Master of Architecture candidate at the University of Washington. Spending October 2010 - March 2012 as a researcher at Kobe University on a Monbusho Fellowship, sponsored by the Japanese government. Researching the cultural and practical relationships between water and public space. Documenting research and reflections.

13 July 2011

Kobuchihama, Oshika Peninsula, Miyagi Prefecture, Northeastern Japan

Reflection on field research through volunteering

Sasaki-san's wife feeds us

sea pineapple

In the North, something like a renaissance is underway. Doors normally sealed tight, mouths shut and lives lived out in private have been wrenched open. This tragedy has left many homeless, or without family, or both. Some sit listlessly in school gymnasiums. Some will never be able to begin again.

But the swarthy fishermen of the Oshika Peninsula, with their stalwart wives, are making a go of it. They open their hands and ask for help. In compassion, many go North, or East, or West, as the case may be, to try and lessen the burden for these suddenly in need. I visited the Oshika Peninsula, northeast of Ishinomaki (about an hour driving north of Sendai) for the third time last week, to volunteer with the newly established non-profit International Disaster Relief Organization (IDRO) Japan.

As you must know, the disaster area is not evenly afflicted. The level of damage caused by the thick black pulses of the March 11 tsunami are directly related to local physical geography. A deep harbor absorbed the wave’s force, leaving the nearby down wrecked only by water damage. The long low sloping Sendai plane did nothing to mitigate the wave’s force. Three and a half months after the tsunami, the city feels clean and almost untouched. Driving north along the freeway we first see mountains of debris along the city perimeter and then, looking toward the ocean, hectares of fields left fruitless and salted for the next several years.

The Oshika Peninsula is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been: its lobed edge and mountains rising steeply out of the sea reminding one of an earlier Puget Sound, a milder Vancouver Island. Rounding each turn we see a new and stunning spatial condition: another perfect little harbor. Each harbor is divided into three zones: the sea, a band of village, and the forested hills. A further delineation now scores a datum into the three zones: the high water mark. In a narrow valley, this mark runs further inland. Along a river, the wave constricted and intensified, leaving houses wrecked far from the sea. In an older settlement, the mark coincides with the main road: rebuilt after the datum of the last tsunami (Chilean Earthquake, 1960) or perhaps the one before that (Showa Tsunami, 1933). A fellow IDRO volunteer named the datum: the Heaven and Hell line.

The resilience of the forests and birds, and the apparently optimistic forgetfulness of the sea make the wrecked village all the more pathetic. The arbitrary datum leaves a surreal landscape: larger, more sturdily built public buildings like the fish processing warehouse or the elementary school are structurally intact and can be occupied above the second or third floor. In Funakoshi village we are lodged on the third floor of the comparatively grandiose elementary school while we build a public bathhouse. Here, all is normal, not a book out of place, the maps hanging quietly on the walls, pedagogy a stillness in the air. The fantasy lasts to the stairwell or the windowsill, then dies. Late at night, I must go outside to use the toilet. Descending the three floors of stairs I will myself not to shine my flashlight too inquiringly into the dark rooms on the lower floors. I will myself to avoid the visions of seaweed and children.

Locals are not so skittish. Sitting around a low fire, a young man remarked to his fellow (another in my volunteer group),
            “Did you see that ghost?”
            “No,” said the American.
            “It was a child, I think, but it didn’t want anything, it’s just hanging around.”
The notched hinoki cedar columns and beams of some of the fine old houses backing into the hills managed to evade destruction. These remaining structures have become a dense base for survivors willing to begin again. In two villages I visited, I had the chance to meet the local leaders of the recovery planning. Both boast immense personalities with rich and interesting personal histories built up as they plied their way through seven seas as sailor, fisherman, or signaler of freighters. Both occupied houses only mildly damaged by the tsunami. Perhaps they were appointed by the local government before the disaster, as is the case with some new leaders in the north, but it seemed to us that they were the somewhat peripheral members of the village stubborn enough to stick it out.

Nakazato-san, in Funakoshi, tells us about the day of the tsunami
In the recently reconfigured villages in the coastal region, some survivors crowd into the remaining houses. Usually, the person who has stepped forward to lead is a middle aged male. Other former residents live with children or other family members in Ishinomaki, but commute daily to places like Funakoshi to continue the harvesting and processing of wakame seaweed. Volunteers generally stay in the largest, best preserved public building. At this point, electricity has come online everywhere as far as I can tell, and the water supply is returning as we speak. Sewers and drains are largely still clogged by thick mud, so emergency toilets have been distributed to many hamlets.

the wakame harvesters of Funakoshi

When we imagine what it must be like from the undamaged luxury of Kansai (southwestern Japan), we are fed by a slowly decreasing trickle of images from the media. Discussing perspectives and opinions with my students at the English school where I work part time, I get a sense for public opinion. Long term residents in Kobe can remember living through earthquake recovery, but admit that this situation in northeastern Japan (Tohoku) is much worse. In general, people are frustrated with the ineffective actions of the Prime Minister and the lack of a strong, clear vision for recovery. Some are shocked at the inappropriate light heartedness shown by the Prime Minister at a recently stalled meeting. Others are unimpressed with the superficial coverage offered by mainstream news media when compared to reports surfacing from volunteers and visitors via online social networking. 

I mentioned a renaissance. I refer to the voices of the social media (many young, educated, urban) and their collision not only with the formerly introverted aging fishing communities of the north, but also with other volunteers. These include many self contractors who work in spurts: in a way the cowboys, renegades, and outcasts of contemporary society. Finally, it is the collision of these young pundits and activists with one another that fires this renaissance. Those who were socially conscious ronin[1] have found a clear and simple task: digging Tohoku out of the mud and then talking about it.
Aa-chan, wearing porpoise helmet

There are a handful of volunteer organizations channeling labor to the North. They are distinguishable by their level of logistical organization, their strategy, and their inclusiveness (native Japanese, fluent in Japanese, of Japanese heredity, foreign living in Japan, or foreigner visiting Japan: each must self-identify and seek out the aid organization capable of transporting, housing, and directing her). One of the largest aid organizations in Japan is the Nippon Foundation. Funded by a percentage of the annual takings of all gambling institutions in Japan, the Foundation not only offers direct aid but coordinates volunteer groups and funds a litany of small NGOs.
In my first two visits, I volunteered with an NGO called Nikkei Youth Network, focused on strengthening ties between Japan and anyone identifying a strong interest in Japan through service and social media. We were rolled into a larger group of college aged Japanese volunteers led by the organization Gakuvo. The visits were highly structure, almost militaristic: or perhaps simply conducted like a Japanese school trip. We traveled in buses, took regular breaks, and worked in general 6 hours a day until 3 pm. On the first visit, I met Kurosawa-san. He was my first indication that the recovery effort was not as strict and methodical as it first had seemed. We hopped into his messy van and he revved the engine, white towel wrapped around his head like a ramen chef, small round dark glasses in place. he drove us on a tour all around the peninsula, giving us an idea of the scope of the damage and the range of the responses from combination of locals and aid groups. Slowly, we pieced together that he is humbly in charge of the whole Nippon Foundation operation in Oshika and Ishinomaki.

One person he wanted us to meet was a fellow Seattleite, a carpenter named Robato-san. Robert Mangold, a former marine from Bainbridge Island, settled as a civilian in Kansai in 1995, in time to help the recovery after the Great Hanshin earthquake in Kobe. He is extremely amiable, speaks perfect Japanese, runs an antique business in Kyoto, and prefers notching to nailing his beams together. Rob is the director of IDRO, Japan. He says,  
“IDRO's tactics focus on direct action in small communities often overlooked by the blanketing strategies of larger organizations. By forging ties with local leaders we are able to tailor relief to support individual needs. It is these relationships that allow us to match relief in whatever form that takes to the ever-changing environment of the area in question. Our aim is not to create dependency but to cultivate the self-reliance of these communities, so it is paramount that we work with the community instead of for or in lieu of the community. Every job is done with the help of the community.” Mangold and Kurosawa originally met in early March at a meeting organized by the local government. Unlike the local government, Mangold and Kurosawa agreed that well-timed, direct action on a small scale would help surviving communities the most. Mangold started his own cadre of volunteers when he became frustrated with the work ethic set by the Nippon Foundation for the volunteers to avoid overworking. So Rob now comes up to the Oshika Peninsula a few times a month, bringing volunteers willing to work every daylight hour.

Others feel the same way. On my five-day trip, we met two Japanese Harley Davidson fanatics who rode up on their bikes, a scaffolder, an aid for an autistic student who also drives dump trucks, a volunteer with Japan’s version of Peace Corps currently at home from Africa on holidays, a music lover who brought us some scotch…

These renegade Robin Hoods bring with them a wide variety of practical skills: They are deployed sometimes according to logistics planned by the Nippon Foundation, sometimes as a result of a town meeting, and sometimes by simply hanging around. For an hour after lunch one day, people rummaged around in their vans or organized their tools, waiting for someone to approach and ask for help. After a while, another volunteer came up and gathered a few strong arms for a specific task. On the way we saw a lonely individual scratching at a patch of dirt aside her house. We elected that a woman might feel more comfortable receiving help from another woman, so I grabbed a shovel and joined her. After and hour of hard digging she stopped, wiped the sweat away and explained “I only do a little at a time, but I come out here everyday.” I had to respect her wish to stop, although one of the men might have stubbornly ploughed on to finish the job and really help. But between the two of us, I had no right to overpower her decision, even in a show of goodwill.

As a lone female among male volunteers, I received a close lesson in gender roles in contemporary Japanese society, which I haven’t had the opportunity to experience before. When I have worked with men or boys as laborers for a class project or another short term physical task, we work hard to ignore differences in strength. But in volunteering in Japan, men and women are sometimes assigned entirely different jobs. When they do work together, it is constantly suggested that the woman take the smaller, lighter tools. Close attention is paid to how much heavy lifting a woman does, as if she cannot judge her own ability. If one of the men wants a break, he suggests to the woman that she take one, so that he can rest without losing face. It was really difficult for me to play along with this, as I have grown up as an assertive, slightly righteous, independent-minded person. Although I can see how playing the weaker role allows the woman to attend to the needs of the group, quietly nurturing her counterparts, I only felt anger and frustration when faced with a situation I could only imagine in a single way.

