Cherry trees to mark tsunami line

Volunteers in Rikuzentakata plant a living warning for future generations

by Maya Kaneko

Kyodo

Residents of the tsunami-ravaged coastal city of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, have launched a project to plant cherry trees marking the points where the waves reached March 11 to warn future generations about a repeat of the catastrophe.

Organizers of the project have been motivated by the belief that indifference and a lack of knowledge among local people about gigantic tsunami that struck the city in the past may have worsened the human cost of last year’s disaster.

“Having lost many friends and acquaintances due to the tsunami, I regret that we had no knowledge of inland points where waves had reached in the past. I don’t want future generations to feel the same way,” says Takumi Hashizume, 34, a representative for the “Sakura (Cherry) Line 311″ project.

Hashizume, leader of the city’s youth association and a member of a local fire brigade, was inspired by Rikuzentakata Mayor Futoshi Toba, who in a book published last summer wrote about planting cherry trees somewhere in memory of the March disasters.

Hashizume came up with the “Sakura Line 311″ project with his fellow youth group members and others with links to the city.

The group aims to eventually plant about 17,000 cherry trees, one every 10 meters, in a line some 170 km long, all within the city.

The project costs up to ¥100 million in total, including procuring saplings, fertilizer and equipment for planting, as well as operational expenses.

Volunteers from other parts of Japan who learned of the project began planting seedlings and trees in November. They plan to plant more than 100 saplings on March 11 and the overall number of trees planted is expected to reach about 270 by the end of the month, Hashizume says.

In response to a call for support by the group through the media, schools, municipalities and individuals across Japan have donated cherry saplings, and many owners of land in Rikuzentakata where the tsunami reached have offered to let the group plant cherry trees.

Among business supporters, Japan Airlines Co. has informed its passengers about the project by featuring it in its in-flight magazines, while Tokyu Department Store Co. has launched a campaign to raise funds for the group’s activities through the sales of bookmarks featuring cherry tree drawings.

Hashizume, who lost his house near the coastline and a job at a gas station in the city, stresses that the tree project may require more than 10 years to complete and is asking for continued support.

“For now, people are paying attention to our activities, but we need cooperation over the long term to continue the planting and pass down our experience to future generations,” he says.

“The media tend to report on positive stories a year after the disaster, but our city is yet to stand at the starting line for reconstruction. I don’t want people in other parts of Japan to think we are OK,” Hashizume says, referring to the slow progress in disposing of debris generated in the disaster and rebuilding in the city, the center of which was flattened by the calamity and remains vacant.

In Rikuzentakata, where about 24,246 people lived as of March 11, more than 1,700 were killed or are missing, including the wife of Mayor Toba.

Even though there were some stone monuments in the city to alert residents about the threat of tsunami based on points where the waves reached in the past, the memory had faded and many citizens learned about such warnings from the past only after March 11, Hashizume says.

“What I fear most is that citizens will forget about the horror of the tsunami and people outside of the disaster area will forget about us,” he says. “Living in temporary housing, we have great anxiety for the future, as we don’t know where to live and work and what kind of antidisaster measures we should take.”

The saplings will start blooming in about four years, hopefully offering solace and important messages on the risk of tsunami to future residents of Rikuzentakata.