The earthquake and following tsunami that occurred on March 3rd, 2011 claimed the lives of almost 16,000 people. An additional 2500 are still missing today.
While the world watched the nuclear disaster unfold in neighboring Fukushima, the majority of the damage and death happened in Miyagi prefecture. So much washed away and pulled into the sea.
We tend to think about events most on their anniversaries. Certainly, an anniversary helps with context. In early March in Miyagi, there’s a cold wind blowing around the last remains of a winter snow. The week that many people had to go without food, heat, plumbing, and electricity happened not in the warmth of summer.
After the date comes and goes, most everyone puts the event behind them. The news on the TV changes. The moment of silence is just that.
The people here, though, have a harder time forgetting. They lost something tangible.
They drive past an elementary school where students holed up against the forces of nature. A number of children died. Nobody knew what to do with the ruined building, and so it sits, a landmark some see on their commute to work.
A barren patch of land sits next to a river. A house was once here. More than twenty years of trying to make this place into their dream home. Childhood memories of playing next to the water and then coming in to have dinner and reluctantly practice the piano. Visiting the neighbors house to help take care of them and their cats. The street is now empty, the kind elderly couple gone.
Even cleaned up, there is little point coming back to these places. Communities that formed here splintered. A bustling block might only have a single house left, a family too tied to location, hoping that their anchoring might pull others back.
And yet, there are moments of levity in relation to all this.
In the hospital I stood with a wheelchair, helping to bring my girlfriend’s grandmother to a room where she would be staying for a week. I was with my girlfriend’s father and hatoko (再従兄弟, my girlfriend’s mother’s cousin). The nurse asked how the father was related to the grandmother. Was he her son?
“No, I’m actually her daughter’s husband. But we all live together now. The tsunami washed us all the way from the coast to here.” Everyone laughs. I’ve heard the joke before. For some reason, it’s always effective.
People can laugh about it. Some wounds are healing over.