Ishinomaki used to be a bustling port city during the Edo period, boosted by its fishing and shipping industries. During the mid-17th century, ships carrying tons of rice sailed down the Kitakami River to Sendai, and even to Edo. Not surprisingly, Ishinomaki was the second largest city in Miyagi Prefecture. However, Ishinomaki quickly faded away in prominence as industrialization created faster routes of transportation of goods, and the use of rivers for transportation declined expeditiously. More recently, with rapid depopulation and rural-urban migration, the fishing industries faced serious shortage of manpower and shops along the streets started to shut in quick succession.

And then the Great East Japan Earthquake happened.

The disaster did not just inflict enormous amounts of damage and casualties. It manifested the long-existing problems that Ishinomaki had been facing for years, or should I say problems that Japan had been facing for years- depopulation, rural-urban migration and aging population.

Ishinomaki was the disaster-stricken coastal city that had the most number of deaths and missing, which isn’t surprising considering its relatively large population. Most of the deaths were concentrated in the Kadonowaki and Minami-hama areas.

07This was Minami-hama area on the day of the tsunami. There used to be 3000 households in the area. Barely any survived.

Kurosawa used to be a plumber in the area. His house and office were washed away, but he and his wife survived. Shortly after the tsunami, despite being wrecked by the merciless acts of nature, both physically and mentally, he mustered enough courage and grabbed however little of hope left to write a message to encourage the survivors to pull through this calamity.

“Gambaro! Ishinomaki” was his message.

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Fight on, Ishinomaki.

This board stood out in stark contrast with the devastation left behind by the disaster, and soon became a symbol of hope of the locals. As the recovery processes progressed, the debris around the area were cleared away as grass grew all around. The significant change in scenery indubitably accelerates the fading of memories of the disaster.83223Nevertheless, this signboard that was erected by Kurosawa remains standing throughout the years of recovery, and has become a popular disaster tourist site. Since then, every year on March 11, Kurosawa would gather his friends and volunteers to organize a commemoration event to pray for the victims of the disaster.

This year marks the fifth year since the Great East Japan Earthquake. More significantly, the Minami-hama area had been designated as the ground for a Memorial Park for Great East Japan Earthquake, and so the symbolic board would be removed and placed somewhere else. This would be the last year in which the commemoration event would be held in this particular area.

As with all other coastal towns affected by the tsunami, this year would be a turning point. For some, it would be an end, for others, it would be the beginning of something new. Some organizations that entered the region would leave, whereas others would initiate new activities, on this emblematic fifth year.

On the morning of March 11, 2016, I joined the “Asa-kai” (Morning assembly) at 8am, organized by Kiyoko Abe, the female owner of a restaurant, who initiated relief efforts, coordinated relief teams and volunteers and facilitated communication among the locals, as well as with external organizations and the local government.

“Asa-kai” was first initiated by Abe a few days after the disaster, when there was absolutely no information whatsoever. She called up her neighbors and friends to discuss what to do. They had no contact with neither the government nor any external organizations. They had to come up with something by themselves. It was the “Asa-kai” at 8am every morning after the disaster, where the locals congregated the exchange information on what they needed, what they wanted to know and what they could provide.

As the Self-Defense Force came in to clear the debris, followed by influxes with foreign NGOs and volunteers, “Asa-kai” reduced in frequency, and soon it became more of a routine gathering for the locals to encourage each other, more than anything else.

One year later, “Asa-kai” was held again, as a form of a reunion for the locals who pulled it through together. It became a formality every year on March 11 at 8am for the locals to gather and update on each other’s lives.

However, this year, 2016, would be the last time “Asa-kai” would be held, as Abe and company probably realized that it was time to stop clinging onto the past and start moving forward.

I had the honour to join the last “Asa-kai” with the locals. Representatives from the shops in the neighborhood, reconstruction company and NGOs were present. After Abe’s brief introduction, the representative from the reconstruction company spoke about the city’s rebuilding plans. Some locals voiced out their opinions on the building of a supermarket along the river, arguing that it sounded more like a shop for tourists, than a local grocery store that supports the lives of the locals. Thereafter, the representative from Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Centre, who had been in Ishinomaki since immediately after the disaster, spoke about their activities. Lastly, a local resident performed some nostalgic tunes on a harmonica, evoking melancholic emotions, as some started tearing.

The final “Asa-kai” ended, as people returned to their normal lives, smiling and looking positive at their future.

I headed toward the Minami-hama area to help out with the preparation of the commemoration event. We made 3000 glass lanterns (of which 2000 were made before the actual day) and placed them in formation around the symbolic board. At around 2pm, locals started gathering in the area to present flowers and make prayers. At 14:46, everyone stood still for a moment of silence. 12837244_10153998479987640_1098486444_oThereafter, we passed balloons to the locals and released them into the sky, as a form of prayer to the victims of the disaster.

1015871_10153847085480465_8356513888710675326_oAs night fell, we started lighting up the glass lanterns. The lanterns were placed in concentric circles, in several formations. Visitors and locals started pouring in to make their prayers for the victims.

12837175_10153998524952640_624888221_o12829371_10153847085450465_1257876439014351985_oThe “Ganbaro! Ishinomaki”, that had served as a beacon of hope for thousands of people who had lost their loved ones, their homes and all hope, stood there for one last time, before being relocated in a few months time.

Throughout the preparation of the event, as well as the cleaning up on the next day, I spoke to locals who had suffered tremendously. One 70 year old man, who used to live right in Minami-hama and who had lost virtually all his neighbors, spoke at lengths about his memories in the area, and voiced his disappointment at the way the local government had dealt with the issues. There was another lady, who had a broad and bright smile, working tirelessly throughout the preparation. It was only towards the end of the day that I was told that she had lost all three of her children during the disaster. As her husband works as a woodcrafter, they carved three little wooden stools and a lamp stand in memory of their children, and placed them at the commemoration event. Five years have passed, and she is now working in a NGO that deals with children victims of the disaster.

I was in Ishinomaki partly for my Masters research, but this volunteering experience had given me more insights into the reality than probably any news report or academic journal can provide. I can only wish for quicker recovery, and more importantly, more sustainable recovery and redevelopment of Tohoku, and of Japan.

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