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Don’t look back, Tohoku: It’s time to look far beyond the Japanese box

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Iam just back from a five-day journey around Iwate Prefecture in Tohoku with an NHK TV crew.

We were making a four-part program about the Iwate-born author and poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), and our journey took us from Oshu City to his hometown of Hanamaki; from the stunningly beautiful high meadows of Taneyamagahara down to to the devastated coastline at Rikuzen Takada.

One of the themes of the program revolves around Kenji’s vision of a contented and prosperous Tohoku. After the tragedy of March 11 that left many areas of this northeastern region of Japan unlivable, Kenji’s message of compassionate sacrifice for the good of others, as exemplified by the resolute survivors and those volunteering there, is touching the hearts of millions both in Japan and far beyond.

As we drove in our van down from Sumida, a village in southern Iwate, toward the coast, there was no visible sign of damage — not until we were about 5 km from Rikuzen Takada, a town where at least 10 percent of its nearly 24,000 residents were lost to the tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Railway tracks, severed like twigs, hung over the Kesen River that flows into the town. Two JR stations were inundated by the tsunami that reached a height here of 13 meters. In the vicinity of Takekoma, a huge cement company tank, about 12 meters high, had been toppled by the giant wave, carried upstream and deposited beside a field. Telephone poles leaned out of the ground, facing the sea, forced on a steep angle by the water as it made its way back where it came from. Mangled, rusting cars sat where the tsunami sent them.

Everywhere there were temporary prefab houses for residents who lost their homes. (As of Oct. 3, there were 2,168 such dwellings in Rikuzen Takada.) I caught sight of many volunteers on the outskirts of the town. A few policemen were directing traffic here and there. They wore the uniform of the 800-km distant Osaka Prefectural Police.

But nothing prepared me for the shock of coming down into the town. It was gone. The large three-story Maiya Supermarket, gutted. The four-story City Hall building, gutted, its top-story Venetian blinds hanging out of glassless windows like collapsed spider webs. The police station, the sports center — where children took refuge and died — the museum, the library with enormous stacks of books covered in sand piled against the wall, the hospital with an abandoned wheelchair amid the rubble … it all comprised a collage of chaos and unimaginable loss.

Everything empty and utterly quiet. The many birds’ nests under the eaves of the few buildings left standing were empty, too. I stood in the sun, looking toward the sea, and just wept.

The old coastline in the bay at Rikuzen Takada was wiped away, and the water now comes right up to the walls of the eight-story Capital Hotel. The beautiful pine forest in the bay, formerly numbering tens of thousands of trees, was wiped away too, save for a single tree that residents said is now in danger of dying. In fact, along the 230-km-long coastline north of Chiba Prefecture, two-thirds of the trees simply disappeared.

Also washed away were the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in Tohoku. Among the most prized bonito fish of Japan are the modorigatsuo, those “returning bonito” that make the journey south along the coast around this time of year. The town of Kesennuma, very heavily hit by the tsunami, occupies first place in Japan for both the amount and value of bonito caught. But this season, with so many boats lost or damaged, Kesennuma’s fishermen will be lucky to land one-fourth of the annual bonito catch.

This is only one small example of the hardships that fishermen, farmers and people in all walks of life in Tohoku are experiencing today.

The country is mobilized, on both official and non-official levels, to pour funds into the region’s economy to help get people there back on their feet. But this five-day trip around Iwate gave me a different perspective on the problem from that suggested by the national drive to resurrect Tohoku.

For the entire modern period of Japanese history, ever since the Restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1868, the people of Tohoku have been looked down on by their compatriots in the more prosperous regions to the south.

Donkusai (slow-witted) and akanukenai (unrefined) are two adjectives that have often been bandied about over a century and a half of Japanese development. Norio Akasaka of Gakushuin University in Tokyo, an expert on Tohoku history, has said that many people in that part of the country are all too aware of their role “to supply Tokyo with soldiers from their men, prostitutes from their women, and rice from their farmers.”

That, as a result of an outpouring of sympathy, this condescending attitude has shifted, is well and good. But it became clear to me on this trip that the future of Tohoku lies elsewhere. To rely solely on financial aid from Tokyo will only put this neglected region right back where it was before March 11.

LBT: Look Beyond Tokyo. This is the only way that Tohoku can survive. In fact, I would go all the way and say LBJ: Look Beyond Japan.

Tohoku should reinvent itself as an autonomous region and not rely again on Tokyo. The opportunities to develop alternative forms of energy are colossal. In addition, this is surely one of the most beautiful regions in Asia. Recrafted tertiary educational institutions could attract students from China, Korea and other parts of Asia and the world.

Tohoku should consider itself a part of fast-growth Asia, not stagnating Japan. Bilateral ties should be created with towns and cities all over Asia, and tourists should be encouraged to come directly to Tohoku from other Asian countries.

Tohoku has the people — now seen in their true light as resilient, industrious and mindful of the natural beauty of their homeland — and the cultural amenities to be the Scotland of Asia.

Up on the sweeping plateau at Taneyamagahara, where the meadow angles right up to the sky, I thought of Kenji Miyazawa, who was inspired by that unique landscape to write six stories. He found more than literary inspiration and solace on that high plain. He knew that the people of Tohoku could aspire to a better life if they came to appreciate the power of nature there and all that it promises.

Back in Hanamaki, standing on the bank of the Kitakami River, I saw hundreds of salmon splashing out of the water as they struggled upstream to spawn. What, I thought, could be a more fitting symbol of Tohoku today than this?

This awful disaster can be a turning point for Tohoku: Show the rest of Japan that with the renewal of life comes a revitalization of the spirit and a belief in the possibility to make an independent contribution to the world.