The New Horizon - Scenes in northern Japan nearly two years after the disaster (shot in 2012, printed in 2013-2014)

This series features color photographs that were shot in the regions of the northern Pacific coast of Japan from mid to late 2012.  This is the area hit hardest by the Great Tohoku Kanto Earthquake & Tsunami on March 11, 2011. In this series, my focuses on capturing moments in the restoration process by setting the scenes on the horizon under the sky. I captures images such as a field full of sunflowers under rain clouds, a locomotive lying in a mountain of debris, a bird flying over shattered houses in a field, a metal-framed building standing alone on a flooded seawater plain, and a makeshift altar shining brightly among the winter grasses.

I also photographed noted monuments in regions such as the Kyotokumaru No. 18 in Kesennuma city, a fishing vessel which was swept over a half mile inland from the city's dock by the tsunami, and the Miracle Pine Tree in Rikuzentakata city, the sole surviving tree among 70,000 pine trees on the coast. I visited right before the tree was cut down as part of the project to preserve it.

As one have seen in my previous series of NYC subway photographs, my image making is simple and spontaneous in style but appears uniquely quiet, fictitious and somehow meditative. However in this exhibition, each of her images also directly communicates with the viewer about what the regions have been through since the day of disaster, such as devastating loss, overwhelming sadness and emptiness as well as a glimpse of hope and strength in the areas’ long recovery process. March 11, 2014 marked the three year anniversary of the disaster. I hopes my images will help people outside of Japan gain a better understanding of the regions’ on-going recovery effort. 


Artist Note

On March 11, 2011 at 2:46 PM, an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.9 struck off the coast of northern Japan – Tohoku – and triggered a 30-foot Tsunami that wiped out entire towns and villages, and killed more than 20,000 people. At the time, I was in Japan visiting my cancer-stricken mother in my hometown of Osaka. Luckily, Osaka is located about 400 miles west from Tohoku and was affected by only a few tremors, but I witnessed the devastation on television every day for the next few weeks with my mother. She passed away in June that year. 

A year later, in June 2012, I returned to Osaka again from NYC for the one year anniversary of my mother’s passing, and got an opportunity to visit my old friend from NY who now lives in Sendai city, which is the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture in the Tohoku region. She suggested that I visit the area hit by the tsunami and photograph the recovery process. She knew some of the areas well, since she had been working as a volunteer caseworker for tsunami survivors who were living in temporary housing. As a result, by December of that year, I had made three trips to the coastal towns hit hardest - Higashimatsushima, Ishinomaki, Onagawa and Minamisanriku in Miyagi, and Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture.

During my first visit in June to one of those regions – Shizugawa, Minamisanriku town, I was struck by the emptiness of the vast landscape on the flat horizon. The massive tsunami water had swept away not only the seaside area, but had reached as far as six miles (10 km) inland, and had destroyed the entire region, including train stations and railways. Since it was 15 months after the disaster, most survivors had been moved from evacuation shelters to temporary housing units, which were located in elevated places. But the town was not silent, rather, it was filled with the lively noise of truck traffic and the sound of heavy machinery. 

By then, many tsunami-wrecked houses had been roughly removed from the sites and only their foundations were left on the muddy ground with other debris. A few concrete buildings remained standing, with exposed steel frames and broken windows. By the seaside, mountains of debris were lined up and construction workers with cranes kept working busily. The debris was a reminder of the lost community. Among the scattered fragments I encountered a vintage steam locomotive which had drifted from the town’s park. 

During my trip, I noticed that every city I went had a special spot for visitors to mourn. One of those in the town of Minamisanriku was a metal-framed former Disaster Management Center. The building stood alone in a field of weeds, decorated with thousands of paper cranes where visitors and tour buses routinely stopped to pay their respects. In the city of Kesennuma, the memorial was a big fishing vessel - the Kyotokumaru No.18, which stood in a residential district next to a busy intersection. The ship had been swept over a half mile inland from the city's dock by the tsunami. (*The ship was destroyed in the fall of 2013 after a citywide vote to do so). 

The “Miracle Pine Tree” in the city of Rikuzentakata in the Iwate Prefecture may be the most well known of all; a sole surviving tree among 70,000 pine trees which had been standing along the town's coastline for 250 years. The tree became a symbol of hope in the region, but was cut down in September 2012 after its roots died. The tree was later returned to the original spot by inserting a metal skeleton into its trunk and adding replica branches, to be preserved forever. I was fortunate to visit the original tree and could feel its spirit and energy before it was replaced.

During my visit in early September, I found sunflowers widely blooming across the coastal regions in the cities of Ishinomaki and Rikuzentakata. Their bright yellow colors accenting the landscape reminded me of the people who passed there, as well as a celebration of new life. I heard later that the sunflowers were planted as part of a project to cheer up the people in the region, as well as for the effectiveness of the flowers in removing sea-salt from the soil with their roots. (*Some other prefectures like Fukushima, where the situation was much more complicated, were using sunflowers for absorbing radiation). 

On December 10, 2012, I made my last trip to Tohoku. The first thing I noticed in Minamisanriku was that the once muddy ground was now widely flooded by seawater, and the bottoms of the remaining building lots were submerged under sea level. As I talked to local residents, I sadly found out that these lands were at increasingly high risk of submersion with the tide level change by the ground subsidence that accompanied the earthquake. Because of this situation, there was on-going discussion of the relocation of the entire community into much more elevated inland areas, and of the original town being turned into a memorial park. 

The next day, I visited the city of Higashimatsushima via Ishinomaki. This day marked one year and nine months since the disaster. At 2:46 PM, I heard a long siren go off, and then the construction noises suddenly stopped. I saw a group of people gathered in the yard of one of the broken houses start chanting quietly. The house was visible from afar with its colorful flower designs and the English word “Home” painted on its outer walls. 

When I first visited the town six months before, I was speechless at the view I encountered, of many wrecked houses standing ghostlike. Now I recognized that the town was in the slow process of restoration, and those remaining shattered houses were being removed one after another by crane trucks. Under the cloudy winter sky, weeds had changed their colors from green to gold, and shone brightly along with a makeshift altar on the fields. On the horizon, I saw a hawk flying low over the houses and dry trees.

I have not returned to Tohoku since then. At this time, I just want to say thank you to the people there, who provided me with a great opportunity to learn about the region and photograph their beautiful land.  

I believe and pray for their recovery.

Thank you.

Masayo Nishimura
April 2014