Rikuzentakata is still visibly reeling from the effects of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, when the city lost 10% of its population and over 3800 buildings collapsed. Dirt dunes awash with construction vehicles dominate the downtown area, while clusters of makeshift temporary housing units serve as indefinite stopgaps for displaced citizens farther inland. What used to be beaches are now inhabitable strips of land, guarded by imposing sea walls that work tirelessly to obscure any possible view of the Pacific. There is even a special radio channel dedicated to providing disaster alerts around the clock for those anxious enough to listen in.
I visited the unfortunate town with four other Harvard students and five graduate students from Iwate University. Mr. Murakami, the vice mayor of Rikuzentakata, had offered to teach us about the tragedy of 2011 from the 5th?to the 8th?of August through an educational program sponsored by the local government called the Rikuzentakata Global Campus. He gave numerous tours of Rikuzentakata and connected us to experts and locals, whose perspectives provided a comprehensive overview of what happened to the bereft city. Listening to these talks and visiting the local area, I concluded that Rikuzentakata was a place where hope had been worn down by grief. But as I saw it, the bite of grief had in turn been softened by community rituals like the local Tanabata festival.
Every tree along Rikuzentakata’s coast was destroyed by the tsunami except for one, the so-called miracle pine. The pine tree has become the symbol of Rikuzentakata, an unavoidable image of hope for the local population and the rest of Japan, representing optimism in the face of disaster and life in the face of death. The site has become a common destination for tourists and volunteers to pay homage to those who passed away in 2011.
When tourists visit Rikuzentakata and take pictures of this iconic tree however, they are not visiting the original. That tree is dead. Saltwater flooding and soil contamination eroded its roots, eventually killing the famous tree and leading to its removal in 2012. In 2013, the local government collected ossified pieces of its trunk to erect a replica in a 1.4 million dollar project, attaching artificial pine needles and erecting a metal scaffold inside the sculpture to retain its integrity. The symbol of hope thus remains, now an immortal remnant of The Disaster.
The same day that we learned the story of the miracle pine, we heard a testimonial from Mr. Takahashi, a government official during the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake. On the day of, he had rushed to his children’s schools to make sure that they were safe; power outages prevented him from contacting them via phone. Luckily, all five of his children survived. In the days following, Mr. Takahashi worked closely with stranded evacuees, ensuring that they had enough food, clothing, and shelter to survive while the city put itself back in order. He spoke to us at length about the logistics of evacuation and recovery, taking only a few moments to add that his wife had passed in the tsunami before quickly maneuvering towards the next topic of conversation.
In addition to meeting him in person, we also watched a documentary featuring Mr. Takahashi and his family, which followed their struggle to cope with his wife’s passing. The documentary depicted a difficult family life: Mr. Takahashi’s eldest daughter, Kurumi, stepped up to become the mother of the remaining four kids while the youngest daughter, Reina, could not help crying before she went to bed every night. Mr. Takahashi worked hard to fulfill his new parental responsibilities, busying himself with the needs of the family and the house. When asked about his late wife, his curt, choked delivery betrayed much more feeling than the words that came with it.
As I listened to Mr. Takahashi respond to probing questions about his wife and the difficulties of his daily life, I noticed similarities between his story and the tale of the miracle pine. While the miracle pine is a symbol of hope, it can also be interpreted as a symbol of sorrow, as the original tree has since died and been stuffed due to the aftereffects of the earthquake. Like the miracle pine, a part of Mr. Takahashi is dead. Also like the miracle pine, Mr. Takahashi must stoically live on despite his past sorrows. He cannot afford to revel in the fact that he survived; he must instead deal with the crushing normalcy of daily life and support his five children. Although the miracle pine represents the joy of life for many, for people like Mr. Takahashi, such temporary joy has been eroded by the timeless grief incurred by the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake.
Despite ever-present grief, the citizens of Rikuzentakata celebrate festivals with uninhibited fervor. I had come to Rikuzentakata just in time to see one such festival called Kenka Tanabata. Tanabata is a nationwide celebration, representing the reunion of two lovers who are only permitted to meet each other once a year. Each region has its own take on the festival, with some places celebrating with Miss Tanabata contests while others hold flamboyant parades.??Rikuzentakata’s Kenka Tanabata is particularly interesting: Participants grab onto ropes attached to a colorful float and pull them into the opposing team’s float, causing a violent jolt as the two structures collide with one another. This is followed by a tug of war as the two teams struggle to gain ground on the opposition.
Rain pattered down onto the pavement as I navigated the throng. Noticing the puddles forming in front of me, I suspected that the crowd might begin to disperse, but the festivities never lagged. In-between tug of wars, performers danced around taiko drums, maintaining a constant stream of lively thwacks as the rain mercilessly splattered onto their vibrant uniforms. At other times, lively chatter filled the air as people raised their voices to be heard above the traditional enka music emanating from waterproofed speakers. The event seemed to inject vigor into the local community, spurring genuine enjoyment from the attendees despite the gloomy weather.
According to legend, rain prevents the lovers from meeting on the Tanabata Festival, forcing them to wait until next year before they may eat again. Despite this tragic fact, I observed an unfazed and gleeful crowd participating readily in an unending stream of festivities. Clearly the citizens of Rikuzentakata did not think the lovers’ woes were as important as the ritual that grew from them. This phenomenon is not limited to the Tanabata Festival; many celebrate Christmas for example, while retaining only vague ideas of the festival’s original intention and instead focusing on the festival’s gift-giving ceremonies.
Much of the power of these festivals lies in their invariance. In the case of Kenka Tanabata, the yearly gatherings have not only strengthened the neighborhood spirit in the small town, but also reassured the locals that some things will not change, even after the most harrowing of events. While the Miracle Pine served as a beacon of hope to help citizens fight through the initial shock and loss following the earthquake, festivals like Kenka Tanabata reestablish their lives’ rhythm. The periodic, elaborate rituals have given locals the strength to show their faces to the rest of the community, remain in a town filled with horrific memories and aspire to live, even in the knowledge that the grief will never disappear.