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A message from tsunami-hit Rikuzentakata: Make the trip

by Amya L. Miller

“The older you are, the faster time goes by. You’ll be 6 years old before you know it,” my mother said, responding to my angst over why it took so long for my birthday to arrive. Decades later, these words ring true. Time does fly, and the older I get, the more this is a reality.

Soon the third anniversary of the devastating tsunami of March 11, 2011, will be upon us. Has it really been nearly three years?

For many in Rikuzentakata, a city in Iwate Prefecture largely destroyed on March 11, the past 2½ years seem to have flown by, while others say that time has all but stopped. For residents whose lives are anything but normal, seldom happy and far from simple, time — whether fast or slow — is an enemy. “We just want our lives back,” I hear the locals say over and over. “We just want everything to be normal again.”

Individuals, organizations, schools, corporations and governments gave generously in the aftermath of the disaster. The assistance and expressions of support felt in Rikuzentakata have changed lives, and have helped drive us on as we rebuild our city.

With the passage of time, interest and support has waned. We understand this. We get it. We are not bitter.

There are many who still want to give. I am often asked, “What can we do now?” and “How can we help?” Mayor Futoshi Toba of Rikuzentakata and I accept this question gladly and will offer the same answer: Visit us.

What we want is to matter. We want you to know what our lives are like today.

While many media outlets have reported on the situation our city found itself in after March 11, no storyteller or photographer can reflect in two dimensions what a visit to Rikuzentakata will convey. You will be shocked as you take in the vast green prairie of tall grass and weeds that was once downtown. The buildings we’ve chosen to keep standing show the height of the waves that washed away homes, businesses and people. Seeing is believing. We want you to see for yourselves.

Make no mistake: The visual power of the landscape seen in three dimensions will take your breath away. Many who have come have wept. What you see may overwhelm you.

Rikuzentakata is not all about pain. Supplant the horror you will see with the good we have to offer: Taste our locally brewed sake and apple beer. Indulge in our soy-sauce ice cream made with local shōyu. Sample the variety of apples from the orchards in town at any of our farmers’ markets or roadside stands. Inhale the scent of these apples. Talk to the locals.

We ask for sensitivity as you approach the residents. No one appreciates the questions, “What did you lose?” or “How many of your family members died?”

If you have difficulty finding someone who will open up, visit Teiichi Sato, a seed seller who documented his story in English and Chinese. He will gladly sit you down with a copy of his book, reading aloud passages he’s all but memorized. Here is a man everyone is talking about — a man who willingly shares the painful memories of the days and months after the disaster.

Funds are still necessary for us to rebuild. But today, we ask not for the tangible, but a different type of support: Visit us.

We want to know we matter, and that you still care. That you show up helps us remain relevant; your presence is proof.

Your generosity in making the trip up will be forever remembered by those you talk with. Take the time. Make the trip.

Amya L. Miller is global public relations director for Rikuzentakata. Born and raised in Japan, she lived mostly in the U.S. between 1985 and March 2011, when she returned to Japan as a volunteer interpreter. She found herself in Rikuzentakata and ended up staying. Send comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Nevin Thompson

    You could ask Amya herself. She’s on Twitter: @AmyaMillerIwate