A Day of Remembrance
by Patrick Fuller


At 2.46 pm precisely, the early warning sirens echoed around coastal towns and hamlets all along Japan’s North-East coast as people observed one minutes silence to remember those who died in Japan’s worst disaster in living memory. This was the moment when the magnitude 9 earthquake triggered a tsunami that claimed almost 19,000 lives and devastated 500 square kilometres of Japan’s coastline.

(Photo: People participated in a minute of silence to 3.11 disaster's victims at a newly formed community market in Kesennuma.)

I spend the day in Kesennuma, one of the worst hit towns in Myagi prefecture. Over 1000 died here as the tsunami surged through the city, taking everything in its path. I remember the amateur video footage of the flaming islands of debris floating through the city, lighting up the night sky. Despite all the water, fires were everywhere as the fuel from overturned fishing boats ignited. It was a horrific scene.

(Photo: Landscape in Kesennuma on March 11, 2011)

Now Kesennuma is largely a ghost town. The debris of splintered houses and mangled cars has been piled into heaps near the sea front, a constant reminder of nature’s destructive force. The city centre is now a windswept landscape comprised of a grid of foundations, the only reminder of the homes and shops that used to stand here.

I meet Naoki Shimizu, a local resident who is handing out hot soup to people attending a small ceremony where former residents are gathering to listen to speeches and musical performances. Naoki embodies the spirit of so many people who are determined that these shattered communities will come back to life.

(Photo: A big ship stranded onshore by the wave of Tsunami still stands on the road.)

‘Just down there are the remains of my fish shop and a sushi restaurant my wife ran’, he says, ‘I don’t have a job but I’m lucky, I have other land on higher ground where I’ll rebuild my shop’.

Across this barren landscape small family groups gather at the sites where their homes once stood. They stand in prayer and lay flowers for the dead. It’s a solemn but poignant scene and the media crews are out in force filming it all.

The main purpose of my trip to Kesennuma is to participate in a BBC special on the tsunami that’s being broadcast live around the world. The crew have set up their satellite dish just in front of a huge fishing trawler that settled incongruously in the middle of the town when the tsunami receded. A makeshift shrine with bunches of flowers have been laid at the base of the ship in memory to the two families who were crushed when the vessel crushed their homes as it came to rest.

(Photo: Patrcik Fuller receiving an TV interview from BBC)

Alongside the BBC are other teams from German TV and China’s CCTV. For me, the two minute interview with Roland Buerk, the BBC’s Tokyo correspondent is an important opportunity to bring viewers back to the humanitarian needs of survivors, particularly the plight of the elderly living alone in temporary shelters.

After the interview, Asuka Suzuki, my colleague from the Japanese Red Cross and I, wander back to our car passing the piles of mangled cars and motorcycles that line the road, waiting to be taken for recycling. Rebuilding this town and others like it will take years. The older generation see a future but attracting younger people back will be a major challenge. But in the Japanese spirit of solidarity, or ‘Kizuna’, the local townsfolk are committed to rebuilding their town. ‘Seeing you and other people from outside come here today, just gives us hope say a couple selling T shirts to raise funds to support needy people in the community. The slogan on the T shirts reads ‘Gambaro Ore’ – ‘ I have to stand up’. It says everything about the undiminished spirit of the people of Kesennuma who won’t just be sitting by, waiting for things to happen.

(Photo: In Kesennuma, an one year ceremony was held at the "Fukkou Marche (Recovery market)" where shops are operating in a prefebricated building.)