News / Asia

Photographer Returns to Japan to Document Disaster’s Aftermath

Scene in Sendai, Japan
Scene in Sendai, Japan

The death count has passed 14,000 from the earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan on March 11. Nearly as many people remain missing. As recovery efforts continue, a Los Angeles photographer who has documented Japan in books and articles returned to see how life has changed in the stricken region.

Mark Edward Harris has traveled to Japan many times to photograph its sights, including its famous hot springs. He paid a visit to the scenic Tohoku area of northeast Japan last year, four months before the area experienced a magnitude 9 earthquake and devastating tsunami.

Harris wanted to go back, saying that he felt an obligation to tell the people’s story, so he contacted a friend, Yoshi Ohkuma, who works for the Japan Travel Bureau. Ohkuma had guided him on the previous trip to northern Japan.

"And at first he said, 'Oh don’t come. Now is not a good time, with the devastation and all.' And then he reflected upon it, and I got an email soon after that saying, 'This is exactly the right time, and I want to be part of it. And I won’t do it as official work, because it’s not tourism, but it’s important to tell the story,'" he said.

The two men drove to the stricken area in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. One month after the disaster, the search for survivors had ended. The rescue teams were gone, replaced by crews with cadaver-sniffing dogs who continue to search for bodies in the rubble.

Harris says he saw stark contrasts.

"You go up a few feet in elevation, and all of a sudden, everything looks fine. But then you go over a hill and you descend again into the next town, and that’s been obliterated. And the distance of just driving, and we drove many, many miles down the coast, of this continuous theme of devastation, driving up, everything looks fine, and then right back down into another town," he said.

A man walks past a huge ship that breached a seawall in Kamaichi, Japan
A man walks past a huge ship that breached a seawall in Kamaichi, Japan

He says the scenes in the stricken towns were striking. In Otsuchi, for example, a cruise ship sits atop a building, as local people try to return to normal life.  "And then in a place called Kamaichi, a huge ship breached the sea wall, but then you have people walking in the foreground trying to go about their daily business best they can. Yet you have this very surreal scene behind them of this ship hanging over," he said.

He says that children’s stuffed animals were everywhere, and there was other evidence of life that for many had suddenly ended.

"There was a pachinko parlor/casino [where] there was money, these coins, still in the trays where people had been playing and all of a sudden, had to evacuate, and the place just came apart," he said.

He says people were anxious to tell their stories. In the suburbs outside Sendai, a survivor named Chie took them to a kindergarten that served as a community refuge in what should have been a safe zone.

Japanese nursery school, near Sendai
Japanese nursery school, near Sendai

"The people that went to this one building on the second floor were fine, but when the tsunami came in much further than expected ..- this really was inland ..- it obliterated the people and building on the first floor. And so she took us over to that. She wanted to share that. And it was very sad to go into this kindergarten where there was a sign hanging saying, congratulations on graduating, and it was just a scene of carnage there," he said.

Harris says that both he and his friend from the travel bureau were moved by the devastation, unlike any that Japan has experienced since World War II.

"It was such a surreal scene, and Yoshi had commented that this is what it must have been like to walk through Hiroshima after August 6, 1945," he said.

Harris says it was also clear that the space of less than a meter could make the difference between life and death. Water swept through one building up to the fourth floor. Its fifth floor was untouched.

The photographer wrote in an earlier book on Japanese hot springs that the country’s way of life and scenic natural beauty are made possible by its location on the so-called Ring of Fire, the Pacific region known for mountains and volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis. He says the Japanese have rebounded from past disasters, and despite the devastation, those he spoke with say it will rebound again this time.

You May Like

Photogallery Belgian Security Measures Foreshadow New Normal for Europe

Rising threat of terrorism, disaffected Muslim populations and open borders, along with refugee, migrant crisis, are creating perfect storm for Europe, which some analysts fear continent is ill-suited to weather

Competing Claims of Responsibility for Mali Hotel Attack

Malian authorities ask public for help in identifying gunmen killed in attack, amid conflicting claims of responsibility from multiple jihadist groups active in the country

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs