau of Photo and Tōhoku–is a project by which we rebuild the photo albums lost in the March 11th tsunami one photo at a time. Here is how it came to be.


The Japanese word Tōhoku (東北) is a generalization meaning “Northeast” and refers to the six prefectures on the northern end of the main island of Honshu: Akita and Yamagata to the west separated from Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate on the eastern Pacific coast by the Ōu mountain range running like a spine from Lake Inawashiro in the south to Aomori’s Shimokita Peninsula in the north.

Much has been written about this forbidding zone, including the songs of the Ryōjin Hishō or Songs To Make The Dust Dance of twelfth-century Japan as translated by Yung-Hee Kim:



omoi wa michinoku ni
koi wa suruga ni kayounari
misomezariseba nakanaka ni
sora ni wasurete yaminamashi

 

My longing goes as far as Michinoku,
as my love wanders Suruga;
if it had not been love at first sight,
it would be easy to forget, fading into the distant air.



Here Michinoku refers to the interior road, the end of the known world. It may have been some of the impetus for Bashō’s own poetic travel writings through Fukushima, Miyagi and beyond, entitled, Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道) or The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

A Shinto torii overlooks Ishinomaki Bay


Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

Mountain-sized heaps of refuse dot the landscape in Ishinomaki


Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

Panoramic view of Ishinomaki Bay - Note the trash pyramid on the left - where Yoshida-Sensei's house once stood

Surveying the Disaster


It is not far-fetched to say that Tōhoku brings to mind the mystique of an impregnable land of mountains clothed in cold white more than half the year, all the while boasting some of the most scenic coastline, not only in the Japanese archipelago, but in the world. That was all but washed away during the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tidal wave off the Pacific coast of Miyagi. From Miyako in Iwate to Sōma and Ishinomaki in Miyagi, heights of the tsunami wave were said to have averaged from 8 to 10 meters (20-30 feet) high, with reports of inundations up to 30 meters (100 feet) high in Ōfunato. Notwithstanding the implications of potential nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Plants I and II, how does one react to the 300,000 displaced people in the Tōhoku region, the shortages of food, water, shelter, medicine and fuel, the overall devastation to the millions of people who live in these rugged coastal towns? Only as of October 11, 2011 are local authorities finished building temporary housing units for the survivorswho saw their homes and all of their possessions, from cars to clothes to photographs, destroyed in an instant. What would happen next?Jump to the frenetic aftermath of late March and April amid the countrywide shortages of water, food and electricity, with everyday people making heroic sacrifices, humanitarian organizations scrambling for relief supplies with the government vacillating on what to do about a seemingly corrupt TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company). Scores of grassroots movements rose up from the confounding depths. One such, led by the enigmatic photographer Dairou Koga, owner of Tegamisha Hibari Books in Tsutsujigaoka, Tokyo, gathered several photographers to create Tokyo Ga, a photobook showcasing images from photographers across Japan, all proceeds of which go to the Red Cross. Doing the Tokyo-Ga charity book inspired some local Tokyo photographers to offer to take family portraits for charity. Word of mouth attracted tens of families to the cause and raised nearly two thousand dollars, donated to Ashinaga, a charity that helps children orphaned by the tsunami.

A little more time passes and the 24-hour news cycle is inevitably distracted by other stories: the Arab Spring, Gaddafi, rioting in London, a potential double-dip recession. Much as the waters of the tsunami eventually receded, the ephemeral passage of time flowed on, but what was left behind? For most life goes on as it were. Yet not for the millions of survivors up north, many of whom were still living on cots in gymnasiums, and eating out of communal rice cookers, awaiting their temporary housing. The word permanent begins to take on differing shades of meaning. Here is where the disconnect occurs. The world outside has allowed the ravaged area to fall by the wayside and mostly picks up on stories of a nuclear bent. But what about Tokyo? Has that old love-at-first-sight mystique stepped in to cordon off the impenetrable interior road and to dissociate the rest of Japan–mired as usual in their own humid summer–from the survivors and to focus, if on anything, on no confidence in yet another Japanese Prime Minister? Despite all this people are still full of anxious energy, searching for projects which to devote themselves. Many have the same idea–to go see the area for themselves. But how to do something special, something different, more than a book. But what exactly?

