Recording Resilience: Filmmaker Shares Japan Recovery Experience

Kaori Brand is a filmmaker who spent five years working here at the United Nations University. One project that marked her especially was about the region deeply affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. In the following article she reflects on the experience of recording the recovery efforts of the fishing communities of Kesennuma and Omoe. The 31-minute documentary on Kesennuma can be watched by clicking the banner photo at the top of this page and a 12-minute video on Omoe can be watched below.

• ♦ •

On 11 March 2011 at 2:46 p.m., I was watching a film called “The King’s Speech” at a movie theatre in Tokyo. As the film approached its midpoint and I was absorbed in the story, the theatre seats began to shake strongly.

Tokyo is often hit with minor tremors, so I was not that concerned and did not immediately think to exit the theatre. But the shaking continued to get worse and I decided to leave my seat. As I did so, the film was stopped and an announcement over the speakers advised everyone to vacate the theatre immediately.

Although the scale of the tremor alarmed me, the extent of the damage was beyond what I imagined, until I returned home and saw footage of the tsunami in the Tohoku region. I was then very struck by the tragedy and my thoughts flew to the fishing villages that had been devastated.

My empathy was more acute than it might have been, had I not quite recently ridden in the fishing boats of people very much like those who had just been shattered by something so astounding.

In January 2011, environmental sociology expert Anne McDonald had approached me with a new project focusing on satoumi (defined as marine and coastal landscapes that have been formed and maintained by prolonged interaction between humans and ecosystems). At the time, she was Director of the Operating Unit Ishikawa/Kanazawa at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies, and I had already worked with her to produce several documentaries (including the Kanazawa Book of Seasons series).

This satoumi project consisted of visiting six fishing villages and fishing ports around Japan to cover initiatives on environmental protection and sustainable fishing operations, based on a Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity technical report put together by her team. We had begun interviews and filming in February in Hokkaido (which is north of Tohoku) and Ishikawa (on the opposite coast) prefectures, during which I had spoken with fishermen and had ridden in their boats.

Because of the earthquake and resulting tsunami’s impact on coastal areas, I started discussing with McDonald the possibility of doing interviews themed on the rebuilding of the fishing industry in afflicted areas. McDonald had taught at Miyagi University and lived in Miyagi prefecture (which is in the southern part of the Tohoku region) for many years, so the area held a special place in her heart. The documentary accompanying this article was shot in four installments: April, June and September of 2011, and February 2012, thus covering a year and a half of post-disaster recovery and documenting examples of the courage the victims began to find in themselves.

One month post-disaster: First shooting session

On 11 April, exactly one month after the earthquake, we headed to the town of Kesennuma in northeast Miyagi prefecture. The plan at the time was to mainly cover oyster farmer and author Shigeatsu Hatakeyama’s initiatives to protect the forests and the sea, as well as Kesennuma’s rebuilding.

Television in Japan was covering the disaster extensively; not a day went by without seeing footage of the damage. It was unsettling to think of seeing that ravaged townscape with my own eyes.

Bullet train services had not resumed yet, so we traveled to Sendai by bus from Tokyo. After arriving in Sendai, we transferred to a car driven by Hideo Sato, a cameraman and president of Cine Tech, a TV production company in the Tohoku region. As we approached Kesennuma port we saw, in the dim sunset, destroyed buildings and huge ships and many other unfathomable objects stranded in the middle of the road. The town was demolished to the extent that someone unfamiliar with the area would have no idea where anything was or where to go, even if the car had a navigation system. Sato’s knowledge was essential and very reassuring during this trip.

Throughout the initial coverage we were preoccupied with the damage stretching out in front of our eyes. As we walked, the car always followed closely behind. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was because with the ongoing aftershocks in Tohoku, there could be a need to jump into the car and head to higher ground at any moment. Sato’s explanation of that precaution awoke our Tokyo experience-shaped minds to the reality of this region.

