24 Hours in Miyagi Prefecture
My host Kaori Nakayama of the Japan Arts Council and coordinator of Theatre Planning Network and I are on the Shinkansen Super-Express to Sendai. We are on our way to meet Takako Ofuji, co-founder of Volunteer Info, a charity created to coordinate communication about the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The bullet train gets us to Sendai by noon and we start on our seven-hour drive around the Ojika Peninsula’s coastal towns devastated by the tsunami.
We stopped first at one of the many scores of refugee camps dotted around the north-east of Miyagi Prefecture and briefly met some of the families there. Takako is working with Kaori to organise drama projects with the women living in the camps who have young children; many of whom are finding the geographic and emotional dislocation from their families and previous lives traumatic. The temporary accommodation is small and crowded but well designed. The many thousands of people who find themselves here after being displaced from their homes now constitute a distinct new community.
Robert Walton and Takako Ofuji walk down a street without any houses towards the calm Pacific Ocean. Credit: Kaori Nakayama.
Two hours later we visit the small fishing town of Funakoshi where some of the displaced people come from. Only three buildings remain: the elementary school, a modern house and the walk-in freezers for the fish. All that remains of other buildings are white concrete outlines of foundations. We walk down what used to be a street towards the calm sea, and I realise that this is the first time I have encountered the Pacific Ocean. Standing here it is impossible to imagine how this quiet water, crystalline and flat, and more like a lake than an ocean, could have risen 10m in an instant. But facing away from the ocean it is painfully evident something catastrophic moved through this town and shredded concrete and all the other fabrics of the inhabitant’s lives.
On the fourth floor of the elementary school we met the ‘Funakoshi Ladies’ who return to the ruins of their town during the day to make a range of craft pieces from the iconic roof slates of their old houses. They sit in a bright room, incredibly focused on their work, producing hundreds of charms, bracelets, medals of solidarity, amulets and the like. They laugh a lot.
The Funakoshi Ladies at work
After about an hour in Funakoshi we drive back along the devastated coast passing by sunken bridges, cracked roads and broken sea defences, and through village after village of rubble. We stop briefly at the remains of Okawa Elementary School, which has become a focal point of the tragedy of the tsunami. Here, on a river 4km upstream from the sea, the teachers, on receiving the tsunami warning tried to move their students to higher ground, some up the steep snow covered mountain and some to the roof of the two storey school. But the wave was too huge. Those on the roof were swept away, as were those on the bridge trying to reach higher ground. And of the 108 of the school’s students, 74 died. Ten of the school’s 13 teachers also died on that day. Now only the shell of the school remains, the rest of the town around it has completely disappeared. And on this hot day in June the mud is baked and dusty. A colourful impromptu shrine stands with soft toys, incense, flowers and prayers blown in the wind. The eerie silence is broken only by the procession of trucks leaving filled with the town’s accumulated debris, seven or eight must have passed in the 15 minutes we were there.
The shrine at the ruins of Okawa Elementary School
We leave in silence and drive onwards towards Ishinomaki, one of the largest cities affected by the devastation. Here, from the Kashimamiko Shrine overlooking the city, the scale of the disaster becomes apparent; approximately 46% of the city was inundated by the tsunami. Whole neighbourhoods are now only identifiable by the perimeter foundations of their houses. The city has been ‘tidied up’, but walking around in the ruins it is too easy to see the traces of lives left behind in the twisted pink of a child’s bike, a broken family shrine, crockery and toys. And then in the distance, right beside the sea tower two huge piles: one constituted of thousands of disfigured cars, the other from the remains of homes that 29,000 of Ishinomaki’s residents lost.
The view from Kashimamiko Shrine towards the ocean. Here we see the levelled neighbourhood blocks, the car mountain and beyond to the broken sea defences. Credit: Kaori Nakayama.
What is there to say to each other in the car? Our conversation veers around; some facts, some discussions about art, we concentrate on being cordial and keeping our spirits high.
Kaori had not visited this region since the disaster, but the time for mourning is over. People here are getting on with life, with tidying up, even if they are unsure of what form or direction redevelopment will take once that task is complete. We both are witnesses to the way things are now, never having experienced them as they were. We see one vast absence where once a city teemed with life, all that is left is a million tiny, static objects to detail that history. Apart from the weeds and vast flocks of seagulls, there is no living thing here except us. We struggle to appreciate the enormity of what has been lost.
On the way back to Sendai, the sights, translation fatigue and jetlag gets the better of me. I fall asleep in the back of the car.
Ezuko Hall’s Geiger Counter.
In the morning we visit Ezuko Hall, the Sennan Arts and Culture Centre – a large regional theatre in the south of Miyagi Prefecture. I present my recent site-specific works that utilise mobile video, and we discuss project ideas around the concept of making invisible forces visible. This theme is of critical importance to the people Ezuko Hall serves. They live less than 100km from the failed Fukushima Power Station, and the radiation level in their town changes with the wind. Kaori explains that this long-term legacy of the earthquake is hard to come to terms with and to communicate the on-going impact of that to outsiders. The production manager Hiroyuki Tamabuchi showed us the venue’s geiger counter, which remained in the middle of the table throughout our meeting, its readings constantly fluctuating. He maintains his family’s rice field as well as working at the Ezuko Hall, and feels strongly that arts projects should directly address the presence of radiation in the townspeople’s lives. We parted with lots to consider. Our conversations about co-production and the nature of large-scale community projects using mobile media continue.
In this guest post Robert Walton, a lecturer in Theatre, reflects on his recent visit to Japan following the tragic 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Robert Walton joined VCA a year ago, relocating from Glasgow where he was Associate Head of Performance in The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s School of Drama. Robert’s core studio practices is as a director in experimental theatre and live art. His work has toured in the UK and internationally. In early 2012 his piece Alma Mater was shown simultaneously in London and Melbourne followed by Cologne (Germany).
Robert has recently returned from attending the German premiere of Alma Mater. He visited Japan on the way back having been invited to develop collaborations for future research and arts projects. In addition to delivering a presentation in Tokyo, Robert visited areas directly affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami to further discussions with various communities and arts centres in the affected region about ways of creating performative responses to their recent history.