Tokyo is full of photographers, and more to the point, cameras: beyond 35mm, there is a galaxy of used medium and large format, panoramics, Hasselblad with Zeiss perfection, the German masterpiece Linhof and Japan’s own Mamiya Universal with the magical 100mm f2.8 lens, the Polaroid and the Konica Instant Press. Aha, Polaroids! Too bad they’re out of business. Fuji then. What about taking a bunch Fuji instant film and giving the photo to the people right then and there? A contact at Fujifilm had donated over 40 cases of film (20 pack / 200 photos per case) of everything they have: standard, 4×5 color, black and white, and told us there was more where that came from. How much they would love that, the kids and their parents, forging new memories on the spot? No doubt they lost their own photo albums. This would be a way to start again. Rebuild life by making new memories.

Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

Twins posing with their father receive Instant Fujis prints for their new photo albums


Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

A young boy poses with an insect net for his portrait

Rebuilding On the Ground


Photography is about capturing the proper light, but timing can be just as important. Arriving in Ishinomaki–roughly five hours by car from Tokyo–just after sunrise and ascending a local hilltop provides the clearest vista of the beautiful crescent-shaped bay. Telltale signs of all the destruction begin to appear, but without a guide it’s difficult to know just what happened. Local resident and English teacher Yoshida-sensei approaches and politely points to an orderly 7-story pile of debris, says that was where his house was. He talks of being stranded on an island for two days with his students, and eventually rescued by self-defense forces. Is it okay to ask him if his loved ones are safe? How to say this without seeming ignorant, insensitive, or oblivious to his plight? How to even begin asking this question of people? In a warm voice Yoshida-sensei says that six months have passed and now, finally, we can start to talk about things.

Having gotten the lay of the land from on high is different than taking in all the devastation on the ground. The pure fetid stench of the port, the piles of rubbish, twisted heaps of metal, jumbles of defunct cars, the rusted and gutted skeletons of houses and offices, blasted concrete rubble of empty schools and hospitals, the incongruity of a warzone-like appearance in idyllic coastal Japan boggles the mind. Everything is a photograph. All of this should be in Time Magazine. Every single one of these people, the busloads of masked volunteers stretching and loitering, the locals toiling at a deliberate pace, the caravans of bicyclists rolling over the pebbled streets, the school children screaming and frolicking like nothing has happened at all, all of them deserve recognition, not only for surviving the deluge–likely while losing family and friends–but for the strength to continue in the face of boundless adversity.

The inundation with international media coverage has inured the denizens of Ishinomaki to press coverage. It is understandable that most do not react to cameras in the typical Japanese manner (flashing a peace sign), nor do they acknowledge requests or return simple greetings. Taking polaroids at the temporary housing units felt like being spectators at a zoo. It was unnatural until the locals realized that these were gifts, that these photographs of themselves and their families were theirs to keep and, what’s more, there is no negative. No reciprocal trace of their image to be taken away from them. This is both literally and figuratively, a new beginning.

Meeting all six members of the Saijo family and talking to them outside of their temporary housing unit, asking questions, getting to know them and hearing their stories feels like a really important part of the process of healing. Just having someone to listen to what you say and try to empathize, rather than writing and recording it for a sound bite, this is what is often missing from humanitarian missions. Providing people with a photograph, a photo album–something they do not need, somatically speaking–is an often overlooked step in getting back to feeling like a part of the human race.

Looking back over everything that took place, realizing that it is almost impossible to relay to anyone with mere words, one reaches for the photograph of the kids posing with their dad, a few musicians playing shamisen improvised from snow shovels at a local festival, a panorama of a seemingly peaceful bay, which in reality traces the arbitrary and destructive power of nature. How to explain this? How to make an anecdote out of it? Yoshida-sensei was right. They just don’t get it, they couldn’t.

If a picture is worth 1000 words, then when you lose a whole photo album it’s like the washing away of your entire past. The fact remains that Fujifilm donating cases of film has allowed tens of hundreds of families to begin to rebuild their lives in a different way than just what is necessary to survive. The new photo albums are a way to remember lost pictures, forgotten memories. They provide a map to your own memories.

The goal of Photohoku is to photograph every family at every temporary housing unit in the affected areas, any family that wants a new photo album. Beyond that the goal is to shoot every family in Japan that lost their family photos and want a new album. It is ambitious but possible with the continued support of Fujifilm and individuals like you. People are ready to pick up the pieces. It’s not too soon nor too late, it’s the perfect time right now.

Perhaps this reader comment sums it up best: “This project amazes me on so many levels, not least of which is what it does to remind me of just how very special a photograph can be, in providing a touchstone in the now that, while it cannot restore all that has been lost is, by all accounts, helping to link the present with the past for the people of Tohoku as they attempt to rebuild their lives. Never has the axiom: a picture is worth a thousand words, felt more apt.”


