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

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

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.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs