Amya Miller, Director of Global Public Relations City of Rikuzentakata, sent me a book entitled For Our Children: Life in Rikuzentakata. The book, translated by Ms. Miller, gives a pictorial contrast of the life and activities of the city and its inhabitants before and after the tsunami completely laid waste to the entire community. The pictures and text provided me with reference points.
As I walked around the empty expanses of land, I observed the cement foundations of houses and businesses that once formed homes and shops. The tsunami had literally razed the city to the ground. By the time I arrived in Rikuzentakata, the debris and the remains of destroyed buildings had long since been cleared away.
The sights that greeted me during my first trip to Rikuzentakata were those of reconstruction. From the taxi window on that rain soaked first day of my trip, I could see the sleek conveyor belt wind its way over the land. On the following days, I saw all sorts of heavy equipment in the fields and in Hirota Bay: backhoe loaders, bulldozers, compactors, cranes, and excavators. On the roads dump trucks in a continuous succession delivered dirt to different parts of the city. All of them formed an image in my mind — of a city undergoing a rebirth.
I arrived as a tourist. I was a stranger in an unexplored land. Getting to know the residents, I knew, would take time. First, I had to learn about the environment in which they lived. I knew that people who worked in the primary industrial activities of agriculture and fishing would be wary of a city slicker from Yokohama by way of California. Also the operators of small businesses would need time to accept a foreigner as a confidant before they opened up with their stories of coping with uncertain futures.
In my encounters with residents, I discovered they were more interested about me. Where did I come from? Why did I come?
Married? These and other questions permeated the fabric of our conversations. I suppose as an anthropologist, or a social worker, or a professional photojournalist working on an insightful story for National Geographic, I might have asked probing questions to get them to reveal their stories. However, at my age, I have softened my approach to people. Besides, I am not working against a deadline. Everyone has a story to tell, but they have to be ready to tell it at the right time — and to the right person.