Of course eventually I did tire, and reflecting that I have nothing to prove my physical prowess for, late on the last day I accepted my host’s admonishments that I not go help the others knock down a concrete wall and carry it away. “That’s men work,” I was told. I capitulated, reasoning that I could spend a little time surveying the site on my own. A few minutes later, my host, Sasaki-san, turned to me and said, “maybe you could help Mami around the house.” The Japanese was a little beyond me, all I could understand in that moment was something about Mommy. I kind of looked at him, mumbled something, and left on my own walk. Hours later, I pieced together the meaning of his words.

His wife, also known as Sasaki-san, witnessed horrific things during the tsunami. She was on her way out of town after the earthquake, since people in the region are well aware of the relationship between an offshore shiver and a colossal wave. But she turned back to get her mother-in-law, who cannot move quickly. Surmizing the situation, she took her mother upstairs, barred the door tight, sat, and waited. Then, water flooded under door and through window, rising, rising, until Sasaki-san’s wife was pressed against the ceiling; until she was holding her breath, until she was thinking her last thoughts: this is it. But that was not it for her. The waters resided. The tsunami is not a single wave but rather several waves of slightly varying intensity. This time they say there were 5 big waves before night fell and they could no longer count, having found shelter or failed to do so. After the wave was sucked back out to sea, Sasaki-san’s wife pushed her way through a shattered window frame and started up the hill toward the shelter. But her mother-in-law didn’t make it. The body was carried away and remains missing.

Sasaki-san’s wife is one of the most cordial and hospitable people I have ever met. Mostly, due to my poor Japanese, I can’t understand what she’s saying, unless she’s offering food. I read in her body position frailness, but also scrupulous manners and humble attentiveness to her guests.

We took a short car trip to pick up some fish for dinner and we did our best to make limited small talk. She pointed out sites and favorite picnic spots. She marveled at the level of destruction in the adjacent town. She shared that she has only sons, and they live in Ishinomaki, but she never sees them anymore because they’re all married and have their wives to look after them. She longs a little for a daughter who she could talk to, and give advice to. On the way back, she stopped at the only convenience store in the area. She bought 2 cartons of cigarettes, ice for the fish, and two ice cream bars. She ate hers as she drove us back in the heavy, cramped, government issued truck. “I never get to do this,” she ways. We were enjoying something simple, but we were also in a quiet conspiracy—when we returned we were more refreshed and relaxed than the others.

I can’t spot Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but it is a great threat to the long term recovery of the people of this region. Volunteering with the Nippon Foundation, we received a short sensitivity lecture. The lecture encouraged us to be conscientiously compassionate. Some volunteers I’ve met are almost painfully reflective about the sensitivity they offer the tsunami survivors. Some aid groups attend primarily to the psychological impacts of the tsunami, using creative and experimental means. Nomadic ashiyu, or foot baths allow survivors not only to raise their core temperature, improve their circulation, and soothe and bathe their feet, but also to look into the eyes of a young, unharmed college student respectfully massaging your hands and asking after your health and daily life. The model is so poignant that it can be difficult to encourage survivors to participate at first because it means allowing oneself to be somewhat vulnerable, to expose not only bare feet but possibly some raw emotional wounds carefully ignored or repressed.

Ashiyu workshops were initially tried after the Kobe earthquake in 1995, and strategies were developed in response to comparatively minor relief efforts in ensuing years, including the 2007 Niigata earthquake. Aid groups were experimenting with different ways of engaging with the affected population, giving them a time and place to tell their stories, and forming relationships of compassion with them to bolster their recovery. They tried working side by side with locals and offering soup kitchens, but neither of these scenarios addressed the heart of the matter. And so they tried the ashiyu.

But the volunteer tour I describe here was more concerned with direct action ad physical solutions. It felt really good to realize noticeable changes in the destroyed built environment; to piece by piece put it back together again, sweep it away. It feels incredible to be asked for help and then to successfully do what is within one’s power to ease the burden of another. In appreciation, we were invited to the fisherman’s bountiful table, allowed to sleep in his house, listen to his fitful snores. Each evening was a feast, a joyful gathering to lift spirits and to thank. Selfishly, it was an amazing experience to get so close to everyday Japanese life.

But since the tasks we set for ourselves were physical, the strategy deriving from labor, I forgot about trying to be gentle, and trying to demonstrate heartfelt sympathy. Laboring and laughing together is generally good therapy for all involved and I balk at the sometimes sick sweetness of Japanese sentimentality. Yet people need the opportunity to look into a pair of eyes and say what is true for them, honey or vinegar. To do that, sometimes we need to be coddled and gently pet, or maybe just followed around the house. Like the way a toddler follows Mommy from room to room. Originally it seems that the toddler is seeking protection, but we forget in that case how nurturing it is to protect. Perhaps that’s something of what Sasaki-san meant when he suggested I “help Mommy.”

