It was in the earl days of May, 2011, that I found myself finally on a Tohoku Shinkansen train bound for Sendai.
It was a trip mixed with apprehension and remorse. Apprehension, as I did not quite know what to expect. I was planning to hire a car. Would the road be OK? Will I be able to get gas? Remorse, as the trip was somewhat overdue. I would have liked to travel to the devastated area earlier, helping people in need in any way I could. But simply couldn't. I suspect it was partly a question of schedule and partly inaptitude lurking in my personal traits. I was simply unable to find a temporal or psychological "window" to travel to the afflicted areas, no matter what the consequences might be.
A few weeks earlier, I was having conversation with Nobuto Ariyoshi, Chief Producer of "The Professionals" program on NHK, in which I played the role of the castor for more than 4 years. Nobuto and I are very close personal friends.
I was telling Nobuto about my plan, and revealed that I would probably walk from the Sendai station towards the sea, thus making myself independent of any means of transportation. "You should definitely go to Onagawa", Nobuto said. "You should head towards where the Maine Pal building used to be."
Nobuto went for a few weeks to the NHK outposts in the Sendai area, helping his colleagues report on the state of the region and people's tremendous efforts towards recovery in the afflicted area. Nobuto said he had seen scenes of damage beyond description. "It goes on and on and on", Nobuto said. "Even with our best efforts as tv journalists, we simply could not cover everything. There are many unreported sufferings, unnoticed by the world, silently endured by those affected. You should definitely go there yourself and see how it is"
It was perhaps Nobuto's words that finally pushed my back to venture into the most severely damaged areas. I decided to go to Onagawa as Nobuto suggested, and witness the devastation by myself. I felt that I had a duty to experience it, almost like a moral imperative, and report it to the larger world in my own words, to record and not to forget, what happened to many innocent lives.
Preparation for the trip was an uneasy one. I had to think what I could do, once getting there. Would I have a chance to talk to the small kids in the refugee camps? Would they be pleased, if I had a few snacks to share? How about a few boxes of "Mushroom Mountain" and "Bamboo Village" chocolates, two definitive favorites of Japanese children? Or should I bring some interesting books that the kids can read in the long afternoons in the school gym, where they and their families are taking refuge? Should I consider helping people with the clearing of debris, an indispensable action in the process towards recovery?
It was difficult to assess the situation beforehand. There were reports of too many materials being sent to the relief camps. Books are difficult to match, people having different preferences and interests. I felt somewhat shy of bringing my own books. Probably I would appear too presumptuous.
After much thought, I finally came to the conclusion that I should go anyway, without any definite plans to do any specific volunteer works. It is quite possible that I may be unable to visit the relief camps in a proper way, without a prior arrangement. I may just have to observe, and see what I can do, perhaps not on the spot, but on the intermediate to long terms. Of course, should some opportunities arise where I could be of any help, I would and should be prepared. I put a pair of thick cotton gloves, and a pack of masks into my backpack. Finally, I set off.
As the Tohoku Shinkansen train left the platform, there was much formality and perhaps a little bit of tension on the train bound for Sendai. "In the event of an earthquake, the train would make an emergency stop", the train conductor warned in a carefully worded announcement. The digital news flash above the door of the car carried a special message, expressing condolences to the people in Tohoku for the tremendous loss, and hoping for a recovery. When I walked out onto the deck to go to the toilet, there was a man in black suits, wearing the Japan Railway Company badge. Apparently, this gentleman, most probably a management high in the rank, was stationed there on the train to see to it that everything was going as planned.
It was quite understandable that they were taking these precautions. The Tohoku Shinkansen train, the pride of Japan Railway East Company, had resumed its operations only a few days earlier. The Tohoku line was severely damaged by the earthquake. The resumption of Shinkansen service, after a hectic recovery effort in defiance of aftershocks and threat of power shortages, was regarded by many to symbolize the hope that things, somehow, would slowly go back to normal again, if not immediately for the better.
As the bullet train approached Sendai station, I looked for signs of damage inflicted by the earthquake. There were blue sheets here and there on the house roofs, indicating an ongoing repair process. Apart from those visual signs of irregularities, the city of Sendai seemed to be up and going.
Getting off the train at Sendai station, I began to see signs of recovery. People in the corridors were smiling, briskly going on with their own businesses. Pupils in school uniforms were chatting loudly, as any healthy teenagers would do. Store clerks were selling at the top of their voices local delicacies and souvenirs. I was heartened to see these testimonials of the energy and determination of the Sendai people to make life tick, no matter what.
I slipped into the rental car office. I could only reserve an outdated model. I would have preferred a hybrid car, which would have alleviated worries about the need to refill gas on the way.
Gas was a natural theme for our conversation. "Would you fill the gas before you return the vehicle?" asked the store clerk in a polite manner. "Sure," I said. "I wonder if there would be any trouble with the gas stations?" At that time, memories were still fresh with images of people lining up for the gas, in the days after the earthquake. There was a high profile tragedy of a man who was lining up to fill some gas for his daughter at night, taking warmth from a heater, fell asleep, and was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. "The gas stands are quite all right", the man in uniform answered. "At least within the city of Sendai."
The store clerk took me to the car park. The number plate was that of Okinawa. Presumably, they had to take in cars from the tropical island to fill the shortage of rental cars in Sendai area. The car was small, but functioning excellently. You could not expect less from a Japanese car rental company.
It was thus with a little anxiety and trepidation that I got on the road to Ishinomaki and Onagawa. Honestly, I did not know what to expect. For sure, I have seen the coverage of the tsunami disaster and the devastation inflicted upon the region. However, as Nobuto said, the damage was apparently too severe and widespread to give a full coverage. I just had to see and take in, in order to start things in earnest, my way.
(This is a part of a series of essays written after the earthquake of 11th March, 2011, which brought devastations to eastern Japan.)