Japan: six months after 3/11, sunflowers and a Tree of Hope




The Tree of Hope stands alone, the sole survivor out of 70,000 black and red pines on a barrier island that was swallowed whole by the Pacific Ocean on a gloomy Friday afternoon, March 11, 2011.


Officials such as Mayor Futoshi Toba have told reporters that they will do everything it takes to keep the tree from dying due to salinity eating away at its roots and core. But there is nothing to block the full force of typhoon winds whipping off the ocean.


On a cloudy afternoon nearly six months after the tsunami, officials won’t let anybody – not even photographers or tsunami survivors — go near the tree. While his colleagues in blue uniforms and masks operate giant cranes and trucks, a stern official closes a gate and hollers “get out of here” at a driver who stops on route 45 to take a brief look at the forlorn tree.


Most of the hardy survivors, who now live in small temporary houses on high ground above their obliterated city, have never seen the tree, and many are not interested in talking about it. Having lost relatives and most of their material world, they are still too distressed to even look at the massive reconstruction efforts going on in a disaster zone stretching more than 300 miles along Japan’s northeastern Pacific coast.


“I don’t go there because it’s difficult to figure out where I am,” says Emi Sato, 34, who lost her home and many relatives in Rikuzen-Takata, and now lives with her husband’s family in Ofunato. “In the night it’s totally dark, and it’s scary even during the day. There are many accidents, and no street signs. I’m too afraid to go there again.”


In a country dotted with ancient tsunami stones warning future generations to beware of tsunamis after earthquakes, there are no official monuments to the tragic victims and heroic survivors of 3/11, Japan’s equivalent of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. There is no televised public debate about how the nation should honor the dead or celebrate the gift of living.


There is also no public investigation – no 3/11 inquiry –into official failures to warn victims about the approach of massive waves, or the fateful – some say criminally negligent — decisions to corral thousands of people into low-lying designated evacuation shelters instead of ordering them to safely escape up nearby hills.


While Japanese politicians grapple for power, and Japanese media focus instead on the latest food scare or celebrity arrest, the folksy rural people of Tohoku – the northeast of the main island of Honshu – have been largely forgotten.


Like the thousands of homeless people in the parks and train stations of Tokyo and Osaka, many tsunami survivors have been left to fend for themselves, despite a massive initial outpouring of sympathy in Japan and overseas. Now living in small, hot pre-fab temporary houses made of aluminum, they must pay for gas, water and electricity bills, as well as their own food and drinks.  “People tell me I should look for a job in order to support myself, but I am still too depressed to go out,” says Mrs. Sugawara, who lost her husband and three grand-children in Rikuzen-Takata. “Now that I am alone without the others in the shelters, I feel more sorrow. I am suffering from trauma, and it seems to get worse every day.”


The number of volunteers, who did so much to cheer up survivors such as Mrs. Sugawara, has dwindled since their peak during the Golden Week holidays in May, and many Japanese have seen their enterprising efforts run into a dispiriting wall of dysfunctional bureaucracy.


Yet many tsunami survivors themselves are continuing to exist on a spiritual level – of acceptance and gratitude – that continues to inspire visitors from the stressed out cities of the “normal” Japan. The people of Tohoku, who were long known for their vibrant festivals and traditional lifestyles, remain the friendliest, most hospitable people in the country.


In small ways which often go unnoticed in Tokyo, they are slowly rebuilding their lives one step at a time.


Women and men such as Yasuo Shimizu, a barber in Ofunato, are opening small, simple shops – a grocery store here, a café there – with no great economic ambitions other than to provide a lifeline to their community. “We are not making money right now, but we are just happy to be alive and to show people that we can start to rebuild our lives again,” says Mr. Shimizu, who lives with his family of four and a dog in a temporary pre-fab house on the grounds of an elementary school.


Their entrepreneurial gumption is spreading across the disaster zone, as larger companies, such as Lawson convenience stores and Maiya supermarkets, are opening franchises on high ground to serve residents who refuse to leave their hometowns in search of new lives in Sendai, Morioka or Tokyo.


In late August, more than 70 percent of eligible voters – including seniors who can barely walk – cast ballots to elect a new town council to replace the 31 officials who died at their posts as a wall of water hurtled over the Otsuchi town hall built fatefully on low land behind massive tsunami walls. The percentage was higher than during nationwide elections for the Parliament, and the winners are younger than the older men who continue to dominate national politics behind the scenes in Tokyo.


In Rikuzen-Takata, Naoki Suzuki, a burly man who lost his town, home and wife Kazue on March 11, has recently begun a paying job driving a truck to organize debris into piles of wood, tires and cars, including his wife’s vehicle, which he found beside the road on the day then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan came to visit Rikuzen-Takata with his entourage.


Mr. Suzuki’s mother Yoneko, who lives in a farm-house at the place where the tsunami stopped about 5 miles from the ocean, has just started to plant a winter crop of white radish and broccoli on soil which she earlier feared would be forever ruined by saltwater from the invading sea.


Her neighbors, meanwhile, are repairing the heavy tile ceramic shingles of roofs that were rocked by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Others are growing sunflowers, which they hope will absorb any radioactive cesium that may or may not be blowing their way from the mysteriously-unreported meltdown still underway at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactors.


From the steep mountain valleys of coastal Iwate province to the flat coastal plains of Miyagi and Fukushima, sunflowers are growing everywhere out of the tsunami-swept fields of debris and mud. Many survivors say that the sunflowers represent the souls of the more than 20,000 people who died or went missing on March 11. 


Rarely noticed previously in Japan, the sunflower, more than the Tree of Hope, has become the unofficial monument to the victims of 3/11. Sunflowers are springing up everywhere in Japan, from the backstage areas of the Fuji Rock Festival, to the temporary pre-fab aluminum houses on school grounds and the dark and ghostly streets of Ishinomaki city, Ofunato town and other human habitats across Tohoku. “It adds color and life to our world of destruction,” says Mr. Shimizu, who planted sunflowers next to his barber shop in Ofunato.


Even on a cloudy day during the typhoon season of September, the sunflowers radiate a golden smile to people such as Mr. Shimizu, who continue to see their future in their beloved seaside towns and hamlets of Tohoku. No matter how much gruff officials try to keep people away from the Tree of Hope, the sunflowers are continuing to multiply in numbers across the northeast of Japan.


Fishermen, hotel managers, pub owners, electricians, carpenters, teachers, students and debris collectors all say that they believe their towns will eventually recover, even if it takes 10 years.  “We are strong people. We can survive anything,” says Fumie Musashi, a bartender in Ofunato. “We will never be defeated by the tsunami.”


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