Please consider sharing anything you can, even if its just your moral support and this link. We’ll be visiting again the first week of November.

Please also consider donating previous working digital cameras (and chargers), as we will give them to the same families that we are providing started albums for, so they can continue them. Eventually, we would like to facilitate printing the photos that they will take with your cameras. We need help realizing all of these efforts.

Please mail cameras (or anything else you want to get to Tohoku) to:

Photohoku
Entre House Komazawa
1-3-2-102 Komazawa
Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, 154-0012
Japan

Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

Yuko talks with a local man at the temporary housing unit


Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

Yoshida-sensei and family receive their new photo album


Photohoku - Rebuilding One Photo Album At A Time

Deluged & battered but still standing, the flag of Japan flaps on


 

About the Author

Brian Scott Peterson is a photographer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Brian Scott Peterson: “We realized when we gave them the photos. It’s amazing how people reacted. They cried. We cried. Its the most fulfilling photographs I have ever taken and perhaps the most fulfilling thing I have ever done in my life. I feel guilty how good it makes me feel to do it, but it’s all I want to do. I wish I could be doing it right now.” His website is here.

Copyright

Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

The Specter of Fear

Meditations: After the Quake

Photo © Max Hodges, maxhodges.com

Photo © Max Hodges, maxhodges.com

I’ve got death inside me. It’s just a question of whether or not I can outlive it.

— Don DeLillo (White Noise),

It’s in the air, it’s all around you. You can try and brush it off, but it pervades your body willfully, silently. It accumulates. It makes you sick.

I’m not talking about radiation. I’m talking about pain. They’re checking the soil, the air, the sea for those tiny particles of death, the iodine, cesium, plutonium- but there’s no Geiger counter for pain. Could we invent some complex equation to detect it instead? Is losing your husband ten times more painful than losing your home, and the loss of your child the square of that? And does hunger and cold multiply it all?

Grief can be more lethal than radiation. Widows and widowers give up, slaughtered by sorrow. Mothers, bereft of their little ones, find little point in living any more. What is a lethal dosage of pain? Is it determined by length and intensity of exposure? Is it contagious? And if we could detect it, would the meter whine or scream around Ishinomaki, Rikuzentakata, Ofunato, Kesennuma?

—-

Photo © Max Hodges, maxhodges.com

Photo © Max Hodges, maxhodges.com

This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.

– Don DeLillo (White Noise)

We spent the week worried, sleepless, earnest: constantly plugged into the information flow that floated, ethereal and intangible, around us. But gradually, we became blasé. And exhausted: the aftershocks and the endless explosions- albeit 150km away- barely ruffled our sleep, snatched as it was between televised updates from the government.

Thoughts came fitfully, as insolently separate as baubles of mercury. We lurch from panic to calm like a car grating from first gear to fifth. And as the foreign film crews retreat to the Middle East, we’re left with the aftermath, wondering: when will this end?

Their grief is too quiet for television. Stoicism refuses sympathy, and denial delays the shock. After a week of no supplies, we suddenly have images of incredibly organized havens of seemingly ordinary life, with cleaning duties and barbers and hot communal baths.

I feel guilty for all the times I have criticized the way that Japanese people work: slowly, doggedly, by consensus and communally. It can be frustrating when no one wants to stand out by taking the initiative, or to blaze a trail. But watching how the refugee centers have sprung into action, with ordinary teachers and office workers doing a stellar job of rationing, administering aid and giving people a sense of responsibility and self-worth by delegating tasks, I realize the point of this working system. They seem born to deal with crisis, born to persevere and to cope with very little resources. Watching events unfold, I don’t doubt that a team of 70-year-old Japanese women could whip any refugee camp into shape within a week, with shoes off at the door and lights out by ten.

Photo © Max Hodges, maxhodges.com

Photo © Max Hodges, maxhodges.com

The only shame is that their apparent strength, coupled with the perception of Japan as a rich country (although it is), dulls the empathetic response abroad. Donations from abroad have been only a sixth of those given to Haiti after the same time period, and Twitter is full of ineffectual pleas to “pray for Japan,” rather than the “pay for Japan” that might actually get something done.

The media has several ways of dampening public interest in new stories after they have occupied the headlines for a few weeks. With the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, it was stories of looters and violence: unfair and irresponsible reporting that made hungry and desperate people into criminals for stealing powdered milk. The recent Tohoku earthquake captivated the world for a few short hours before the nuclear crisis stole the front page. And then, as Gaddafi’s lunatic regime notched up its barbarity, the world’s eyes shifted, consigning Japan’s ongoing misery to the secondary, then tertiary, newspaper sections.

—-

The Specter of Fear

The Specter of Fear

Fear is unnatural. Lightning and thunder are unnatural. Pain, death, reality, these are all unnatural. We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise. This is how we survive the universe. This is the natural language of the species.

— Don DeLillo (White Noise)

Ironically, even as the seriousness of the situation deepened- it’s in the water supply, the milk, the vegetables, the sea–media outlets quietly closed down their 24 hour live feeds and the public’s panic duly subsided. Some stragglers are tiptoeing back to Tokyo, having run out of clean underwear and things to do in Osaka. They look bewildered at the altered capital: occasionally empty shelves, the shut-off neon signs, and the silence in the streets. I long stopped noticing any of those things. I haven’t felt aftershocks in a few days now. Perhaps I have become immune–or apathetic.

But the scares go on: iodine found at 1000 times the normal level in seawater a mile from the plant, plutonium in the soil, although similar level as those found in the past caused by nuclear testing abroad. But something the foreign media don’t tell us is that The US Environmental Protection Agency would deem soil with this level of contamination fit for farming.

—-

TEPCO chief speaks on NHK

"Since the radiation has already spread, we expect the concentration to lessen quite quickly."

There’s only so much panic we can take. Are we supposed to accustom ourselves to a new reality, in which we tally up glasses of milk until we reach a fatal total, or switch from feeding our children green vegetables to protecting them from them? I don’t think so. Japanese television is quite content to return to normal programming, perhaps relieved to be excused from making plastic models of helicopters and nuclear power stations and wheeling out nuclear experts with bad hair every night. So we carry on working, sleeping, drinking. We turn off our electronic devices and pretend for a few hours that nothing is wrong.

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.

Copyright

Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Critical State ©Tommy Oshima

Creative Ways to Donate to Tohoku Quake Tsunami Relief Effort

Video © Atomicboyx of the children’s relief organization KID’S EARTH FUND

As of this writing (March 22, 2011) the Japanese National Police Agency has 9,199 confirmed deaths, 13,786 people missing as well as more than 125,000 buildings destroyed in the March 11th Tohoku Earthquake, the subsequent tsunami and the ongoing Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident. The World Bank has estimated the damage, between US$122 billion and $235 billion, could take five years to rebuild. No longer should we ask ourselves should I stay or should I go? Rather we should ask, no matter where we may be, what can I do to help?

Here are a few ways people both inside and outside of Japan are helping.

Jennifer Schwartz Gallery talks about Life Support Japan, the effort by photographers and galleries worldwide to raise money for the hundreds of thousands directly affected. Proceeds from the silent auction were donated to Direct Relief International and Habitat for Humanity Japan.

The Life Support Japan auction has ended but that was just the beginning. A number of Tokyo-based photographers have taken the auction idea into their own hands and are publicizing their donated prints via Flickr Charity Print Auction Group. It’s a great way to support the relief effort and commemorate the process with a high quality print for your wall.

©John Nelson

©John Nelson

John Nelson is auctioning the above print (among others) of his photography with all proceeds to be donated to charity. Bid here.

Critical State ©Tommy Oshima

Critical State ©Tommy Oshima

Tokyo-based photographer Tommy Oshima is auctioning the above “Critical State”. Bid here.

Hello ©Erika Pham

Hello ©Erika Pham

Tokyo-based photographer Erika Pham is auctioning the above print of her exceptional photography. Bid here.

A Picture Is All You Are To Me ©Uchijin

A Picture Is All You Are To Me ©Uchijin

Tokyo-based photographer Uchujin has updates from inside Tokyo and is auctioning the above print of “A Picture Is All You Are To Me ” as well. Bid here.

Crying ©Sean Wood

Crying ©Sean Wood

Tokyo-based photographer Sean Wood is auctioning a print of the above “Crying”. Bid here.

Mannequin ©Jon Ellis

Mannequin ©Jon Ellis

Tokyo_based photographer Jon Ellis is auctioning a print of the above”Mannequin” from the recent Fragments of Tokyo 2011 exhibition. Bid here.

Kamikura shrine, adorned in Cherry Blossoms ©Manny Santiago

Kamikura shrine, adorned in Cherry Blossoms ©Manny Santiago

Manny is auctioning the above print Kamikura shrine, adorned in Cherry Blossoms. Bid here.

