A Battered Nation on the Mend

June 10, 2011   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

KESENNUMA, Japan — Imagine seeing your office building swept away in a wave and then spending all night on a freezing rooftop watching your beloved fishing boat on fire drifting back and forth in a murky ocean gone wild. The following day you walk amid the debris calling out the names of your missing colleagues and friends only to be met by the downcast eyes of residents who tell you hardly anyone survived from that neighborhood. You don’t bother to check on your home, because you know that nothing will remain.

Yoshiko Iwai, 72, whose husband runs a fishing company, experienced all of that when tsunamis steamrolled this port town in Miyagi Prefecture following the March 11 earthquake.

She barely shed a tear.

Together with other members of the close-knit fishing community, Iwai is focused on reviving the business. “When my husband seems discouraged, I tell him that fishermen must protect the seas,” she says, adding with a wry smile, “us women folk are talking like that.”

Iwai embodies the spirit of Tohoku — the northeastern region that includes the three prefectures hardest hit by the quake: Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima. Stoic, perseverant and disciplined, they are a proud people of few words who shun the limelight. Many observers say those characteristics, typically attributed to the Tohoku people, played a big role in the lack of panic following the disaster.

“If the same thing had happened in Tokyo, things would not have been so orderly,” says Hiroshi Hiraizumi, director general for commerce and industry of Miyagi Prefecture. He points to the hoarding that took place in Tokyo markets while people in the northeast stood patiently in line for rations. “It’s been a chance for us to revisit the goodness of this traditional Japanese character.”

There are frequent references these days to the Tohoku moral fiber. The Japanese Hollywood actor Ken Watanabe, on a Web site he created to encourage victims, recites a poem by the Iwate Prefecture author Kenji Miyazawa. The verse describes Miyazawa’s aspirations to tend to the sick and needy in his village, while he himself wishes to live unnoticed or dismissed as a fool by others. My mother pinned a cloth with that poem printed on it in front of my desk when I was a child, and I have one framed on my 12-year-old son’s wall.

“We are not going to be defeated by hardship,” said the Japanese hula dancer Yukari Maluhia last month at an event to promote a water theme park in Fukushima Prefecture that has been temporarily closed since the quake. It was the second time the resort had sent out its performers on tour, the first being when it opened 45 years ago to replace the town’s coal mining business. The resolve back then of the young women who helped turn around a dying town is chronicled in the Japanese award-winning film “Hula Girl.”

“Tohoku DNA” is the phrase one of the world’s top-ranked ping-pong players, Ai Fukuhara, uses to describe the source of her grit. In an advertisement aired on trains, Fukuhara, who is from Miyagi Prefecture, is shown as a little girl in bitter tears after a loss. She declares in the video that she didn’t give up then, and she won’t now, either.

Of course while the northern traits should be admired and emulated, they are but a mental weapon in confronting the enormous tasks at hand. Workers have been clearing debris for three months now in Kesennuma, but twisted metal, collapsed buildings and squashed cars still blanket the shoreline. Many of the large boats that were washed up remain on land, including one that lies in front of the surviving outer structure of a shark museum. A clock on a wall of a building is stopped at 3:30 p.m., the time when the waves came roaring in.

Masaki Takahashi’s oil transport boat was recovered five kilometers out at sea. Takahashi, the president of a fuel retail company, is having the vessel repaired so it can refuel ships entering the harbor. Bonito fishing has started down south, and he wants those ships to unload at the Kesennuma port this month even though the entire industry infrastructure — offices, storage facilities and processing equipment — has been leveled.

There is major debate about how to rebuild the fishing industry. Miyagi’s governor, Yoshihiro Murai, is promoting a plan to open up the closed aspects of the sector, such as the limited distribution of fishing licenses, to bring in bigger businesses and investments. The small community is wary of giving up its customary ways.

In the three months of post-tsunami hard times, Iwai choked up just once. In late April she went to the harbor to see off her boat that burned that night in the ocean. The midsized vessel for catching mackerel pike, loaded with a bottle of sake that Iwai had put on board to bless its final journey, was being tugged out to be scrapped in southern Japan. “Up until then, I had not had any tears,” Iwai said. “But when I saw that boat going out … A ship has a soul, you know.”