Sasaki san horsing around

Sasaki-san is a courageous, barrel chested chain smoker in his later 50s with the expressive face of a Kabuki actor and the charm of a lady’s man. As the local leader of the fishing cooperative, he built his own workhouse by adding a steel structure onto an existing traditional wooden structure. He ordered and assembled the entire thing single handedly, over the course of three months. Quite a feat, but now its wrecked and needs to be rebuilt. Out on a walk to the seawall I run into him near his old headquarters.
            “Do you want to rebuild” I ask him. He looks at me, eyes piercing,
            “Yes.” Then he turns his head, focusing his entire attention on me, weighing me. I cringe a little, worried like a young girl that I have nothing to offer and I won’t measure up. I feel foolish, like I’ve asked too personal a question. Blood warms my cheeks.
            “So you’re an architect?” he asks.
            “Er, yes, but, you know, I still have to finish school and then take all these tests before I can really…but I’m doing my thesis project on your town and how it might be rebuilt…but its purely a design exercise, really I’m not good at this practical stuff” I blurt.          
            “So you’re not an architect yet?” he asks, “when?”
            “O, er, maybe three years, sir” or something to that effect.
            “O” he says. He changes the subject and turns to head back toward his house.  I excuse myself and head out to the sea wall feeling a little impotent.

In the van on the drive back, it’s finally my turn to sleep. I’ve been keeping the drivers awake and getting them to tell stories, but now I’m just nodding off. In that confusing half sleep, it dawns on me, there are many ways to help Tohoku, and although I find it to be fun, shoveling is not necessarily my greatest potential contribution. We should each contribute according to our ability, for our mutual benefit. To the extent that we are brave enough to commit.

[1] a samurai stigmatized and aimless for lack of a master

26 May 2011

Awaji Sea Walls

The place where the water meets the land in Japan is usually rigorously designed. On the shores of California, for example, the sand at the beach is eroded from the cliffs by the waves over millions of years. The sand is fine, and its of the same color as the hillsides. It feels natural, like it all belongs together as part of an ecological cycle. Going to the beach, you stare at the waves consuming now more, now less of the sand near your feet. But like I said, in Japan, the connection is much more engineered.
While this lets down someone expecting a peaceful shoreline, the design solutions provide platforms for a wide variety of activities. The edge between land and sea always feels like its working hard. 

In the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake, the northeastern tectonic plate upon which Japan sits sunk into the ocean about 5 m. Currently, many coastal towns experience flooding each afternoon as the tide comes in over the old sea edge. There is a lot of re-building to do. Below you'll find a summary of current ideas about recovery which I overheard at a recent symposium at Kobe University.

This weekend I took a bike ride around Awaji Island. The coastline boasted a whole pallette of different sea wall solutions, as you can see here. The island is accessed by on the north and south by some of the world's largest suspension bridges. This series of images stretches along the southeast coast from tip to tail.

Awaji Bridge, longest suspension bridge
a fishing pavilion and sea wall in Akashi city
Concrete tacks have been arranged in two long rows to create a breakwater that can harbor tidal life
some tidal life
another option: a concrete sea wall backfilled by a farmer's plot between the wall and the road
A constructed riparian zone where the river meets the sea
This water drains from the mountain, is used for the rice paddies, and drains out to the sea
A seaside park with broad steps down to the ocean, and a constructed jetty for fishing, or just for being surrounded on all sides by water
This is called the "sunset line." Its a long seawall that's perfectly straight. I guess it faces west. Everyone gets the same view.
This beach had a series of underwater low walls to break strong waves or currents
In a natural harbor, the calm water can host platforms for seaweed cultivation
The Naruto Bridge, under which swirl the famed Naruto whirlpools
     Kobe University is a nexus for disaster recovery, having built up an academic community around this theme over the last 17 years since the Great Hanshin Earthquake. As students and professors visit the Tohoku region, they return to campus and discuss what is to be done.  This week and last week I sat in on a series of symposia where academics gave presentations describing what they saw and studied on recent trips to the north. What follows is a summary of what I heard, thanks to the excellent live translating of Liz Maly.
sea, wall, road, city
      In the past century or so, there have been four major tsunamis: The Meiji Tsunami of 1896, the Showa Tsunami of 1933, the Chile Tsunami of 1966 and now the 2011 East Japan Great Tsunami. If there is an offshore earthquake, the delay time between the earthquake and the wave's arrival can be roughly correlated to the tsunami's height. If the delay time is 1 minute, the tsunami may be around 3 m (9 feet) tall. If the delay time is 30 minutes, the tsunami will be more like 10 m (30 feet) tall.  

In many places, when a tsunami washed out the road, the new road was built at the maximum height of the water. People build their houses on the other side of the road.
A tsunami wall and a sea wall must be different, because they deal with different kinds of forces. The biggest factor differentiating the two: the tsunami wall has to deal with huge lateral forces, while the sea wall deals almost singularly with vertical forces. Although the reinforced concrete structures fared better than structures of other material, many concrete structures were overturned. Houses and other buildings were ripped out of the ground when the sandy soil liquified and the wave force pushed and pulled on the structure. Another important distinction: if either wall type gets swamped, and the wave crashes over the top of the wall, it quickly erodes the soil behind the wall, causing the wall to break or crumble.