Nippon Kizuna Artwork by Justin Sereni

Nippon Kizuna Artwork by Justin Sereni

James Hadfield of Time Out Tokyo writes that “one of the most globe-straddling offerings to date comes courtesy of an international group of Tokyo-based artists, plus a London music writer who had the misfortune (or is it good luck?) to arrive in town the day before the quake hit. Nihon Kizuna collects 50 tracks, many of them unreleased exclusives, from heavyweight electronica producers and avant rockers such as Kode 9, The Qemists, Ernest Gonzales, Daisuke Tanabe and Slugabed. Clocking in at over 3 hours, it raised more than $5,000 on its first day of sale alone.”

Price: £10/$15/1,500 yen/12 euros or more
Available from: Bandcamp, Japanese iTunes Store (from Monday 21)
Proceeds to: Japanese Red Cross Society

OTHER WAYS TO DONATE SAFELY TO JAPAN DISASTER RELIEF:

Hitchhiking to Shinagawa © Alexis Wuillaume

During The Quake

Hitchhiking to Shinagawa © Alexis Wuillaume

Doing the Improbable - Hitchhiking to Shinagawa © Alexis Wuillaume

Disaster hits in three stages: first local, then national, and finally global. When the room starts to shake like a airplane in horrific turbulence, you don’t think about words like “epicenter,” “death toll,” or “recovery effort.” The room is simply shaking and you are gritting your teeth and hoping that the next second doesn’t bring you to your feet, or the ceiling down on your head.

But when it stops and news begins to stream in, you start to wonder. The screen vibrates with a violently colored graphic of Japan with its coasts painted in glaring red, and you start to wonder.

For me, it happened like this. Two days ago we had a slight tremor that was big enough to make people feel a little shaky. This morning, cycling to work, I entertained morbid thoughts about what I would do were I to find my boyfriend buried in rubble, some limb pinned beneath a piece of our apartment wall. It isn’t unusual for me to conjure up a mental image so graphic, as I use imaginary cycling accidents to curtail my more reckless impulses for speed. But I was struck with a lump in my throat at this morning’s thought experiment, as I realized I would be both helpless and ignorant in an earthquake. I even pondered taking a first aid course. I didn’t really think about how fucking useless knowing the Heimlich manoeuvre or the recovery position would be if your house is dwarfed by filthy, debris-filled water.

I was on the ninth floor of the Asahi Shimbun’s building in Tsukiji, which is next to the famous fish market situated in Tokyo Bay. I was just about to go on my lunch break when a few subtle tremors, similar to those we felt two days ago. My boss, also British, muttered “ah come on, gimme a bit more.” The mood was jovial, light. The earthquake, however, was serious.

They shift erratically and capriciously, these tremors. They dart around like an indecisive musical score making its way to a crescendo. While this one was still simmering the mood was light, though in a forced way—one of my colleagues locked his jaw and squeezed out a hard grin, as if to convince himself he was in control. It then came up to a raging boil and the smiles were wiped off our faces. A woman held, helplessly, onto the corner of a bookshelf that shifted its contents—around 200 books—onto the floor with a crash. Those in the IT section gripped to the boxes that housed dozens of new computers, looking somewhat glad for the support that the corrugate cardboard wall gave them.

Earthquake map Source: Center for Geospatial Technology at TTU

Earthquake map Source: Center for Geospatial Technology at TTU

It was going up and down, side to side—like a cruel wind over the Pacific when you’re in a light aircraft and the flight attendants are screaming. The office, however, was oddly quiet. I looked at my two colleagues and they looked back at me, our eyes darting around the circle, trying to intuit what emotion was flashing behind our one another’s eyes. It was as if we were trying to protect each other, by not obviously freaking out, by maintaining some of our famous British veneer. I think I asked a few times, ‘What do we do now? At what point do we get the hell out?”, but the tremors were such that even the thought of traversing the office floor, never mind getting down nine flights of stairs, was too much to contemplate.

After about two to three minutes—it’s hard to say since every second seemed insanely long—it started to simmer down, leaving everyone looked like they were clinging to the mast of a shipwreck. And then, with a great deal of aplomb, everyone picked themselves up, started chattering and muttering, “Sugoi… sugoi…” (a catch-all term for ‘amazing,’ ‘awesome,’ ‘incredible’) and turning up the volume on the TV.

“That was distinctly unpleasant, and very far from funny,” said my boss, with typical British understatement.

