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First impressions nearly one year after the tsunami

Japan, January 31, 2012

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  • First impressions nearly one year after the tsunami
  • japan_-_day_1_030_1.jpg
    Minamisanriku elementary school still stands empty and surrounded by debris. Sylvia Ross/Mercy Corps Photo: japan_-_day_1_030_1.jpg
  • japan_-_day_1_040_1.jpg
    Inside, water-logged photo albums are a reminder of life before the disaster — which residents are working hard to rebuild. Sylvia Ross/Mercy Corps Photo: japan_-_day_1_040_1.jpg

Today I arrived at a small fishing town in northeastern Japan called Minamisanriku, which was partially swept away by the March 2011 tsunami. I’m here to visit Mercy Corps programs that, along with our partners Peace Winds Japan and Planet Finance, have been working for the past nine months to help jump-start the local economy working with fishermen, small business owners and local merchants.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from my first trip to Japan. On one hand, less than a year ago, this area was with a disaster of unimaginable proportions; on the other hand, this is Japan — known for its diligence, incredible work ethic, organization and resolve — so perhaps the damage would have been scrubbed away and the town’s physical scars now invisible.

True, the survivors have been moved from shelters to temporary housing; true, the roads are again passable; true, children are in schools, people are fed and life is churning. These are all fantastic signs of progress.

But everywhere are bitter reminders of the tragedy that took thousands of lives and ravaged the region. As my bus descends the mountain pass into the coastal plain that is the tsunami zone, I see random car wrecks sit strewn about in the most unexpected places, as if a child randomly tossed his Hot Wheels. A large office building sits upside down where it was left by a wave, in the middle of a debris field. The local elementary school, which was completely submerged by the tsunami wave, is just a skeleton of its former self, with no windows, but curtains still swaying. I walk inside one of its classrooms and find water-damaged musical instruments, decaying toys and barely recognizable photo albums.

The locals here are forever altered, and yet, they’re filled with resolve to rebuild their lives, to rebuild Minamisanriku. They talk of those they have lost and, in the next vein, they tell of their dreams to one day rebuild their shops and homes, resume their lives as they were. I’m looking forward to seeing the renewal in progress.