Japan, generally, is a country of procedure and predictability. Things work as they’re supposed to and people arrive when they say they will.
One can measure the toll of last year’s triple disaster in any number of ways — photos show us the absurd boat-atop-house destruction; news stories tell us about the dead and missing — but I’m struck by the way in which many Japanese frame their catastrophe differently. They talk about the toll it took on logistics. Even a year later, they think back on March 2011 as the point when their region at least briefly ceased to function.
In the past year, I’ve taken roughly a dozen reporting trips to Japan’s northeastern disaster zone, and the most memorable stories all hit the same note: People who’d spent their lives with first-world comforts saw those comforts obliterated.
I met one man in a far-flung coastal town that could be accessed only by a tunnel; the few dozen residents there survived on canned food and raw rice for 10 days before authorities arrived.
I met another man who, three days after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami, wanted to pay a visit to his mother-in-law across town.
To get there, he needed to cross a bridge. And in order to cross the bridge, he had to climb over or through the things that were lodged atop it — namely, a boat and a house.
For several weeks after the disaster, daily life required strategy.
Coastal towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures — the hardest-hit areas — were short on gas and food. Roads were both rippled by the earthquake and blocked by rubble. People went without heat and running water. Tens of thousands have stories about frigid March nights. Some wrapped themselves in shower curtains just to stay warm.
I first arrived in the disaster zone about two weeks after the earthquake, heading first to the city of Ishinomaki. There, I slept for a week on the floor of a home belonging to Koichi Ohtsu, a university English teacher. Ohtsu was a terrific host, and most nights, we had dinner together and talked about his city. He always apologized for the food, which tasted great, given his starting ingredients — the last-ditch canned products in his pantry, like whale meat and beans.
Well into April and May, my subsequent reporting trips in Japan’s northeast felt like trips to a foreign country, the sort where dictators fall and blue-helmeted peacekeepers import food in burlap sacks. It was chaos. You brought your own toiletries. You slept on basketball courts that had turned into evacuation centers. You used hand sanitizer. You wore the same clothes.
And then, in my case, you returned to Tokyo, full of love for ramen and warm water.
So here’s what you can say about Japan’s disaster zone, one year later. You can go there now and easily be comfortable. Mom-and-pop hotels (or ryokans) again have rooms for visitors. Convenience stores stay open 24-7. Roads are totally repaired (though local trains often don’t run). Gas stations have fuel.
In my latest reporting trip back to Ishinomaki several days ago, I reunited with Ohtsu, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly a year. We went to a just-reopened sushi restaurant, and on the way there, Ohtsu joked that it was nice not to worry about running out of gas.
“Remember how many of our conversations last year involved fuel?” Ohtsu joked.
Now the conversations are about bigger things. Will jobs return? Will towns be able to rebuild? Will young people find incentive to stay in the region?
Nobody knows, but Ohtsu says, “I am optimistic.”
He still lives in the same hillside house. When he winds down the narrow roads that connect his home to the city’s lower coastal areas, he sees something unfamiliar one year ago: Lights.
Interactive: Japan’s coast, then and now