I had been at this internship for more than a week before I finally received an orientation. We’d started working the minute we got to MORIUMIUS, fresh from the car and still in our casual clothes. Not that that was a bad thing. Here, that’s just the way it is. At work, it’s like we’re all on a huge double dutch rope, jumping in to help whenever and wherever, however we can. Time goes s l o w l y here, too, so after only one week, I felt like I had been doing this forever. I forgot I hadn’t received an orientation until I was reminded.
Ogatsu looks like any other inaka, I suppose. It’s spacious and sprawling, with nothing but fields and forests and mountains and ocean; and the buildings are sparse. There’s no city center and no sign of civilization for miles–the closest konbini is in the town next over, and the mall is an hour away (!). Yet despite being from the countryside of Yamaguchi myself, which I once heard berated on television for being the prefecture with the least attractive women and the least fashionable people (-_-), whenever I imagined the countryside of Miyagi before coming, I saw it exactly as it is now. I mean… it was Miyagi… it was Tohoku… what would there be?
With the second slide of the orientation PowerPoint, however, came an epiphany. On it were two pictures, contrasted: the same street of the town’s main area, before and after the disaster. Although today it is the home of a sparse strip of local shops, a makeshift and temporary city center, the street was once bright and busy, lined with store upon store of every kind. For a realization as obvious as this, the fact that what was now just wilderness had once held a community, I was struck. I was finally starting to understand how much had been lost here, in an area that had fallen victim to the tragedy of the shinsai. It made me incredibly sad.
I want to know what the shinsai was like. I don’t know why I want to know, exactly. I don’t know what I want to know, either. I just know that one morning, when I was thirteen, I watched a wave devour the country I love in slow silence, from a TV screen. I know that I felt powerless, and I know that I felt protected. Lastly, I know that I’ve never experienced such an unfathomable thing, and that this itself an immense and incidental privilege. I think what I want is to contextualize the disaster for myself.
“Why would anyone talk about it?” my mother asked me incredulously over FaceTime. It was like how Rudy Francisco writes in the poem “Complainers”: Tragedy and silence have the exact same address. I wouldn’t be surprised if the townspeople didn’t want to talk to me about the tragedy. I am surprised, therefore, by the fact that they do. Although I never ask about it, I’ve heard so much more about the disaster than I ever hoped. Sometimes, I catch a glimpse of what it must have been like, whether in an anecdote from a reminiscent local, or a patch of secondary succession along the road. On a day off in Sendai, I nearly froze when I realized the two men shouting notices on the street corner were asking about yukuefumeesha–those who had gone missing in the tsunami.
Thus, with each and every day I learn more and more about the disaster (the thing I wanted most from this trip). Other than that, however, work has been getting fun. At the start of the week, we met the permaculture designer who planned almost the entirety of MORIUMIUS’ sustainable layout. With his help, we made a water pump using solar panels and a water platform using stray scrap wood. At the end of the week, I worked as a Japanese-to-English translator for volunteers from Google, working with, meeting, mingling, and even partying with the employees. A night with the young and incredibly intelligent workers made me grateful for everything I’m getting a chance to do here–all things I never thought I would be able to experience.