I felt an urge to laugh or giggle, inappropriate as it was. My heart felt like I’d just done too many lines of cheap speed, beating out of my chest and making my skin itch and my stomach hurt. So much for a lunch break; I felt like breathing in too heavily would make me vomit.

No one could concentrate. There was worried mutters and chatters, everyone turning to the television and shouting out numbers: magnitude, height of waves, populations. There’s something faithful and concrete in figures that somewhat numbs the shock, the feeling of helplessness. We were supposed to get on with editing, but who can concentrate with the screen jolting all over the place? One of my colleagues muttered darkly, “Fuck, they better hurry on and give me the rest of my work for today or I’ll be too fucking terrified to do it.”

There was more humour on the stairs, where people were lugging up crates of beer and tea. By the time they reached the 9th floor, on the way to the 13th, they looked exhausted. “You look tired,” I commented, and they shot back, “Jesus, this is tough,” but with a smile.

I can’t remember when we first started getting the footage from the epicenter in Miyagi Prefecture. The first stills on the TV were warnings of a 6 meter tsunami along the coast, to hit Miyagi as well as Iwate and Fukushima. In actuality, the waves reached 10 meter. The footage was too awful to describe, and the optimist in me kept thinking that maybe all those people were able to escape elsewhere. Maybe all the cars being pierced by debris and driftwood would be open and the people would have already escaped elsewhere. Maybe the van driving down the middle of a rice field as the wave slammed into the paddy next to it…escaped. Now that the numbers are rising, in that foreboding ticker tape that all Tokyoites seem to be plugged into, it seems more likely that my optimism is misplaced.

Out of the window we could see a thick plume of charcoal smoke, emerging from Odaiba, an area constructed on reclaimed land out in Tokyo Bay. The sky was dark at 4pm. The TV screens were even darker, with swathes of black liquid swallowing boats and cars like an insatiable, fictional slime. It was, and still is, impossible to imagine what those people experienced. It is even harder in a world where the images resemble a SimCity game of destruction. Too virtual, too removed, to be real.

The aftershocks started coming, and kept coming. It’s now thirteen hours after it hit- 4am- and they’re still coming, these sickening jolts and hums. You feel seasick in your house. The floor no longer grounds you. Everything else is just something that could fall on you.

It’s hard to describe the mood in the office. The best word to describe foreigners at my desk would be ‘giddy’. Still punch-drunk on adrenaline, reeling from the magnitude of what had occurred, and struggling to get back to normality to try and complete our jobs for the day.

We were told we could go home if we wanted, but all of the subway and overland train services had been halted until further notice. I was on my bike, so able to eventually escape, hoping for a fast ride to try to burn off some of the leftover adrenaline.

A sobering sight - Empty shelves abound © Sophie Knight

A sobering sight - Empty shelves abound © Sophie Knight

I had no such luck. I stopped at a convenience store to buy batteries, and found them to be about the only product left on the shelves. Thousands of people were walking in the street, in a long sombre procession to get home—if their homes were within walking distance. Some people set off to Kawasaki, about 20 kilometers away. Everyone in the line clutched bread and instant noodles, bearing in mind that many people had lost electricity and/or gas and they might not have any way to cook their spoils. Funnily enough, the only thing in lesser supply than dry foodstuffs was booze: the shelves were bare. While I was hoping a manic cycle would swallow the adrenaline, other people were obviously seeking the more direct route. The theme was the same in the rest of the supermarkets I passed.

The roads were hell. Every single one of Tokyo’s 13 million inhabitants seemed to have spilled out in their vehicles. Intersections were jammed with cars positioned diagonally across, having attempted to turn and having found nowhere to go. I had to snake around cars, other bikes, and a massive pedestrian exodus that was relentless for the whole of the 8 kilometers home. Some people were wearing white hard-hats, or helmets, which I think they were issued at the office. No one looked particularly distressed, or shell shocked. This is probably because Tokyo escaped relatively unscathed, but those who have relatives in Iwate, Miyagi or Fukushima might not be so lucky.

UPDATE: Things are getting really weird here. Radiation is now a worry although the govt and others are saying that dispersion means that levels in Tokyo won’t rise. But the minister Edano dodged a question about it in a press conference and wouldn’t give info. I got my hands on a report commissioned by the BBC and they say it’ll take 8 hrs for air from Fukushima to reach Tokyo. Everyone’s fleeing but for the moment I’m taking my chances and staying put.

DONATE SAFELY:

1Center for Geospatial Technology at TTU

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.

Copyright

Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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