Because McDonald is a board member of the National Association of Fisheries Infrastructure, the Association’s President, Junji Tanaka introduced us to the Kesennuma Fisheries Cooperative Association where we began our interviews and through which we were referred to the Hotel Kanyo. Though the hotel was accepting construction workers and the media, the town’s electricity and water were not yet completely restored and the hotel’s lobby, normally bustling with tourists, was dim and quiet.

As we entered, the hotel president Yasuhiro Abe welcomed us. We initially did not know anything about Abe and were not planning to interview him. But cameraman Ryo Murakami mumbled, “That man was on NHK yesterday.” Abe had been followed by a team from NHK even before the earthquake and the station had just aired a documentary featuring him discussing the disaster. It turned out that he also runs one of the biggest seafood processing companies in the region — Abecho Shoten.

As we covered oyster farmer Hatakeyama and interviewed Ryousuke Sato, President of Kesennuma Fisheries Cooperative Association, each time we had the chance to visit Kesennuma, we also interviewed Abe. As a result, we were able to structure the documentary (which accompanies this article) around Abe’s role/experience in the town’s rebuilding. The video shows in detail how Abecho Shoten, founded by Abe’s father (who is still chairman of the company), is working to rebuild.

The day of the earthquake in March was so cold that it was snowing and it was still chilly and the town remained without heating when we visited in April. This surely added to the anxiety of people who had been evacuated.

For the next few days, we used Kesennuma as a base while we went to view a number of coastal towns such as Rikuzentakata, Minamisanriku and Ishinomaki.

The destruction was astonishing wherever we went. Because the trees and buildings that had blocked the coastal sea winds were completely uprooted, strong sweeping winds were whipping up rubble and dust. Despite this, the locals, the Self-Defense Forces (Japan’s unified defence forces), police, fire department and others had cleared roads (even separating waste by type) so that traffic could get through. The landscape looked different from the footage we had seen immediately after the disaster. Yet the hush of the town seemed to reflect the mood of a people in mourning.

And indeed they were. Kesennuma Fisheries Cooperative Association President Sato is also president of a fishery/marine products-focused company called Kanedai and was working in his office on the day of the earthquake. As we interviewed him, he showed us the damaged office and pointed out a map posted on the wall.

“Kesennuma probably has the highest density of world maps in Japan. Every house you visit will have a world map on the wall. Many people go abroad on deep-sea vessels, so families look at the world map to check where their son or other family member is at the moment.”

Though accustomed to that level of worry, following the tsunami, so many were faced with a scale of loss that no one could expect and thus needed encouragement to find strength for the hard recovery ahead. And they received it from all over the world.

“Now is the time to unite courage and hearts as one,” read one of a collection of messages shown to us by the Kesennuma Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Chamber President Kenji Usui is friends with Etsuro Sotoo, the sole Japanese sculptor to work on the Sagrada Familia, the famed unfinished Barcelona basilica designed by Antoni Gaudí. Sotoo and the Sagrada Familia staff sent that message, written on a Japanese flag.


The Japanese flag sent to Kesennuma by Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo and the Sagrada Familia staff. Photo: Kaori Brand

June 2011: Second shooting session

When we visited Kesennuma in June, Abe’s hotel had also begun taking in evacuated residents. It was difficult to maintain privacy at shelters such as gymnasiums while temporary housing was being prepared and hotel rooms were able to provide accommodations for entire families. Many people were living there, so the contrast was distinct from the quiet of April. There were also many people involved with construction and media, so the hotel had been at full capacity for quite a while.

While we continued to cover Kesennuma, it came up that perhaps we should also feature the rebuilding of a smaller fishing village and so we began visiting Omoe in Iwate prefecture. The entire community of Omoe pulled together, aiming to rebuild while paying respect to their local environment. When interviewing Sato and Abe in Kesennuma, they maintained that people who can rebuild should take the initiative and lead the entire town so that the entire town can eventually rebuild. In contrast, the town of Omoe shared a common rebuilding mindset and goals from the start.

Standing Strong: Omoe

Kesennuma is referred to as a base for the fishing industry, and its port was designated a Type 3 fishing port in 1969, which signifies it is as  crucial to the country’s fishing industry. Many fishing vessels registered with other prefectures enter here to land their catches. In addition to shipping out fresh fish that was landed in Kesennuma, processing is also done in seafood processing factories built near the port.

