RIKUZEN-TAKATA, Japan — The Tree of Hope stands alone, the sole survivor out of 70,000 black and red pines on a barrier island swallowed whole by the Pacific Ocean on a gloomy Friday afternoon on March 11.
Mayor Futoshi Toba and other officials have promised to do everything it takes to keep the tree from dying from salty seawater eating away at its roots and core.
Nearly six months after the tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan, 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 closed a gate and hollered, “Get out of here,” at a driver who stopped 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. 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,” said 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.”
No monuments for victims
In a country dotted with ancient stones warning future generations to beware of tsunamis after earthquakes, there are no official monuments to the victims and survivors of the March 11 disaster, quickly becoming known in Japan simply as “3/11.” There is no public debate about how to honor the dead or celebrate the living.
There also is no public investigation into official failures to warn citizens about the approach of massive waves or the decisions to corral thousands of people inside low-lying evacuation shelters instead of directing them to 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 prefab 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,” said Mrs. Sugawara, who lost her husband and three grandchildren 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 like Mrs. Sugawara, has dwindled since their peak during the Japanese holidays in May. Many Japanese volunteers 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.
Rebuilding a step at a time
In small ways that often go unnoticed in Tokyo, they are slowly rebuilding their lives, one step at a time.
Women and men like Yasuo Shimizu, a barber in Ofunato, are opening small, simple shops — a grocery store here, a cafe 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,” said Mr. Shimizu, who lives with his family of four and a dog in a temporary prefab house on the grounds of an elementary school.
Their entrepreneurial gumption is spreading across the disaster zone, as larger companies, like Lawson convenience stores and Maiya supermarkets, open 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 could 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 of voters was higher than during nationwide elections for the parliament. The winners were younger than the older men who continue to dominate national politics 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 farmhouse 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 that 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 rocked by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake. Others are growing sunflowers, which they hope will absorb any radioactive cesium that may be blowing their way from the meltdown still under way at the Fukushima Daiichi 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 the disaster.
“It adds color and life to our world of destruction,” said Mr. Shimizu, who planted sunflowers next to his barber shop in Ofunato.
By Elaine Donnelly
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