RIKUZENTAKATA, IWATE PREFECTURE – Before the huge tsunami of 2011 virtually wiped it off the map, Rikuzentakata’s pristine beach and luxuriant pine forests were a well-worn stop on Japan’s tourist trail.
Now the visitors are returning, but this time they want to see the devastation and the monuments to those who died on March 11, 2011, the latest example of a phenomenon dubbed “dark tourism,” where holidaymakers pay to witness the aftermath of others’ misery.
“You can’t really get a sense how huge the tsunami was unless you actually come here and see,” said Akira Shindo, 15, from New York, on a recent tour of part of the devastated northeast coast.
More than 18,000 lives were lost when a 9.0-magnitude undersea quake sent the huge waves barreling toward the Tohoku region. Entire communities were destroyed, buildings turned into matchwood and hectares of prime land left unfarmable.
In Rikuzentakata, a forest of 70,000 pine trees that had protected the coastal city from ocean winds for 300 years was swept away.
Just one — the “miracle pine” — briefly survived the monster waves. It has undergone ¥150 million worth of reinforcement to prop it up and has now become a must-see spot for visitors to the area.
“The tree was the tallest, 27 meters high, and the two-story building behind it prevented the wave from sweeping it away,” said Mitsuko Morinaga, a 62-year-old volunteer who takes tourists around her devastated hometown.
Near the tree, dozens of excavators and dump trucks work busily, processing piles of debris or clearing land for new homes.
“Reconstruction is under way, but evacuees have to wait at least three years before their new houses will be built on the hillside,” Morinaga said.
Travel agent Shuichi Matsuda, who organized the tour for 24 people, said he set it up because he “wanted to prevent the memory of the disaster from fading.”
Everyone interviewed on the tour of Rikuzentakata expressed horror at the suffering of people whose lives were torn apart by the tragedy. But disaster zones undoubtedly draw their fair share of ghoulish sightseers.
Seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, residents of one hard-hit area became so fed up with the hordes of gawking tourists feasting on their misery that they got the city to ban tour buses.
A hand-painted sign on one street corner summed up their frustration in dripping black paint: “Tourist — shame on you. Driving by without stopping. Paying to see my pain. 1,600 died here.”
Lauren Cason, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans tourism board, said visitors were welcome to the city, but that residents wanted them to see the positive side. “What we try to highlight is the comeback story and that the city is now thriving,” she said in an interview.
While the bigger buses are gone, the voyeurs are not. Two of the city’s more than 30 tour operators still offer limited “Katrina” tours and a fair number of the Big Easy’s 9 million annual visitors also opt to take a taxi or rent a car to see the remaining wreckage.
Residents of Christchurch, New Zealand, where 185 people died in a February 2011 earthquake that flattened the city’s central area, have grown accustomed to buses disgorging camera-wielding visitors at sites such as the ruins of the Anglican cathedral, once a local symbol.
Shelagh Ferguson and Alex Coats, marketing researchers at New Zealand’s Otago University, last month published a study on the dark tourism phenomenon that found locals accepted such interest as inevitable, but wanted strict controls to prevent stirring more trauma in a community where memories of the disaster remain raw.
The locals resented “rubbernecking” in suburbs where people are still rebuilding their homes 2½ years on. But they had no problem with tours taking in sites in Christchurch’s central business district, where mass fatalities occurred, provided they were respectful and avoided sensationalism.
The study, carried out using in-depth focus groups, said that as memories of the quake fade outside Christchurch, disaster tours serve to remind incoming visitors about its victims and what the city had endured.
“We found that residents understood the fascination that death and disaster might exert over visitors and should not be ignored, as confrontation with death allows for catharsis, acceptance and a means of grieving,” it concluded.
On a very practical level, tourists spend money — often at a time when a devastated area desperately needs jobs and investment to get back on its feet.
In Rikuzentakata, Akira Oikawa, who sells fish, seaweed and other processed marine products, said the postdisaster day-trippers to the city and nearby area were helping to make up the shortfall.
“We are grateful for tourists visiting here and buying local products, as we saw a drop in the number of tourists after the disaster,” he said. “But it’s hurtful when people ask casually about how many people died. We appreciate a little bit of empathy.”