I’ve just been to an exhibition of press photos from the Great East Japan Earthquake, held to mark the two-year anniversary of the disaster. There are some amazing pictures, as you would expect, of the immediate aftermath of the tsunami that devastated vast areas of Tohoku in North-Eastern Japan, but what impressed me most were the pictures of people beginning to rebuild their homes and their lives.
The 9.0 magnitude earthquake, which hit at 14:46 on 11 March 2011, was one of the worst in the history of earthquake-prone Japan. It actually occurred under the sea about 50 miles off the coast and was followed by a huge tsunami which, at its highest point at Miyagi, reached 20 metres. The effects were felt along four hundred and twenty miles of coastline stretching from Hokkaido to Ibaraki. 15,880 people were killed and 2,694 are still missing.
There are heart-rending pictures of the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, but the most dramatic is this sequence of four photos by Isao Takahashi, taken from the same vantage point in Minamisanriku Town in Miyagi, showing how the tsunami destroyed everything within the space of a few minutes. The top left photo shows the view before the tsunami hit; the two photos on the right show its progress and the last one, on the bottom left, shows the devastation it left behind.
Those people who were lucky enough to survive found their lives devastated, their homes deterred, their possessions lost and their relatives and friends missing.
Entire towns were destroyed. Here people are rescued by boat after spending the night on the roof of their house in Iwanuma City in Miyagi.
This fire engulfed a petrochemical plant in Ichihara City in Chiba.
In this photo, taken on 3 April 2011, a Self-Defence Force member takes a brief break from the rescue operation.
But that was two years ago – since then a massive effort by the local people themselves and teams of volunteers from all over Japan has begun the arduous task of bringing the devastated areas back to life.
There is a symbol of hope in the lone pine tree that somehow miraculously survived in Rikuzentakata City when the city itself was destroyed. This pair of pictures were taken by moonlight and at sunrise. The tree is now dying but grafts have been taken to ensure it lives on. The tree itself has been cut down and treated with preservative to be re-erected as a monument.
The people, too, have found ways of surviving the disaster and reclaiming their normal lives. Small things come to have great significance.
This girl has managed to find her favourite notebook in the ruins of her home in Ishinomaki City in Miyagi.
While this boy has found his school satchel in the mud and proudly wears it again to school.
Oyster farms in Higashimatsushima City have now reopened.
These children are at a friendship camp run by Mitsubishi and YMCA Japan.
It will take many years to restore Tohoku to its former state, and no amount of effort will bring back the thousands who died, but the people of Tohoku are undefeated. A feature of the exhibition is this cherry tree in the foyer where you can write messages of support for them on cards and hang them from the branches. Materials and instructions are also available for folding origami cranes, symbols of long life and good fortune.
The exhibition is sponsored by the Asahi Newspaper, from which many of the pictures come, and Mitsubishi Corporation. It’s on at the gallery@oxo in the Oxo Wharf on the South Bank until 17 March.