Memorialising loss in a battered Japan

Deciding how to mark the one-year anniversary since the tsunami and earthquake that battered Japan’s northeast.

Protests against the use of nuclear power has spread all over the country since the Fukushima accident [EPA]
Protests against the use of nuclear power has spread all over the country since the Fukushima accident [EPA]

KESENNUMA, Japan – Those who go to visit the giant fishing vessel dumped inland by the tsunami in the coastal town of Kesennuma, where over 1,000 perished, might find 80-year-old Noriko Kanashi holding court in front of it.

She talks to teenage boys, tourists and journalists alike about what having this ship parked in the middle of a disaster zone means to people who lost so much, in an instant, last year after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered a major tsunami.

The sense of loss has been hard to fight in a community dotted with dozens of emergency shelters and a colossal mess, where there was once a thriving fishing industry.

Kanashi points to a spot closer to the coast, where she said her house and business – repairing ship parts – stood. Now rubble and stagnant, fetid pools of water are all that remain on the coastline 498km north of Tokyo

“We don’t want it here,” she said of the ship behind her as a vanload of people get out to take pictures of it, which, she said, she doesn’t mind, as long as they “also pay their respects”.

Those who come by to see the ship seem too taken by its size and placement, however, to notice the small shrine people have set up in front of it to honour those who died underneath it.

“When it landed here, it killed 27 people – they got crushed under it,” said Kanashi. “The area where it landed was one of the evacuation centres.”

She said a city official had mentioned keeping the ship as a monument to the disaster, but Kanashi and others in the community are hoping to put the issue to a referendum.

She says two-thirds of the town are against the idea of keeping the ship there.

“Why would we want a ship here that is filled with ghosts?”

Memories of better days

Roughly 30km away, in Ofunato, a group of design students from Kanagawa University in Yokohama are hoping to create their own memorial of the disaster by trying to capture what was there before the tsunami destroyed the waterfront, killing more than 300 and damaging nearly 5,400 buildings.

They don’t want ghosts here either – they’re just trying to trigger memories of better days.

“I’m from Ofunato, and I was here when it happened,” said Hioka Chiba, 19.

“But I went to school soon after, and felt I should in some way contribute – to help.”

She and her friends, Nao Yamasaki and Kana Sekiguchi, both 19 and from Tokyo, are going around Ofunato, collecting drawings done of the coast prior the tsunami by local children.

They plan on making a mosaic out of them and printing them onto fabric, making wall hangings for local fishermen and shops.

They will also hold workshops for children in the area this summer, asking them to draw the sea, which many children now recall through the cruel lens of a vicious tsunami – as a beautiful memory.

Yamasaki said they hoped the project will “bring joy and serenity to them.”


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