We had the opportunity to speak a number of times with Shoichiro Fujiwara of the Miyako Fisheries Promotion Center in Iwate prefecture, which organizes and administers fishing ports. His work currently focuses on the rebuilding of fishing port facilities that were damaged by the disaster.

The prefectural government building he works in became an emergency shelter immediately after the disaster. Fujiwara himself also lived there for a while and was helping the evacuees. The day after the earthquake, he set out to gather information about the disaster sites. He described for us what he saw with his own eyes right after the earthquake and tsunami:

“Well, the situation was rather unbelievable. I had heard that it was extremely bad and that the tsunami had come in really far. When I actually went to see it the following day, there were no roads, and residential homes in the coastal area had been damaged, though some of the national roads had been cleared and were passable.

“On top of all this, tsunami warnings were sounding frequently, so to walk through and look at the locations while taking shelter was really difficult. My personal feeling was to save mourning the dead for later. I believed that my job was to rebuild the fishing ports so that fishermen could return to the sea, and that I had to work to survive until tomorrow. So… I think it was around 16 March when electricity was restored. From the day I was able to use my computer, I developed a rebuilding plan draft proposal.”

Fujiwara said that fishery operators must produce on their own to make a living. They cannot afford to wait for government measures and were taking powerful action to rebuild on their own. But we learned that many people in the government also value the sea and the fishing industry, and people like Fujiwara were indeed providing support as fishery operators rebuild.

“As I walk around the port, there are small puddles of seawater filled with small fish amidst the rubble,” Fujiwara said. “Creatures are working to regenerate. I was amazed. Looking at the sea, I believe the fishing industry will survive and recover.”

Third round of coverage: September 2011

When we visited Kesennuma in September 2011, it had been six months since the disaster, so we attended Kesennuma City’s Great East Japan Earthquake joint memorial service. A speech by Mayu Kikuta of Kesennuma High School, who lost her grandfather and grandmother in the tsunami, left a very strong impression. Her grandfather was a fisherman, so he seemed to overlap in my mind with the fishermen that I had been interviewing. An excerpt of her speech follows:

“When I asked (my grandfather),’Why aren’t you home every morning?’ he explained, ‘The oysters and seaweed are waiting for me in the sea. They are live creatures, so I have to take care of them or else they will not become delicious.’ I did not quite understand that as a little girl, but when I was in the fifth grade, he came to school to conduct a special class as a master oyster fisherman to teach us about ‘slow food’. During that class, I learned for the first time why my grandfather was not home every morning and also how much work went into the oysters that we were eating without much thought. I was grateful for his work. There is a lot to do in the fishery industry during the cold season, and he was working on seaweed the day of the earthquake too. I am sure it was a hard job for my 81-year-old grandfather. I still cannot forget the sight of him always working quietly without complaint.


“My grandfather was quiet but worked so hard for the family. My grandmother kindly taught me important things. I am filled with deep regret that they went to heaven before I could show my gratitude in some way. I still wonder if they might have survived if I called them right away and told them to hurry and escape. They must have been so scared. They must have been so cold. Grandpa, Grandma, I am sorry. I am so sorry. I have regretted this so many times.

“I wanted to weep. But in the days immediately after the earthquake, it was difficult to even cry. We were staying in the shelter set up at Hashikami Elementary School with more than 200 people, including many babies and small children. I reminded myself that I was not the only one suffering and that I could not give in. Neighbours came the following day as volunteers for cooking, so I immediately started helping. This is because I thought that doing what I could at the time would pay homage to my grandparents. The following day, my younger sister and her three classmates came to me as I was working, saying that they would help too. My sister probably felt the same way as I did.

“One small step leads to the next, and that becomes the bond that ties people. I felt glad. Many people such as the Self-Defense Forces assisted us after the disaster. While gradual, I think we have made progress toward rebuilding because of this assistance. But it will still take us quite a while to rebuild completely. As a high school student, I might not be able to do much, but I think that taking what action I can, little by little, will add to rebuilding. So although my contributions may be small, I intend to continue with my efforts.

