Women of Tohoku

I never thought I would visit Tohoku. I am a tourist, after all. Open minded, discerning, cultured all you want but still a tourist. Not a doctor, a social worker, not even an artist – people of social utility, helpful in time of stress.

I thought I would be spying on the pain of others, intruding in a reality of hardship and sorrow, where life was still difficult and wounds still raw. Useless, incompetent, ineffectual and dangerousAnd then a few Japanese friends actually asked me to go to Tohoku and especially visit the area hit by the 2011 Tsunami. They need tourists, they said, people are happy to see new faces, talk, engage.
I love Japan. I spent many happy holidays there. If my superficial, frivolous tourism was needed, I was ready to go. And now that I am back, I want to talk about what I saw and the women I met.

September is a beautiful month in Japan, summer heat is abating, the high humidity is gone but the sun is still warm. On a bright morning, we left Sendai, a beautiful city with leafy avenues and lots of young people because of the many universities, to reach Sanriku Kaigan, the Sanriku coast.

The striking, ragged coastline, at times ending in steep rockycliffs, at times opening up in peacefully secluded bays, festooned by pine trees, was the location most hit by the March 2011 tsunami.

This is nowhere more apparent than in Rikuzentakata, where the destructive wave killed 1,700 people and destroyed 5,000 buildings, eradicating at the same time a forest of 70,000 ageless pine trees.

Only one pine was left standing and it was cherished for a whole year by survivors as a symbol of endurance and rebirth.

Then the tree, its roots poisoned to the core by seawater, died.

In London, a few Japanese artist friends explained the controversy: the local government decided to keep the now mummified tree, standing isolated in what is today a wasteland, as a memento of the disappeared forest and of the thriving community that lived in its shade. The artists, and many others, considered this outrageous and would have preferred a different kind of memorial, created by the people themselves. I was advised to go and see for myself.

First stop at Ippon-matsuin Rikuzentakata. The name means the “solitary pine tree” but it is now known as “miracle pine” or “tree of hope”.
The day is glorious, luminous skies and vivid colours. And yet, closer to the coast, one can observe makeshift accommodation, trucks, tractors, twisted debris dotting the countryside: so unusual in Japan.

The Municipal administration has approved an ambitious plan to elevate the existing ground by many metres with earth transported from the surrounding mountains, in order to fight against future calamities.

A city, another forest, a remembrance park will be created over the existing ones, now destroyed, only at a higher elevation.

Not everybody agrees. Is it safe to build in the same place?Should the land not be left as sacred ground for those who lost their lives?

Gigantic conveyorbelts criss-cross the area, carrying soil for regrading it, and construction workers and vehicles swarm about the place. They bring much needed commercial activity but there is no time to grieve.

At the Visitor Centre we can see pictures of how it was and of what happened.

"Along the shore, there were buildings, beaches, parks and, most of all, people.
Now there is only still water, sand and machines."

Ambitious reconstruction plans are illustrated by colourful architects’ renderings, but the few visitors are silent and dazed. We walk quietly to the tree, eyes full of the beautiful forest no longer there.

But the lonely tree, the Ippon-matsu, is a powerful symbol. Etched against the blue sky, it expresses grief but also endurance, fortitude and compassion, the virtues Japanese revere and strive for.


All eyes leave the devastated ground and look up to the brilliant, peaceful sky and for a moment we are close to the dead and the living.

We continue towards the fishing port of Kesennuma, where 2,000 people died and sections of the city were levelled to the ground.

Reconstruction is still behind schedule.

Many makeshift (“recovery”) markets and simple shops and restaurants, run mainly by women, sprang up around the shore.

A doctor working in the place told me that women seem to cope better with what happened. Men, suffering deeply from unemployment and loss of status, fall into depression, lose hope and start drinking. Women keep busy feeding the construction workers, opening temporary shops and restaurants, selling local products and artefacts.

Incredibly, we are welcomed by smiles everywhere.

It is late for lunch but the two kind ladies behind the counter have pity on us and whisk up the house specialty, a delicious fish and seaweed soup that was “sourced” outside their front door.

The usual chitchat flows naturally and easily. Where are you from? Do you like Japan? I have been to Rome… The walls of the little temporary hut are decorated by pictures and messages left in the past three years by rescue workers and young people from all over the world who came to help. In the photographs, they all seem to cling very closely to each other and it is very moving to see.

At a nearby shop, Yukiko-san brings out several pictures: a young man riding a horse, “my son”, a girl in a beautiful wedding dress, “my daughter”, and she blushes when I recognise her in an elegant dress with her hair done. “…but that was before…” My heart breaks.

Next shop, more smiles, more family pictures and then: “They are all dead…” “Who?” I ask but my Japanese is so lousy that I cannot understand her answer. And for once, I am glad of my ignorance.