       A town lauded for its disaster preparedness, Taro-cho, rebuilt itself behind two separate tsunami walls: one lower and closer to the sea, the other reaching 10m high, pushing a triangle of land against the mountains. The two walls form an X from a bird's eye, and in section create a terraced village. The walls create an strong framework for urban development, sectioning the city into discreet zones. They are pleasing to see. But they did not survive this wave.
      A somewhat radical proposal receiving hearings currently is the Super Levee concept. The basic diagram of a Super Levee is if you built a huge cliff next to the sea and then built the city on top of the cliff. It's very expensive, and in its most crude form it eliminates any easy connection to the water for trade, transportation, or leisure. But its designed so that if a wave crashed on its cliff wall, it could break the force, and any water that made it over the precipice would drain away from the edge, through the town, on a 1:30 slope (barely noticeable to a walker).

The zone next to the edge would be mostly landscaped with trees, so that the city begins a bit inland. If you walked from the mountains to the ocean, you would first walk through a dense urban strip, then you might cross a large freeway or road, and then you would find yourself in a broad park-like zone. In a more sophisticated case, this landscaped zone could have a steep slope, effectively creating a large change in elevation between sea and city. 

The Super Levee concept is certainly daunting, but there are many villages and towns that will need to be rebuilt in the coming years. I can't help but wonder: can you really prepare for something like this? To what extent? Prior to the recent disaster, Japan's attitude toward its coastlines has been criticized for its unwavering rigor. Visiting Awaji Island, I could see that the edge between the land and the sea doesn't need to be a featureless wall. But I didn't find a place where I'd want to lay a towel and hang out in my bathing suit with some sunglasses on, either. But I did enjoy riding by.

14 May 2011


Work stops each day at 3 pm these days because of the new high tide
Prologue: a eulogy

Two landmasses were bearing into one another. This had been going on for a long time. They are like two gigantic wrestlers. One of the masses supports a long, thin island nation of startling beauty and unique cultural habits. The edge of this nation, where the land disappears into the sea, is mostly rimmed in a thin hard shell and a vertical wall, or else a pile of concrete tacks the size of a man, as if they had washed ashore from some sea giants who skipped school. The mass with the island nation capped on one small edge was rising up very very slowly over the other mass which is deep in the lightless dense of the ocean. These two wrestlers. From a certain limited perspective, the two wrestlers seem equally matched, stable, supporting and bolstering one another. We live next to the ocean, we raise gardens in the sea, we feed the world with our delicious harvests. But as we watched longer, we noticed a little twitch here, a slip there: the immense pressure of it. From a certain perspective these short breathy flutters were life-altering events: once or twice in the memory of an old man one of the fighters would slip. And when they slip, watch out, scramble, run for high ground.

Memorial stones for Oshika Peninsula's last 3 tsunamis: 1892, 1933, 1966

Older people remember the last tsunami. In the last century, there have been four destructive tsunamis. To remind themselves, the people on the peninsula near Ishinomaki carved a totemic stone for each wave. The stones bear carved instructions.

The sea will draw away from the land in a great sucking in of breath, and the land mass wrestlers will readjust their grip on one another. Fish will flap helplessly and suck air. The gardens of the sea will be sucked dry, the structure and support of the oyster farmer’s elaborate aquaculture will collapse. Then, the water will surely come back. If you are in a boat, stay in your boat, go out to sea. If you are on land, leave the shore, head for high ground. For the water will come back in a huge black earth filled push back back to the shore and it will bring all of the stuff of the sea gardens with it. It will flood your house, clog your drains, irrigate your inner ear, burst your eardrums. It will fill your sewer with earth and rip your wooden house from its foundations. It will rip away your sister, your mother, out of your arms, even though you followed protocol and even thought you read these warnings. And you will be left on top of a roof which has suddenly become a raft floating upon the cold cold sea. And you may be lost. And you may be found again, warmed, cared for, looked after. Perhaps.

And if you are very very strong, and if you find something to live for, then you can begin again. Even though the wrestlers have slipped. The world is literally different now. The thin ramparts along the beaches seem to have sunk, but its only the new position of the wrestling land masses: the elevation is literally lower now and a new sea wall must be built or else there will be less beach.
What follows is a three part series of images curated to help you understand the situation on Oshika peninsula next to Ishinomaki. They were collected on a volunteer trip to the peninsula on May 4-7, in which college students studying in Japan were supported by the Japan Foundation to help fishermen clean up their beaches and prepare to get back to work. The first, what is to be done? suggests the scale of the destruction. The second, sea gardens, illustrates traditional oyster cultivation, the major industry of the peninsula, which is currently in a critical state. Finally, recuperation by bath documents how people have already filled the basic demand for local baths using very simple technology.