“Finally, I wish to extend my appreciation to everyone across Japan for their support. I pray for the souls of those who perished and I pray that those missing are returned to their families soon. Thank you.”

February 2012

In February 2012, almost one year since the earthquake, the town of Kesennuma was lightly dusted with snow. We were able to speak with Nobuyuki Yagi of the Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Tokyo, who was coincidentally researching Kesennuma. When we asked, “What should be communicated to the world?” I was struck by his response: “Gratitude,” he said. “And risk communication. Japan is worried about the impact from the nuclear accident in Fukushima, and so are other countries. So some people are researching the best way to convey accurate information for risk communication. I think presenting the results of this research to the world will serve as a contribution.”

Nearly a year after the earthquake, I considered once more what happened on 11 March 2011 and how Japan and myself as an individual changed or did not change.

I had numerous opportunities to ask those in the afflicted areas, “What were you doing and where were you on that day?” Among the fishermen I spoke with, some were ashore and headed out to sea before the tsunami arrived, with the hope of protecting their boats by taking them far from land. When an earthquake hits, there have always been people who get on their boats to go offshore before a tsunami arrived. Obviously, not all fishermen who went offshore were saved. Some survived but lost their boat, while some lost not only their boat but also their lives.

Many of the people I spoke with had a very optimistic view of life and rebuilding. But obviously, not everyone is that strong. Still, I hope that featuring people who are facing their destiny as shown in this video will inspire those in the disaster areas as well as all viewers, to stand up strongly on their own two feet. This is how I felt as I listened to everyone’s stories.

I visited fishing villages all over Japan in 2011 for the “Satoumi” documentary project and caught a glimpse of the lifestyles of strong fishermen who live with the sea. An oyster farmer I covered in Okayama was deeply shocked at the damage inflicted upon those in the same occupation. It struck me how he said that he wants to help them in any way possible, and that unless the disaster area rebuilds, more livelihoods are at stake. Fishermen everywhere — in Okinawa, in Ishikawa, in Mie — were all deeply distressed and empathized with those in the fishing industry affected by the disaster.

A fitting speech

Even as I continued with coverage, my mind kept returning to the movie “The King’s Speech” and how it had been interrupted midway by the disaster. So I went again to see it. The film is based on the true story of King George VI, who overcame his speaking difficulties to address British citizens over the radio on the verge of the outbreak of World War II.

When the film stopped on the day of the earthquake, Britain was enveloped in a disquieted mood, watching the procession of the Nazis. Britain subsequently entered the war. I felt that the encouragement contained in the speech the king read to his citizens was also relevant to post-disaster Japan and it seemed to resonate with me even stronger because I heard it after the earthquake.

Of course, there are many differences between Britain immediately before World War II and Japan after the earthquake. But I saw similarities in the need for citizens to unite in times of adversity and take a stand:

“[…] I now call my people at home and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own. I ask them to stand calm, firm and united in this time of trial. The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield. But we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God.” (King George VI, London, 1939.)

The impact of earthquake disasters goes beyond the afflicted areas. It is a trying time, and tribulations await. It was imperative that Japan take a united front in proceeding along the road for rebuilding.

I spoke with many in the afflicted areas about rebuilding. Many local fishing industry workers spoke of their strong aspirations to take this difficult time as an opportunity to rebuild in a better way. I am sure that not everyone is as strong as the people I interviewed. Many probably had no choice but to leave the fishing industry.

In times like these, is it not important for the government and people like me who live away from the disaster areas to support the survivors and think once more about our own country while considering rebuilding to an issue that affects us too? It has been less than two years, yet memories of the disaster are already fading in many regions of Japan. I hope that this documentary will provide an opportunity to think once more about this earthquake disaster.

I thank everyone who cooperated in the production of this documentary.

Creative Commons License
Recording Resilience: Filmmaker Shares Japan Recovery Experience by Kaori Brand is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.