Japan tsunami photographer retraces steps

2012-02-27 13:12

Tokyo - Nearly a year after he worked in the tsunami wasteland of northeast Japan, AFP photographer Toru Yamanaka returned to capture the progress that has been made. But even for a veteran journalist, this was no straightforward assignment.

On a recent winter's day, Yamanaka stood in an empty and windswept stretch of land in the ravaged city of Rikuzentakata. Nothing was left of the carnage he had seen last March.

The snapped timber from the frames of wooden houses, the twisted and battered cars, the fragments of daily life that he had seen just days after the tsunami were all gone.

But so was the city that once stood there.

"It is for me symbolic of what this disaster was all about," said Yamanaka, aged 53.

"There was a community in that place, where people were living. They had houses, families and companies to go to. They are all gone."

Kobe earthquake

For Yamanaka, who has worked for Agence France-Presse for 25 years, it was not the first time he had been sent to cover a huge natural disaster in his home country.

In 1995 he was one of the first photographers on the scene of the Kobe earthquake, a catastrophe that left more than 6 400 people dead.

But nothing he saw in Kobe could prepare him for the scale of the devastation that greeted him when he arrived on Japan's northeast coast after last year's March 11 tsunami.

"'This is nothing like Kobe', that was what hit me first," he said, recalling the moment he reached the coastline.

"Kobe was bad, too, but what I saw [in the northeast] was no longer Japan, there was nothing left of what you usually see in Japan's countryside. There were only mountains of debris."

And, says Yamanaka after his recent trip back to the area, it is clear that putting these shattered communities back together will take so much longer.

Retracing steps

"Several months after the Kobe quake I was in a helicopter to shoot aerial views, and I remember seeing houses covered with blue plastic sheets. People had already started rebuilding the city," he said.

"When I looked over Rikuzentakata, I was staggered. There was absolutely nothing there. What would we do with the land?"

In January, Yamanaka spent a week retracing the steps that he and his fellow AFP lensmen had taken last March as they captured the sometimes still smoking ruins of what had once been pretty coastal towns.

The idea was to go back to the exact spots to see what had changed since they revealed the initial carnage to the world.

It was a painstaking assignment, with some places so changed it was like the difference between day and night.

In Kamaishi, one of the hardest-hit cities in a disaster that claimed more than 19 000 lives, he was trying to find the spot where a ship called Asia Sympathy had run aground.

Young mother

The gigantic vessel, whose red bow had smashed through a concrete breakwater and stopped just a few metres from a house, had been removed, giving few clues to where he should be looking.

When he finally found the spot, he saw that the ship had been blocking a view of a statue of the Buddhist God of Mercy standing on top of a distant mountain.

In some areas, Yamanaka had to rely on tiny signboards or on the outlines of hills that frame the original pictures.

"I tried to imagine the angles that we, as photographers, tried to take in the wake of the disaster," Yamanaka said. "But many times I just followed my gut feeling to find the locations."

One picture that he had to recreate was of a young mother in Ishinomaki.

The forlorn image of Yuko Sugimoto, wrapped in a blanket against the cold as she scoured the wreckage for her only son broke the hearts of readers and viewers around the world.

Nice picture

But the picture Yamanaka took this time was an altogether more cheerful one.

In it, 29-year-old Sugimoto smiles shyly, standing in the middle of a busy road as she tightly holds the hand of her son Raito, with whom she was reunited three days after the tsunami.

"She remembered exactly where the spot was. Otherwise I would have never found it," he said.

For father-of-two Yamanaka, it was a nice picture to take.

"Those three days of being apart must have been heart-breaking. It was so good to see them together."