The Silent Spring

21 May 2011


The only thing missing from these pictures are bullet holes" said my father.
"So you've been to hell and back?" was my mother's response.

Last weekend, I went to see them after visiting Japan's Tohoku region on the Pacific-side. The earthquake and tsunami on 11 March caused major destruction and massive casualties. They saw my photos that I took during the two-day trip. My father was referring to his experiences during the World War II where he survived the US air-raids in Kyushu.

I was in the region on 12 and 13 May as a part of a solidarity mission. We travelled 1,000km on a coach and visited places such as Miyako, Watari, Shinchi-cho and Sohma. Meetings with local unions took place in several cities.

The scars of the disaster remained in all places. From the windows of our vehicle, we saw miles and miles of towns in complete destruction. And they stood right next to communities that were not affected at all. Sometimes, such scenes were mixed within the same town.

A train was left derailed in Miyako. A crane in the port of Sohma was bent and tilted. Next to it, a ship remained stranded. Thousands of cars have turned into scrap metal. Sendai Airport was only reopend partially.

There was silence in the bus as we observed these scenes.
So were the towns we visited. Debris are removed from streets and cars are running again but communities were not lively.

Instead, you could hear the sound of the wind. Fresh green leaves were shining and some cherry trees in blossoms. After all, this is the northern part of Japan. Spring comes late.

The local unionists that I spoke to said quite openly: "We stress how bonds and ties are important in a situation like this but the crucial point is its practicality. As unions, we have not worked with the NGOs in the past and so we are learning things as we build our relationship. Our members want to take part in volunteer work but there is nothing in our CBA to give them such leave. So we can't organise that systematically.

"And to be blunt" he continued, "mass mobilisation of volunteers alone will not rebuild our communities".

Everybody knows that it will take many years for the full recovery of this region. And what about the human side of the recovery? In the aftermath of the earthquake that struck the city of Kobe in 1995, majority of the missing bodies were found in a week. So the survivors could start looking into the future after saying good-bye to their loved ones. In this current case, more than 10,000 people are still missing; many swallowed by tsunami and dragged into the ocean. People just can't get over it.

A colleague of mine in Tokyo said: "Let's face it. We are crammed in a small country that is hit by uncontrollable natural disasters regularly. That is why we are taught to help each other in our upbringing. Some Westerners maybe surprised that looting and riots did not take place after the earthquake but we can't afford to live under such 'individualism' here". The flip-side of this valid argument is that such culture can also be a hotbed for totalitarianism but I did not bring up that issue.

Some survivors are using the modern technology smartly. In one village, new water-pipes were essential in reconstructing their community. But the city hall said nothing is in stock; nor do they have budget to get new ones. So the young villagers made a plea on the internet. A few days later, water-pipes were donated by a company, free of charge. I heard other stories like this during my stay.

On our second day of the journey, the sun came out. The sky was blue. I decided to include that in my photos. A tragic scene and a beauty of nature in one picture. As much as forces of the nature can destroy you and your life, it can also heal your wound and give you hope. If people can accept that, together with a help from their friends and strangers, they could start looking forward in their lives again.
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