1. What is to be done? 

Everything from daily life is mixed thoroughly

Everything from inside the house has been washed out

Everything from the industries of the sea has be washed ashore

There is still so much work to be done

It has been two months since the earth shifted and the northeast shoreline of Japan was swamped with forceful waters. “The rising edge of [the North American plate] caused the seabed off the eastern coast to bulge up — one measuring station run by Tohoku University reported an underwater rise of 5 meters — creating the tsunami that devastated the coast” according to an article in the Japan Times "The portion of the plate under Japan was pulled lower as it slid toward the ocean, which caused a corresponding plunge in elevation under the country."[1] We are starting to clean up, to come up with a plan. The feeling of potential is thick this spring. But there is still so much work to be done. Our fishermen can look out at the beaches and begin to gather together their tools. During the day, there is work to be done, but the evenings are hard. If they can focus on the rebuilding of the oyster reefs and the return to normal life, they can avoid the threat of listlessness, apathy, and depression.
2. Sea Gardens
When outsiders began to help clean up, we began to understand a unique way of working in the sea and a way of life that is now in critical condition
A. the buoys. After the buoys are separated from the piles of stuff, the fishermen consolidate the buoys on a few beaches
making huge piles, very satisfying to see
C. the shells. Also consolidated in low walls
The strings of shells to be collected are all in Stage I, in which oyster eggs floating free in the ocean bond to these scallop shells strung on long cables. When folded in half, it's reaches about from your shoulder to your knee or thigh.
After the oyster eggs bond and start to grow, the scallop shells are pulled out and reassembled
B. the rope. for Stage II: Each shell is bound between the threads of a thick black rope, allowing the oysters to grow large
This phase takes about 2 years

 The fisherman sketches out the entire system in section and plan using a scallop shell
D. the anchors: I think it's one anchor per buoys, but it may be less, as they are really heavy
The oyster beds and fish traps make a permeable wall suspended vertically in the ocean for small animals to pass in and out of. They mimic mangroves, harboring miniature ecosystems. Using these clever and time-tested systems, the fishermen of Ishinomaki feed the world with oysters. However, the total cultivation time is around 2 years. Today, the tsunami may have wiped out the sea's oyster eggs, meaning that the next harvest might not be for 3 years. In Taiwan, oysters are only cultivated for 1 year, resulting in a smaller, less expensive product. At any rate, the fishermen's dependence on aquaculture is both a blessing and a curse.

In a way, they are fortunate. Their reason to live is material, and depends on their own labor. Their lifestyle requires a strong social network because the oysters cannot be raised alone. So these days, friends and fellows stay together and support one another. Many of the fishermen are still swarthy middle-aged fellows, and the industry is strong enough that young people are still becoming fishermen. The rest of the world still wants to eat oysters.

However, as Masahiro Matsuura acknowledges in his blog highlighting the potential opportunity for urban design reform in the region, “Twelve thousand fishing boats, approximately 90% of the registered boats, were severely damaged or lost in Miyagi Prefecture.” Although on the ground the community I visited felt strong and closely knit, Matsuura cites that statistically, “agriculture and fishing were already on the decline in the aging northeast society.” He suggests that “small operations might have to be consolidated by major agricultural firms led by the younger generation.”[2]

3.  Recuperation by Bath

On a trip around the peninsula, I had the chance to visit a few temporary communities. Soon after the tsunami, they each established a bath for public use, or to be shared by invited guests. 

Okay, so the idea here is that you really do scroll around the image: I oversized it so you'd have to mouse around it, never getting a good view of the whole. This is intended to make it more experiential for you. 

This bath is on a hill overlooking the ocean, adjacent to a red cross tent sheltering donated food and supplies and a trailer-like emergency shelter. I think the people who made the bath are SCUBA divers, a slightly different community than the fishermen. 

The system is simple. Water drains down the hill in a small creek. The water is collected in the big yellow container. Dishes can be done on the blocky white container. A small pump pushes water through a hose to another container inside the bathhouse. You can see its rounded corner on the left in the above black and white photo collage. 

To heat the water, a small pre-fab furnace that looks like it's assembled out of ducts is fed with the kindling of ruined houses. Does anyone else find that incredibly poetic? The wood-burning furnace is a traditional way of heating water for both the home and the public sento. You can still occasionally recognize a sento in the cityscape by its smokestack.

The bathhouse is constructed out of what has suddenly become scrap. It's dark with a glazed window in the anteroom, and light seeping through the cracks between wall and roof. However, the interior is clean and spare. When the bathwater is heated, everyone takes turns bathing in the same water, beginning with the male elders, then the men, then the children, and last, the women.

We were able to document this bath after meeting another volunteer group working in a village on another part of the peninsula. We spoke to Rob-san, a carpenter originally from Seattle, who has lived in Kyoto for the past decade or so. He was leading a group of high school students from Kobe to help clean up and also to dig out the drains of the village, which are currently full of mud.

Rob-san mentioned the bath and when I asked him about it, he introduced us to the owner. She lives with her husband in this L shaped house that backs into a hill and offers a courtyard space open on one side, pulled back from the street. In this scheme, the water is heated in a large cauldron in the courtyard. Then the water flows through a hose (mostly by gravity it seems) toward the bath. No pump was mentioned, although it seems like it would make things easier. Plans are underway to move the cauldron closer to the bathtub, but right now it's making the courtyard a nice public space and not blocking the driveway.

