What it looks like coming back to Japan


July 14, 2011

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  • What it looks like coming back to Japan

Every day that I was away from Japan — while I was eating dinner, watching TV, dancing, laughing with friends, or sleeping on the other side of the world — a small army of police, army, municipal employees and volunteers was at work in tsunami-affected areas.

Every day, they dug through the debris: sorting out the reusable and the sentimental; separating the waste into piles of wood, scrap metal, crumbled concrete. They worked with their hands, with small tools, with heavy machinery. Every day they were here, dozens of them in each of the devastated cities along the coast, digging, lifting, sorting, towing, piling.

Now, six weeks later, I come back and see the difference. I can see the ground, for one thing; the layer of debris has been in many places completely removed and bulldozers are smoothing the salt-soaked dirt. The foundations of buildings are visible now, flat squares of concrete or tile marking where a whole three-dimensional city used to be.

As we get closer to the coast, I see that the cleanup is far from finished. Dozens of cars, crushed to varying degrees, line the edge of the road. The wreckage that no longer covers the entire plain has been pushed into hills, three or four stories high. Some are sorted; some seem to be a mix of dirt and building materials. I’m not sure if the town actually looks better this way than it did when there was a uniform layer of debris over everything; now the few remaining, ravaged buildings and the mountains of wreckage stand out in a desolate field of dirt, weeds sprouting up quickly in the muggy summer heat.

It looks like a post-apocalyptic ghost town, which is essentially what it is.

Nonetheless, life is restarting in these damaged places. With my colleagues from Peace Winds Japan, I went to two meetings about helping small businesses to reopen before the government money is disbursed, which could take two to six months from now.

Mercy Corps and Peace Winds Japan have already helped the local fish market in Ofunato to restart by providing equipment like scales, small forklifts, a generator, a copy machine and an Internet connection. Now we are working together to help other small businesses and associations set up temporary sites for processing and sales. Most of the entrepreneurs we talk to have not had income since the tsunami hit on March 11, more than four months ago. They are looking forward to getting back to work.