20 Mar 2011

Japan's devastation and efficiency in the wake of tragedy

Nine days after the tsunami devastated Japan, Alex Thomson meets a family who have travelled hundreds of miles to say farewell to a missing loved-one.

It’s a movement not just of housing and factories and towns into rubble, but of people’s lives moving from order and memory into chaos and a terrifying present. And you see this before your own eyes in the rubble of towns like Otsuchi.

On the one hand all the photographs of times past: school days, wedding days, beach days, hiking days, sports days – in short the days we all have.

And then you look up from all this and see what’s happening today here. Take Ochiai, his wife and sister-in-law. They’ve come down all the way from Hokkaido, borrowing petrol to get here. His mother-in-law is missing presumed dead. And his wife and sister wish to place flowers, incense and the gift of a drink to send her spirit onwards according to Buddhist tradition.

But so profound is the wake of destruction left by the tsunami here, that even this most simple of desires becomes incredibly difficult to achieve.

You see, you can get to roughly where her house was but finding the house itself is impossible. There’s nothing left beyond two or three feet or rubble in every direction. Sure, the ruined hospital is just about there to one side and on the other, the bike shop sort of remains. But how do you know just where her house was? It matters of course – you can’t perform a ceremony like this upon somebody else’s foundations.

The women are crying, it is a distressing 10 or 15 minutes before they eventually perform their ceremony. It’s more out of consensus than conviction that they have the right spot.

Not far away Mr Abeyama does two things every day. He goes to the mortuary in the school gym upon the hill. The he walks down through a mile and a half of this tormented, ruined place to stand, or perhaps prod, about in the small pile of rubble that was home to his wife and children. He is deeply distressed. He is muttering.He seems in a state of shock.

He wanders over to us and explains that his wife has gone: “I don’t know why I do this. I don’t know. I don’t care about my house. I just don’t care about that.”

Read more: Japan’s miracle rescues

And that’s what you hear from so many people faced with the loss of loved ones against the destruction of mere property.

Against all this, in the background, the Japanese defence force are certainly rolling up their collective sleeves. Not always held in the highest esteem by Japanese people, I’d say their stock must be rising fast.

They put temporary roads into the heart of the rubble zones incredibly quickly. There’s all the big stuff of course: the diggers, the trucks the caterpillars, the surveying, the grading and the big-kit know how.

Then there’s the small stuff: carefully assembling any wallets, documents, jewellery, cash and all the other bits of paper that bind life together and have huge forensic, as well as emotional value in this situation.

 So big jobs, little jobs and the toughest of jobs: retrieving the dead.

Photo gallery: Japan quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis

And in all this twisted mess, rubble and shattered landscape comes an unhurried and deeply moving ceremony of retrieval. The body is located, the stretchers come in with the soldiers, the blue tarpaulin is spread, the body quickly wrapped with quiet unhurried dignity.

Official say they have found over 7,500 such bodies now. In this town alone there are 8,000 listed missing.