Inside, the bath is somewhat better lit than the first example, and as you can see, the washing machine is still in use to some extent. The space is tiny and it's difficult to imagine how to keep the towels stacked on the right dry while you pre-bathe, but I'm sure with care it can be done. The mirror offers a small homey comfort.

During Golden Week I visited the peninsula next to Ishinomaki as a foreign exchange student volunteer. Although of course I had seen images of the Tohoku region and the effects of the tsunami, I hadn't really understood what it was like to be there. I hadn't really understood what had happened. Visiting a village of oyster farmers helped me understand. All the furniture and photo albums and stuff from daily home life had been thoroughly mixed with the tools and equipment key to oyster cultivation, forming heaps. The volunteers had to separate the equipment from the ruined furniture. I think it was mainly by sorting the piles and picking up the oyster equipment that I really began to understand what had happened. Once I understood, I could feel a more sincere compassion.

There is still so much that needs to be done.

[1] High tides inundate sunken towns

March 11 earthquake caused some places to drop by 1.2 meters


[2] Post-Tsunami Japan: A Change of Plans?
Posted May 10th 2011 at 11:24 am by Masahiro Matsuura


29 March 2011

What I did on my Spring Vacation

The disaster happened, at it was at first a wave crashing on the shore, pulling away houses and people, leaving us stranded on roof or second story, burying us alive. From the south, some felt a shiver on the upper floors of a skyscraper. Someone was lunching in a Mexican restaurant and suddenly felt dizzy, disoriented. She thought maybe the margarita was a little too strong for her but then the feeling continued for one minute, then two. She made eye contact reluctantly with others at her table, recognized the expression in the worried gaze staring back at her. All over Osaka, people were doing the same.

I became aware of it gradually and immediately. Running errands with a friend, he turned to me calmly at some point and said, there’s just been an earthquake in the north. My father is trapped on a train, but it should start running soon. An earthquake. An earthquake. Was it big or small? Destructive or just exciting? I suppose it was the periodic updates about my friend’s father on the train that made the situation become real so slowly for me. Yes of course, there’s been and earthquake. But is your father o.k.?

After a few minutes, televisions were rechanneled. Websites were redirected, radios were retuned. Eyes tore from faces to screens and fastened there. For the rest of the weekend, activity was punctuated with long communal viewings of national news, and short assuring messages to friends outside. We were spectators inside Japan. But to the rest of the world, for a few minutes we too were in grave danger.

news program on the ferry demonstrating how to make a toilet from a cardboard box in an emergency

By Monday, the waters had ceased their angry swallowing of farmland in the north and they were left to face the fresh beaches, the strange flotsam of what had been daily life. A man was found far from shore sitting on what had been his roof. A woman recounted in shock the flashing loss of her daughter to the flood. Villages sheltered in gyms without fuel or heat.

The once floating and erratic count of those lost quickly stabilized, gained structure, uniformity. The daily English radio podcast recited the count like a mantra. A place name, a number; a place name, a number; place name, number; place name, number. The abstract statistics soothed the brain after the more harrowing narratives. Things were falling into a semblance of relief as far as we were concerned in the south. But from this elemental, mechanical disaster of wave action emerged a deeper problem. The words to describe the problem tapped into a century old fear, since the problem had existed as long in potential. The after math of the problem had the power to impact the entire globe. The bigness of the problem, its “when?” its “how much?” its “how long?”…these were unknowable.

The problem was this: in a large anonymous factory of energy in a rural, undefined region, the works were heating past capacity. Since the factory was producing energy and not, say, gears, the term “heating past capacity” needs some clarification. Even when the works were within capacity, the factory could not be entered, the heat could not be beheld, quite. The factory was sealed for the protection of the workers, who monitored it carefully from without. One day a balloon of white smoke was recognized on the horizon. Steam. The water used to cool the works was evaporating very quickly, too quickly. The energy company downplayed the risks. Teams from other countries made more serious assessments. What if the water used to cool the works depletes completely?
A FINE DUST of radioactive matter swirls across the sky, settling over Tokyo. Another cloud mists across an ocean to another coast far away, where home is. It was time to leave.

But where to go? Really, in the south, we were far enough away. Besides, the wind blows from south to north, pushing the dust away from us. We were as safe as anyone else. I traveled south, still in the country, but as far away as possible. I averted my eyes from the screen. I looked instead at waterfall and coastline, ancient tree and breaking wave.

Danger slipped away, like smoke. In Kobe, the stress of the unspeakable threat felt solid, present. Further south, in Kyushu, the danger sublimated. Friends and Internet neighbors swiftly checked in and fell silent. Daily life around the globe twisted away, assured that I was safe. But my daily life had torn.

As I became more safe, as the threat subdued, I became frightened. Afraid to return to daily life, to act as if everything were resolved. Something had not been resolved. I didn't want to go back. It was still time to leave.

If I think about going back in the abstract, it feels okay, I can do it. I can imagine trips I want to take, views to see, things to draw or meals to eat. I think of new friendships like spring shoots – mysterious and fresh: what will they bloom? So I make plans, confirm responsibilities, hoping that I am not misleading employers and teachers. Because when I think of literally boarding a plane in Bangkok, riding it to Osaka, deboarding, giving my return ticket to the airport bus driver, putting my key in the lock of my dorm room, and opening the door on my old life, my life in Japan, it makes my stomach turn, it is not what I want, my body rejects it. Not that Hong Kong is much better. Not that I can think of any place that I would prefer to be.

On the route home, over sea, I approached two fellow foreigners, asking if they’d seen any dolphins. I had been watching these creatures from the deck, jumping and diving. The pair had seen the dolphins. They had seen many things. It was the time for stories.

Daniel and Antonia were on vacation from Sendai. Daniel wasn’t worried about the nuclear plant. He had read a blog online that predicted the level of the plant catastrophe to be “Chernobyl to the power of 6.”

“This is of course, ridiculous,” he started in, “for several reasons.”
            1. Although there are 6 reactors at the Fukushima plant, only 4 of them are failing, and of those, 2 are already under control. So the power we’re looking at is at worse 4, not 6.
            2. If one reactor meltdown (Chernobyl) is compared to 4 reactor meltdowns (Fukushima) then the problem is multiplied, not increased exponentially.
            3. Even if we were to use powers to compare the two events, and even if we used the power of 6, this gives us 1 to the 6, which still equals 1:
            1x1x1x1x1x1 = 1 .

Daniel is an undergraduate engineering student on a year long exchange from the University of Maryland. Antonia smiles at him quietly. She shifts weight from one foot to the other. She looks tired, maybe from an elaborate and tedious experience. She’s been studying something in the borderland between linguistics and computer programming, using her post-baccalaureate year abroad to prepare for a graduate program in Germany.

To them, the earthquake felt stronger than a shiver. There was no uncanny question of perception like we had in the South, no slow awakening. But, noted Daniel, not a single building fell. The effect of the earthquake itself was actually minimal. Compared to the following tsunami. The enormous wave that crashed on the once shore flooding everything stretched inland two miles away from Daniel and Antonia’s dormitory, and then began receding.

For days and chilly nights the power shut off. The hadn’t managed to get any fuel, so they cooked over an open fire. Antonia gathered wood while Daniel coaxed the flames. It was difficult to find firewood. Not because everything was wet, but because in what was formerly a city, there wasn’t much dead wood lying around. What could have been firewood had been cleared away, disposed of. They saw some people trying to burn a telephone pole. There was nothing to cut it down to size with. The poisonous smoke was black and sickening to think of. But, as Daniel added, all the fires emitted dark, reeky smoke, seeping into clothing, settling on skin. Soon everyone was filthy, Daniel not the least, since as a busy student he hadn’t done laundry in weeks.

For food, they went to the convenience store. There wasn’t much available, but Daniel is an eagle scout and knows how to make due. They bough what they could find: eggs, green peppers, and oranges. Daniel hollowed out the peppers and oranges and skewered them. Then he cracked an egg inside one, roasting it slowly in the fire until the egg was cooked. Antonia agreed that it was quite good under the circumstances, pepper’s flavor permeating the runny egg. The oranges were less successful. As it turns out, the oil in orange rind is highly flammable, compromising the egg cooking project.

After a few days, the students country’s consulates finally started responding. Germany was first, U.S. and China were last. Germany promised one bus, then sent three when they realized how many foreign students were stranded. When the buses arrived, everyone piled on: students from Asia, the Middle East, the Americas, the German consulate didn’t make bones about nationality. Everyone who wanted to go was taken to Tokyo.

They arrived at the Westin hotel around 4 in the morning. Groggy and stinking, they were separated according to nationality then. Germans and boyfriends of Germans showered, slept under clean sheets on soft beds. Others found shelter at 24 hour Internet cafes.

Daniel called the U.S. consulate over and over, but they just took down his personal information, wished him luck, and hung up. Antonia’s parents were convinced that all of Japan had been reduced to a char, that everyone still alive had already evacuated the country. Frustrated and powerless, the pair decided to move on. They had planned to go to Kyushu during spring recess, so they went. Instead of carrying blothes and things for a week long vacation, they brought everything they could carry from their dorm rooms, uncertain if they could ever return.

When I packed for my trip, leaving from the south, I looked over my things as well. I though, what if I can’t come back? What should I bring? What if I just need to keep moving? I brought my hard drive, but left my laptop behind. But I knew that if I didn’t return, it had more to do with me than with the situation. A friend evacuating her mother from Tokyo to Seattle assured me: you can always come back. But for Daniel and Antonia, it’s a different story.

They had been travelling in the rural south without laptop or smartphone, ignoring television and radio, blocking it out, trying to calm down. But there were decisions to be made, information to send and receive, plans pending and weighing upon them. When the ferry got close to shore, the signal returned to my iPhone, and I handed it to Daniel. When he logged in, he had 25-30 new messages. One of them quieted him, made him settle back in his chair, made his face fall. One of them called him back home. Antonia drew close to him, sat on the arm of his chair. I wandered away then, leaving them. He really couldn’t return to Sendai. The game was over, and what would he do about Antonia? I watched them glumly walk outside to talk things over again.

“Thank you,” Daniel said, returning the phone.
“Thank you,” Antonia said, opening a tangerine I had left for them. They faded away into the rain when we docked.