Life Goes On…

All that remains of the fishing village of Funakoshi (All photos by Estelle Hebert)

by Estelle Hebert

Estelle’s involvement in Tohoku began in July 2011 during a five-day post-tsunami volunteer trip. She ended up driving along the coast of Miyagi Prefecture one afternoon after meeting Chizu, survivor and full-time supporter of all volunteers across the prefecture. The long and winding road led her to the fishery village of Funakoshi, where she was amazed to see the fishermen continuing their business despite the entire village being in ruins. After listening to a few testimonies, observing the beautiful landscape, and witnessing the fishermen’s positive spirit and relentless efforts, she decided to hop on board and make use of her documentary media background to help share the story of Funakoshi with the world. She is currently working on a documentary film while running a fund raising campaign in support of the locals.

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi Prefecture — Tetsuo-san is standing next to his son’s gravestone in a small cemetery located up on a hill in Funakoshi, a small Japanese fishing village that was almost completely washed away by the tsunami last March 11. He fills up a bottle of water and places it next to the gravestone, before slightly glancing over to the left, where both his daughter-in-law and grandson were also buried. He takes a deep breath as tears form in the corner of his eyes. Speechless, he looks at what is left of his hometown: only a few standing houses amongst immense piles of rubble, along with a handful of restored boats. Personal belongings and mundane household items, which at one time filled homes, now lay scattered across the dusty landscape of this village.

Tetsuo-san

Tetsuo-san is a well-established middle-aged fisherman who rarely falls short of conversation. Dark-skinned from spending endless hours outdoors on a daily basis, his sincere smile quickly puts everyone at ease, regardless of language or cultural barriers. Dressed “fisherman-style” with a white towel wrapped around his head along with his navy blue loose pants and plaid white shirt, he loves to crack jokes every now and then and share his endless fishing stories. Although he has lost three family members in the tsunami that has forced him to move to another town located about a one-hour drive away, he has no desire to give up on both his fishing duties and the revival of his hometown. Along with his long-time friend and co-worker Nakasato-san, he is consistently trying to create opportunities that will bring a sense of normalcy to his community.

It’s an extremely hot summer day and Nakasato-san wipes the sweat off his forehead. He unloads a mini truck filled with bags of fresh sea urchins in an empty parking lot in Ishinomaki city where over a hundred locals have lined up for hours in the hot summer sun to make a purchase. This marks the first local fish market selling event since the tsunami hit and within 20 minutes, all the sea urchins have sold out. Many customers are left empty-handed and decide to patiently wait for some of the fishermen to drive back to Funakoshi to get a second batch out of the sea. Ever since the tsunami last March, the fishermen have not been able to afford a proper vehicle that would allow them to transport a large amount of fish to the city, causing a lot of traveling back and forth. Meanwhile, Nakasato-san explains that without any fridge to store their fish, the ocean water has become their storage space. Just the day before, he had spent a few hours in Funakoshi putting buckets of sea urchins into the water, a few hundred meters away from shore. And after advertising the selling of urchins in a weekly flyer that was delivered door-to-door that same day, he was both surprised and relieved to see that so many people had showed up.

In his mid-fifties, Nakasato-san delivers an insane amount of energy wherever he is present, showing off his dynamic personality. His clear blue eyes set him apart from most Japanese, and he cannot help but grin whenever he is in public. He is an experienced fisherman who once worked on a long distance tuna fishing boat, making stops at many of the main ports across the globe. Years ago, before settling in Funakoshi, he also spent time training many Americans on board ships in the Seattle area. Luckily, his residence is located farther up the main road higher than sea level and survived the tsunami. However, he was still forced to evacuate to a temporary home in Tougezaki, a village nearby, due to a high risk of landslide that could potentially crush his home.

Moving Forward

Despite being low on much-needed resources, both Tetsuo-san and Nakasato-san along with a few other fishermen have chosen to move forward, finding new ways of continuing local business. They have also stretched their ambitious efforts, developing a plan with the assistance of a Japanese volunteer organization for the rebuilding of their village, a dream they hope will soon become a reality. It’s not as easy as it seems, however, when you really take the time to put things into perspective…

Nakasato-san with a volunteer from the Peace Boat organization

Because the tsunami destroyed over 400km of coastline and displaced over 300,000 people in the country, government support and funding for the rebuilding of Funakoshi may take a long time given the endless number of destroyed villages in the area also seeking approval for reconstruction. And on top of dealing with an aging population whereby many are considering permanently leaving smaller hamlets such as Funakoshi for larger cities such as Ishinomaki, the reconstruction plan itself is quite extensive. The plan proposes to cut off a chunk of land from one of the surrounding mountains where houses would be built well-above sea level in order to avoid any future disaster. A labor intensive proposition, the plan would drain an already diminished supply of professional contractors across the prefecture. 

In the meantime, Funakoshi seems to be the only completely washed away village in the area where reconstruction activities are happening and being documented. Several volunteer organizations, such as Peace Boat and It’s Not Just Mud, are providing as much assistance as they can in order to promote sustainable development. And as the fishermen continue to fish, a group of women have set up a small workshop room on the third floor of the only school located in the village where they scrape and hand-paint hundreds of different stone slates found amongst piles of rubble. These stone slates are actually renowned in the area, and they are being used to make necklaces, key chains, and tiles that are then sold to help raise funds to support the reconstruction of the village. Locals are hoping that ongoing activities like these will help pressure their local government to approve the plan.

Life Goes On

It’s impossible for anyone to even imagine what it must be like for these individuals to step outside their home every day only to be surrounded by destruction. Recovery is slow, not only in Funakoshi, but all along the coast as the few houses that remain are left abandoned amongst mountains of trash. The damage is beyond comprehensible, and witnessing it with your very own eyes leaves you with no words. Yet the most fascinating thing about this tragedy is the way that the locals have managed to pull themselves up and continue their life journey. For some, including Tetsuo-san and Nakasato-san, it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel given the little visible progress in the past six months, but their persistent efforts are a reflection of their positive energy and spirit. An energy and spirit which is responsible for bringing everyone closer to achieving their shared dream to be able to return home to a normal life.

If you wish to support the community of Funakoshi, please visit the official website www.brighterthantomorrow.com and click the DONATE tab at the top right. If you would rather do a furikomi, please contact Estelle directly at: lolahebert[AT]gmail.com

If you wish to volunteer in the Ishinomaki area, please contact Jamie, leader of the volunteer organization It’s Not Just Mud: www.itsnotjustmud.com

One comment

  • Dan

    This is awesome Estelle. I bet it was a wonderful experience you’ll never forget. This story is so さすが日本! Japan is great at rebuilding. But, I’m more worried about what they can’t change: the leaked radiation. It’s such a shame.