The government appears eager to declare progress in recovery efforts along Japan’s devastated northeastern coast, but anyone visiting the tsunami-hit region must wonder what constitutes progress in officials’ eyes.

Yes, debris has been cleared and less-damaged areas have regained some semblance of normalcy, but long swaths of the coast also remain ghost towns, with empty landscapes stretching to the horizon where close-knit communities used to exist. It is saddening to see the lingering effects of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and to consider how many towns, villages and fishing ports are receding into the fog of history.

True, some of the larger towns seem to be on the rebound, but in between, the visitor is confronted by many “missing teeth” along Tohoku’s saw-tooth seaboard. A number of these towns were already dying, with the tsunami providing the coup de grace. We can better appreciate what Tohoku’s shoreline villages represented now that they have been washed away and former residents are marooned in soulless temporary-housing ghettoes where the greatest risks are isolation and boredom. Are we ready to write off the charming hamlets that used to be such a key feature of this coastal culture? I guess so, but recalling my initial visit there in 1982, I can’t help but feel nostalgia for this disappearing Japan.

John Morris, a professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in Sendai and resident of nearby Takajo, explains: “A casual visitor would not even know that the area has suffered extensive tsunami damage. There are a lot of empty lots in the residential and commercial parts of the city which mark sites where the owners decided to not repair their house or businesses, but the whole area has a clean, spruce look that belies what happened here three years ago. In the small industrial area around Sendai Port, there are a lot of large vacant lots where factories have closed down and either moved away or gone out of business.”

Morris notes, “We want to live our lives with what we have, and reflecting on what was lost does not help you deal with the reality of today.” He adds, “I cannot see that ‘Abenomics’ has done anything for the region, other than drive the cost of living up enormously. The few shopkeepers that I sometimes pump on the subject seem to agree that commercial activity for the ‘little people’ of the region around Sendai has not improved any.”

Tim Graf, a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies at Heidelberg University and research associate at Tohoku University, made a poignant and haunting video about the tragic events in 2011 titled, “Souls of Zen — Buddhism, Ancestors, and the Tsunami in Japan” (www.soulsofzen.com). Recently, Graf shared some of his reflections.

“Revisiting Tohoku’s tsunami zone nearly three years on felt like a rollercoaster back in time,” he says. “Gone is the stench of death and rotten fish. Places like Yuriage and Ishinomaki (both in Miyagi Prefecture) are still flattened out. Once you enter, you are surrounded by tsunami damage, but it has a more distant feel to it. In Yuriage, you see large boards with photos and descriptions in front of ruins and gaping open spaces, showing what once was there. In a way it felt like being in a museum.”

Conducting fieldwork is easier, Graf says, because people “are so happy to have someone to talk to, they just pour out their hearts, as fewer volunteers come by to listen these days.”

Recalling his 2011 documentary project, he admits that he “was living with an illusion. Making our film about Buddhist responses to the 3/11 disasters helped me make sense of what had happened. I structured the content and turned my research into a documentary. Like any film, ours had a beginning and an end. I did my job, and was on to new things.”

Graf observes: “Of course, I knew that I wouldn’t be ‘done’ with the disaster topic, nor did I think that the people of Tohoku felt better three years on — I knew that life was no movie — but going back to the tsunami zone three years later had an even stronger impact on me. I think it was a shock to see that nothing had changed — and now, many new problems, and the fear that this would never end. My informants looked older — tired and exhausted, trapped in time.”

He adds: “It really surprised me how 3/11 continues to be one ever-growing mess. There is simply no end in sight; no recovery, nothing. Things only seemed to get worse. For many people, there is recovery. But things develop differently for different people. And I fear this gap will only widen over time. I think this must be even more stressful for those who feel left behind.

“Living with the 2011 disasters is the new normal. The 2011 disasters are hardly ever a topic between me and my friends in everyday life. I don’t think they suppress it; it’s just normal to not think about it all the time. I think that this causes yet another problem for those who feel left behind.”

Graf explains that when a priest in Ishinomaki told him, “Their hearts are burned out,” “He did not refer to the bereaved in the first place, but to the hearts of those who live in surrounding neighborhoods and those who continue to provide support for survivors. And I think he is right: People are tired and exhausted.”

Graf observes that “it is also important to note that providing care for the bereaved over such a long period of time is a very stressful job for those who provide these services. Yet there is no real support for those who provide support. . . . Volunteers, care specialists and Buddhist priests who come in from outside areas to offer help, care, in the disaster zone cannot stay for too long because they have jobs and families elsewhere. The future of local spiritual care programs like Kokoro no Sodanshitsu (“spiritual counseling center”) is also uncertain.”

Lamentably, many of the devastated communities appear to be in their death throes. Graf commented: “Those who stay in the tsunami zone are mostly elderly. I guess that in a few decades, many of these places will just die out, literally. It struck me to see that many older people in Ishinomaki do not invest in rebuilding their homes. They cannot rebuild, even if they wanted to, because they are too old to get bank loans. What they rebuild instead, though, is their graves. This is what people invest in: their grave, as a final home and resting place.”

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan

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