The March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami wiped out the ancient Japanese village of Kessen. Over the past decade, a small group of survivors have tried valiantly to rebuild the community, but a grim reality has been set in it: this emptiness will last forever.
KESEN, Japan – For centuries, this village rode the currents of time: war and plague, sowing and harvesting of rice, felling and harvesting of trees.
Then the wave went on. Time stopped And the village became history.
When a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck devastation in coastal Japan on March 11, 2011, more than 200 residents of the village Kessen were killed in Iwate Province. All but two of the 550 houses were destroyed.
After the water receded, almost all the people who survived fled. They left behind their destroyed property, the graves of their ancestors, and the cultivated land for generations of their ancestors.
But 15 residents refused to leave Kesen and vowed to rebuild. Twice since 2011, Hiroko Masuike, a photographer for The New York Times, has gone to the village to document the remaining mission of remaking his hometown.
“Our ancestors lived in this village 1,000 years ago,” said 87-year-old Naoshi Sato, a woodcutter and farmer whose son was killed in a tsunami. “There were disasters even then. Every time people stopped. They rebuilt and stayed. Rebuilt and remained. I feel an obligation to continue the work started by my ancestors. I do not want to lose my hometown.
Many of those who remained, including Mr. Sato, lived without electricity or water for many months. For a year, Mr. Sato encamped in the rubble of his home. For a decade, he has dreamed of Kesen’s rebirth.
Every day of the first year after the tsunami, he trekked into the jungle, and himself cut down the trees he used to rebuild his two-bedroom house. When only two other families followed his lead and rebuilt their homes, Mr. Sato’s wife and daughter-in-law realized the futility of his plan and left him behind.
The people chosen to live in Kessen in 2011 were older. Now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, they are still old. Gradually, over the past decade, a serious reality has settled in this place: there is no going back. Kesen will never be reinstated. This emptiness will last forever.
Mr. Sato has resigned saying that his mission has been reduced to zero. Three houses have been built and he has saved his former neighbor’s farm from deterioration, but he believes that without new residents, the village will die.
“I’m very sad,” he said. “I’m sorry that people won’t come back.”
He blames the government. It took the authorities nine years and $ 840 million to complete a project in which the high ground above the village was converted into land for residential construction.
By then, he said, it was too late. All those left nearly a decade ago have built a new home. Unlike other towns around the city of Rikuzentakata, which have also received government funding, the newly elevated area above the destroyed village lacks facilities, including shops and supermarkets.
“Right now, looking at the coronavirus epidemic, I’m lucky to be here,” Mr. Sato said. To make sure his wry joke was understood, he said, “The air is clean and there aren’t many people.”
On high ground, a handful of newly constructed houses have sprung up around the Congoji temple. Like the mythological ship of Thessus, whose component parts were replaced over time, Kongoji is the same temple that has been in the community for 1,200 years and is an entirely new one built in 2017.
Over the centuries, the temple has served as a community calendar, marking the time with 33 events in a year. Those rites have effectively ceased, but on Thursday Noguo Kobayashi, the chief monk of Kongoji, will welcome scattered members of the community in Kesen for a service.
Mr. Kobayashi has worked tirelessly to ensure that families have a place to mourn their loved ones, but he is realistic about the temple reverberating with sounds other than mourning sorrows .
“Of course, I would like to rebuild the kind of temple that was there before the tsunami,” Mr. Kobayashi said. “But people do not want to come back to the place where they have lost friends and family. And there is fear; People are afraid of another tsunami. “
An anniversary is an arbitrary but useful reminder of how time passes. Ten years is a satisfactory number of rounds, but it is one of many figures by which to measure tragedy.
A decade seems like an eternity for those who lose a child in just a second, but it is a brief moment in Japan’s history. This is even a smaller blip in the billion-year history of tectonic plates, whose piece shifts triggered earthquakes and tsunamis.
It is that long view of history that gives holdouts hope that Kessen will rise from the rubble again.
Mr. Sato, the woodcutter, will turn 88 next week. He wakes up at 6am every morning and pours a cup of green tea on the altar of his home – a proposal for the souls of his son and ancestors. And then, like his forebears, he goes to his rice field and vegetable.
“I want to see what this place will look like 30 years from now,” he said. “But until then, I have to see it from heaven. And I don’t think it will be possible. “
Hiroko Masuike contributed reporting from Kessen, Japan.