Paragliding fanatic chronicles Iwaki’s postdisaster shoreline

Local who filmed once beautiful coast now wants to track recovery

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Footage of the Tohoku region’s tsunami-ravaged coast has been broadcast constantly over the past year, allowing viewers a closeup view of obliterated communities.

But Eiji Sakai, a resident of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, has had a unique bird’s-eye view of the devastation, by paragliding along the coast.

“The first time I flew over the shore after (last March’s) quake was on April 1,” Sakai, 47, told The Japan Times early this month.

“From up there, you come to grasp the whole picture,” he said.

“You can tell that towns were literally wiped away that day.”

Sakai, who runs a car repair shop in Iwaki, first tried his hand at paragliding in 1994, drawn by the splendor of Iwaki’s coastline. He has enjoyed the sport ever since, despite the risks.

“Having lived here in the city for so long, I had no idea that we have such a beautiful seashore. The panorama is breathtaking,” he said.

What began as a hobby in his spare time soon developed into a side business to his repair shop.

“I began taking photographs and videos from my flights and posted them online,” Sakai said.

“Business offers soon followed, with some requesting that I shoot photos of construction sites so the operators could verify projects’ progress.”

He now carries cameras and videos to record the view during his flights, and has even produced three DVD compilations of the footage and sold them at local bookstores.

But the 16 gigabytes worth of photos and video footage stored on his hard drives took on increased significance after the March 11 calamities struck, as archives of predisaster Tohoku’s shore.

The shaking began slowly at first on the day of the catastrophe but continued to worsen until it was difficult to remain standing, recalled Sakai, who was visiting a local post office at the time.

“The workers at the post office quickly ducked under their desks, but I didn’t have anything around to hide under,” he said.

“I just held on to one of the counters so that I wouldn’t fall over.”

News that massive tsunami were heading toward the city broke just as he was driving to check on his two children at a local elementary school.

“I opened my window and began yelling to drivers around me to evacuate the area. But for some reason they all looked at me like I had gone crazy,” he said.

Fortunately, Sakai and his children made it home safely, as did his wife. But a few days later, hydrogen explosions started ripping apart reactor units at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and the family was forced to pack up their belongings to flee the prefecture.

Sakai had extensively studied wind conditions along Fukushima’s coast because of his paragliding, and knew the area often experienced winds blowing in from the north at that time of year, meaning radioactive fallout from the wrecked plant could easily be carried to Iwaki.

In view of the risks, the family packed up a tent and quickly drove off in a van, passing through Ibaraki, Tochigi, Saitama and Yamanashi prefectures before settling at an evacuation site in Niigata Prefecture nine days after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Sakai, an Iwaki native, said the threat of his children being exposed to radioactive materials was the reason they left the city, but added that fleeing his hometown left a bad taste in his mouth, nevertheless.

“People in Iwaki were calling in to have their cars repaired, and I knew I had to get back to my job sooner or later. So I left my family in Niigata and returned to Iwaki on March 29,” Sakai said.

Soon after, he flew over his city for the first time after the natural disasters and saw neighborhoods lying in ruins.

“Once I was back in the city I enrolled in a volunteer program, but at the time things were so out of order that they never contacted me to ask for my help,” he recalled.

But he still could record images of Iwaki’s shore from the sky and document the wreckage, and plans to continue filming its reconstruction and revival.

“I was probably the only one who could do this in Iwaki, except maybe for the Self-Defense Forces,” he said.

One year on, Sakai’s photos reveal that Iwaki’s coast is still far from returning to its original beauty. Debris and wreckage have been removed, but residents have yet to return home. Local governments still haven’t decided whether to allow residents to rebuild their homes in the area, according to Sakai.

“The coast is tidy now, but all that remains are empty lots,” he explained.

“I feel that for many of us, the tsunami and quake have become a thing of the past, as if nothing happened,” he said.

In order to pass on the lessons from last March, Sakai in late February published a collection of photos of Iwaki’s coast before and after March 11.

“I feel it is my job to continue documenting what happened here and how we will recover from this tragedy,” he said.

As for Sakai’s children and wife, they returned to Iwaki in May.

Living apart almost caused “a mental breakdown” among his loved ones, he said.

“Personally I don’t think things are looking bright yet. After a tragedy of this proportion, one year is just too short to put everything in perspective,” Sakai said. “Recovery and reconstruction will require a decade or two.”