Memory and forgetting were life or death issues for the people of Japan's north-east coast on 11 March 2011. Factory worker Akio Komukai recalls speeding away from the coast after the earthquake struck and meeting children on their way home from school. "They were walking toward the sea and I rolled down the window of my car and shouted: 'Tsunami tendenko' – 'There's a tsunami coming! You need to run away!'"
The young people looked at the 61-year-old Cassandra and kept walking, an episode one imagines being repeated down through the centuries. Tsunami warnings are as common as muck in the Tohoku (north-east) region – there had been one a few days before 11 March. Komukai, who remembers a 1960 tsunami washing away houses, still wonders who among the children survived. "They didn't believe me," he says. "We forget that the sea is close because we build next to it. Then the tsunami comes and washes away the houses and you can see the sea again. And we're reminded."
The tsunami roared through a huge floodgate in picturesque Rikuzentakata on the coast of Iwate Prefecture, sweeping away 45 young firemen trying to shut the gate, tearing the town of 23,000 people from its roots and leaving behind a gaping landscape that reminded survivors of post-Second World War Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Journalists who arrived in the town found car-navigation systems still directing them to the post office, hospital and other landmarks that were no longer there. Survivors could be seen picking through the mud for belongings, especially photo albums. In makeshift refugee centres, photographs plucked from the deluge were painstakingly laid out near the entrances in the hope that their owners might claim them – if they had survived.
The award-winning photographer Dean Chapman walked through the devastation eight months later, noting that only the steel-structured buildings were left standing, "empty and haunting, some with personal memorials set up where bodies were found". Personal items were still scattered around, including children's toys, sports trophies and family albums – "dozens and dozens of lifetimes and memories waiting to be collected". The rain and heat was quickly corroding what was left, and gradually, Chapman notes, "the small, personal details of everyday life in Rikuzentakata are lost forever" – though not entirely. For Chapman himself shot the photographs, the results of which can be seen on these pages.
Separated permanently from their owners and gradually destroyed by the elements, the original photographs themselves are a bitterly sad reminder of the tragedy that erupted from the sea a year ago, and of the lives it took. Many k show children marking the signposts of young life: a newborn being bathed; a child about to blow out her birthday cake candles; a girl in ceremonial kimono at a rite-of-passage festival to mark her seventh birthday; a group of kids playing happily during a school outing; a school performance in front of parents. The children become high-school students, go to university, marry, travel abroad and celebrate national holidays. Did they grow old or were they washed away last March? The photos give no clue.
In Rikuzentakata and all along the Tohoku coast, the old are now trying to bring the past back to life. "It was worse than World War II, because then we knew what to expect," says 88-year-old Atsu Komukai. "This happened so suddenly: the earthquake and tsunami came; the electricity, water, gas, everything went – and we were left alone." Remembering the past is agonising, perhaps one reason why it is so quickly forgotten. In 1933, waves up to 28m tall demolished much of this same coastline, leaving more than 3,000 people dead or missing. Another huge tsunami up to 38m high crashed ashore in 1896, killing 22,000.
Why do coastal areas with millennia of collective memories forget such painful lessons? Experts cite attachment to ancestral land, urbanisation and the shifting of traditional communities, the influx of new people with no knowledge of tsunamis, and the convenience of low-lying areas for the fishing industry. Each generation builds stone monuments at the highest point of the tsunami that struck their homes, then forgets those lessons, their faded stone lettering a metaphor for collective amnesia.
But not everyone forgets: the Oikawa family in Ofunato, further along the coast, lost their house to the sea but the family of five, including Natsuko (12), Hinako (10) and Masatsugu (eight) remembered the stories of tsunamis from their grandmother and ran toward the mountain, away from the coast. One of the few villages to emerge largely unscathed, meanwhile, was Fudai, also in Iwate Prefecture, which is shielded behind a 15.5m seawall and a 205m floodgate built at the astronomical cost of 3.5bn yen. It was considered a classic rural boondoggle at the time, but the man who pushed it through, late mayor Kotaku Wamura, is now considered a hero, driven it seems not by the grubby imperatives of Japan's voracious construction lobby but by the searing memory of the 1933 tsunami that again pulverised the north-east. "When I saw bodies being dug up from the piles of earth, I did not know what to say," Wamura wrote in his biography of the disaster he witnessed and the lessons he learnt when in his twenties.
A few weeks after the disaster, I spoke to Kenji Nakajima, a fisherman in the sleepy fishing village of Sakihama, Iwate. Nakajima and his fellow villagers sheltered for decades behind a 10m reinforced-concrete wall built in front of the sea after a tsunami raced across the Pacific from Chile in 1960, killing 142 people along this coast. The wall of water that inundated his village on 11 March was twice that high, he says. He and his wife Yuki then argued in front of me about whether to build on the same spot or move inland at greater cost. "We can't rebuild here," said Yuki, as her husband kicked at the ground and the now-ruined tsunami wall loomed in the background. "In 50 or 60 years the waves will come back. We'll be dead, but what about our children?"
Families will argue in the same way in the coming years and, if the insurance pays and they can find land, they will shift their house a few hundred metres from shore, where their children and grandchildren will be safer. By the time the next tsunami hits, 61-year-old Komukai may well have passed, and the children he shouted at will have their own painful memories of the 2011 Tohoku tsunami. Most of the towns and villages will have been rebuilt. But the photos salvaged from the muddy ruins of Rikuzentakata? They will have long since faded from memory. 1
David McNeill is the Tokyo correspondent of the IoS