This isn’t Japan

“This isn’t Japan,” the old man said. He gestured towards the still intact part of the city. “Us living out here, them living over there—this kind of inequality hasn’t existed since the war.”

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Behind him, the dawn tide was still pooled around the hollowed out houses, a kilometre inland. A pig farm stench was seeping through our masks. Sewing kits, rice bowls and t-shirts still lay in the mud, where horse-flies buzzed in clusters. No, I thought; this isn’t Japan.

And yet it was, almost stereotypically so. Japan has earthquakes like Florida has tornados and Bangladesh has floods. Complete devastation is nothing new, although its modern incarnation perhaps is, with cars teetering on gravestones and fences at improbable angles and muddy flat-screen televisions in the streets.

But I knew what the old man meant. The Japan I know is calm, ordered, precise. People here hold an almost fetishistic respect for objects: everything has a place. It is no coincidence that the word for “pretty” or “beautiful” (kirei) is the same as “clean”, and the etymology is echoed in a general fastidiousness.

Yet in Ishinomaki, the landscape is threatened with a chaos that refuses order. Eighty-five days after the quake, and the intimate hints of private lives are still scattered rudely across the mud, touched only by flies. Even if one was to tidy, there is nowhere to put anything. Intimate hints of life—a Barbie doll with her skirt indecently askew, handbags and a single high heeled shoe—have been left to breed mildew in the swamp underfoot.

The tabloids would have you believe that the wave was “ferocious”: the sea a “killer”. But while it’s easy to anthropomorphise water particles, the truth is that nature is not vindictive. It is merely indifferent. It was even brazen enough to leave the equivalent of a chalk drawing at a crime scene: a scum line that rises higher as the rubble sinks into deeper, splintered disorder.

Indifference isn’t the same as a lack of respect, although it may seem that way to us. Water rendered mothers, lovers and sons mere corpses, piles of carbon that needed clearing away. The human body seems pathetically material here; you expect to see a dismembered body part muddled up with the timber and plastic, just as vulnerable and tiny as everything else despite the life that once coursed through it.

Driving into town, you can almost see where the tide ripped the wave across the land, razing back and forth, back and forth. But in the so-called zenkai-chiiki, or completely destroyed area, its path is indiscernible. Everything is mixed together in a spiky soup of wood, wire and tile. Some belongings traveled in clumps—a sewing kit intact but merely displaced by several metres, for example—and others, randomly, with photographs, shoes, blankets strewn throughout town.

The clean up is a daunting task. It’s even more painstaking than I had imagined: with the town records washed away, it seems like the Self Defence Forces and the police are still trying to ascertain which “house”—or pile of rubble—belongs to whom. Shattered rooftops bear notices asking for the homeowner’s permission for removal, but it’s a macabre irony that the only people who can grant it might still be inside, in a progressive state of decay. Perhaps the stench is just the rotting fish, but it’s been suggested that it also comes from those houses so severely flattened that no search crew can get inside.

You wonder: why are people still here? The old man says he has nowhere else to go. Other families have sent their male breadwinners to live elsewhere while they sleep on the second floor of their houses, living off canned fish and the occasional meal from a soup kitchen.

Driving back over the river that acted as a breakwater for the tsunami, to the part of town untouched by the waves, there’s an odd dissonance between the haves and the have-nots. The rest of Ishinomaki is surreally untouched: kids taking ballet lessons, families lunching on sushi, a functioning post office and convenience stores, clean white cars. It’s like coming out of a slum into a gated community. The pig farm smell has gone, to be replaced with the reek of comfort. We are back in Japan.

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