Junku Nishimura: Tsunami… If I Had Wings

A photo-essay by Junku Nishimura

At the very moment of the earthquake I was on the road in Shikoku. I could not sit still, and when I ate sanuki udon, the local specialty, it was out of taste. I am not a journalist and photographing disaster sites was not so much on my mind, but the urge to visit them made me disturbed. So I shorten my trip, took a ferry from Matsuyama for my parents’ place in the Yamaguchi Prefecture and drove north in the car I borrowed from my father. A week had already passed since the tsunami.

The shock I suffered from seeing the hard-hit areas is far beyond description. I had been unable to have mental images of the disaster areas until I arrived there, which makes me ashamed of my lack of imagination. From the car radio came the anthem sung by a seventeen-year-old girl at the opening ceremony of the National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament. I shed tears listening to the anthem, which had never been in the cards for me. My tears mixed with the dust raised by the armored vehicles of the Self-Defense Forces clouded my vision ahead. The scenes surrounding me resembled those of bombarded cities, and the only difference was that the disaster areas there were not dispersed as spots, but stretched in a long, broad band along the coastline.

I met a woman in a disaster-stricken district. She asked me to lend a hand at an evacuation center, which I accepted. Women there made rice balls for refugees, and men hauled in wood from the disaster sites and chopped it into firewood. Food was in comparatively plentiful supply in the disaster areas, but in fact people with undamaged houses seemed suffering shortage of food. I heard that some elderly people felt bad about escaping damage and did not turn out to collect food. I suspect that they felt the same way as the former Japanese soldiers who were ashamed of returning home alive after the last war. The person in charge of the center offered me shelter and food, but I declined them. I cooked myself rice, slipped into a thin three-season sleeping bag, and shivered in my car during the night. The starry sky in Tohoku was really lovely.

The next day the woman, finding out that I had slept in my car, invited me to stay at her house, where she lives with her mother and brother. With power and water cut with no prospect of restoration, the rooms in her house were lit only by a little lantern and candles. There came three men, and they shortly began to discuss a funeral plan. Then she whispered to me, “Sorry. I didn’t tell you, but my father died in the tsunami.” He was washed away from the fourth floor of Takada Municipal Hospital, where he was hospitalized, and was found dead in the lobby on the first floor. Her brother had been busy with the recovery activity of their district and their father had been dead for two weeks. It was twenty days after the tsunami that he was cremated. The photo on his physical disability certificate was enlarged to be used as a funeral portrait.

In such situation, while a stranger to them, they offered shelter and food to me. I had driven for more than two thousand kilometers since I left Yamaguchi, and there was barely enough gas left in my car to return to Tokyo. I could not fuel my car in the devastated areas, which were facing a serious gas shortage, so I made up my mind to leave Tohoku next morning. The old mother handed me home-made umeboshi (pickled plums) and nori-no-tsukudani (laver boiled down in soy) as souvenirs, and told me, “You be sure to come back someday.”

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