Imaginative survivors add color to Japan’s ghostly disaster zone

OFUNATO, Japan — In the morbid gray tones of the disaster zone in northeastern Japan, a colorful barber shop stands out above the fields of debris in this port town.

A sign proudly declares that the shop opened on March 26, only two weeks after a monstrous tsunami swept up the narrow Ofunato harbor and over four-story-high buildings. Refusing to surrender to the hellish scene around him, the shop’s owner, Yasuo Shimizu, wanted to do something to cheer up survivors and those working in the wreckage around the shop.

With the help of foreign and Japanese volunteers, and the fruitful imagination of painter Kensuke Miyazawa, Mr. Shimizu turned what could have been an ugly aluminum structure into a beacon of hope amid the rubble. Like the storytelling artwork of Buddhist temples across Asia, the wall paintings on his barber shop depict scenes of the activities of the smiling volunteers themselves. One wall bears the name of each volunteer. “It’s colorful, and it makes people smile when they see this,” said Mr. Shimizu. “I want people to believe that we can rebuild this into a bright, beautiful community for our children.”

Across the disaster zone, survivors and volunteers are adding a cornucopia of colors to apocalyptic scenes. On high ground above the obliterated town of Rikuzentakata, a new supermarket has opened in a prefab structure festooned with festive decorations and colorful banners inside and outside. In the same, newly paved parking lot, the bright signs of a mobile-phone shop call out to survivors who were without cellular-network connections for at least a month after the March 11 tsunami.

In the highlands above the wasteland of the town, a number of vibrant and friendly cafes and noodle shops have recently opened. They serve construction workers and survivors who are learning to fend for themselves again while staying in temporary housing for at least the next two years. Having lost much of their material world, survivors say they value color more than ever before. Small containers of flowers add life to the uniformity of temporary houses built on the parking lot of a local junior high school. Carpenters are even decorating doorways with wood.

Taizo Kumagai, 71, who lost his home and guest house under nearly 50 feet of floodwater on March 11, said he enjoys watering bitter gourd “goya” plants, which are already starting to wind their way up nets outside the aluminum structure. “They add some green color to life,” he said. “Little things like this are important to help us cope with our suffering.”

Many visitors who have returned to the battered northeastern coast are encouraged to see flowers planted along roadsides, in the parking lots and even outside the makeshift trailers housing offices for the new local officials. Hundreds of professional and amateur painters and illustrators have contributed small and massive works to nearly every town hall, evacuation shelter or train station in the disaster zone. Children’s paintings and white Japanese banners bearing hundreds of signatures and messages create a friendly atmosphere at the Ofunato town hall, where overworked officials still smile at the sight of visitors.

Mr. Shimizu, 64, said his colorful barber shop has helped him overcome his phases of shock, grief and despair after the tsunami washed away his old shop and his traditional Japanese home, where his family and ancestors had lived for 130 years. He said the process of renting land and obtaining new business licenses was long and frustrating, not only for him, but for other entrepreneurs in the area. While business is slow, especially on weekdays, he said he’s doing it for the community spirit, not for the money. “We aren’t expecting too many clients to come around here. But we are just happy that we are still alive, and we want to do whatever we can to brighten up the world around us.”

He now shares a tiny, three-room prefabricated house with his wife, Setsuko, and his daughter, Tomomi, 33, both of whom help out at the barber shop, while his 84-year old mother takes care of their dog at home. “It was very difficult for us to move from such a large old house to a crowded evacuation shelter and now a small, temporary house,” he said. “Coming to this barber shop every day keeps me dreaming about better days to come.”

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