Fading memories: Almost a year after the Japanese tsunami a trove of photographsspeak of love, loss and, perhaps still, hope


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

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions