” Our final report on the fifth anniversary of the Japanese tsunami finds an unlikely support group of bikers helping the bereaved.
A few hours after the tsunami wave tore through the town of Natori, Morimasa Takezawa started searching for his son. Five years later, he is still on the beach, still looking.
“We started beachcombing all up and down the shore,” he says. “Then the rivers. Then we realised the gutters along the roads hadn’t been searched. Now we’ve moved on to sonar, and we are back on the coast.”
Back in 2011, when the victims’ bodies were recovered, they were lined up in coffins with little windows in the lids, so the bereaved could walk along the line to see if they recognised their mothers, their fathers, or their children. “I was looking through the windows, and I was very scared I would see my son,” said Mr Takezawa.
What happened was even worse than that. What happened was nothing. Masato Takezawa, aged eight months, is one of 2,563 tsunami victims, about a seventh of the total, who have simply vanished. No trace of him, or any of the others, has ever been found. Doggedly, sometimes obsessively, sometimes in conflict with that side of Japan that wants to rebuild and forget, dozens spend their days sifting the mud, water and sand for something to bury of the person they lost.
It is, foremost, about finding them. Of that, there is just enough hope to keep people going. Even after so long, the ever-shifting shoreline and ever-turning tides still give up a few human bones, broken into small pieces by the sea but still sometimes identifiable by DNA. Last year, the total of the missing fell by 60.
But, because most will not be found, it’s also about remembering them. And for some, too, it’s a fight against isolation, and a kind of protest against their treatment. “I needed to talk to other parents who lost their children,” said Mr Takezawa. “I went to the council, and they told me it was private information.”
Japan has less of a tradition of self-help groups than Britain. With the aid of the web, many relatives of the missing, often through the search initiatives, are building such structures for the first time. “We eventually connected with other parents online. If we had not had that, I don’t think we would be here,” said Mr Takezwa.
“There’s a lot of support for children who lost their parents, but not the other way round. I feel very disappointed – we really miss that co-operation from the authorities.”
As well as the bereaved themselves, who often find searching too painful, a network of groups has grown up to help with the task – many of them, too, slightly at odds with Japan’s orderly society. For weeks after the tsunami, and every month since, “Support the Underground,” a group of bikers, ex-offenders and rock musicians, has driven up from Tokyo to the town of Kesennuma, where dozens are still missing, to help the victims and search the beaches.
“The authorities don’t like it when the public get involved,” says their leader, Tomohiro Narita. “In Japan, it’s considered better to control the citizens and not let them make their own decisions.”
At the beginning, he admits, the locals “thought we’d come to burgle them because of the way we looked,” but they’ve since built up a welcome, with the town giving them sleeping-bag space in a local community hall.
Mr Narita was a member of Japan’s feared bosozoku biker gangs, roughly translated as “violently speeding tribes,” and lived what he discreetly describes as a “day-to-day existence.” “Our group are people who don’t usually benefit society. I’m 49 now, and until I did this I’d never had anybody outside my immediate family say thank you to me,” he says.
Last Sunday, beneath a shattered and still unrepaired railway viaduct, 20 members of Support the Underground, in boots, body art and the occasional item of leather, combed Koizumi beach for human remains. “The bones are often just lying on the surface,” said Osamu Fukuda, a tattoo artist bearing heavy evidence of his profession. “Anything from three to six inches long. If they’re white, you know they’re recent, not from a grave.”
“We give it to the police and they do the DNA test,” says Mr Narita. “Mostly it’s animals, but 20 to 30 per cent of the time it’s human from the tsunami, and some of the bones have been linked through DNA to people.”
In the absence of bones, some victims find comfort in “discovered objects fairs,” where personal effects recovered from the sea are put on show. Being plastic and metal, they last longer in the water. At a community hall in Natori, they are laid out on trestle tables for people to look through: photo albums, mobile phones, a rusty “Hello Kitty” pencil case, a little ballet slipper, 15 watches, 31 rings, the name badge of a train driver called Endo.
Not all will belong to tsunami victims, but in this town alone more than 50 things have been reclaimed by the bereaved or those who lost their homes.”
“My house was near the fishmarket and I lost absolutely everything,” says Wakako Imai, one of the people looking through the items. “I haven’t found a single thing, but I keep coming here in the hope that there will be something of mine. Even after five years, it doesn’t get any easier.”
In a country where Shinto religion holds that a person’s spirit can live in possessions, recognising an object can be of profound importance. “People have been searching all these years and then they finally find something,” said Takumi Goukon, the event’s organiser. “We just stand back.
For Morimasa Takezawa, there is as yet no such happy ending. “Some people have criticised me,” he says. “They want me to move on so they can get on with their lives. There are people who feel that what I do gets in the way of rebuilding the town. But if I stop, it means I’ve given up on my son.”
by Andrew Gilligan, Miyagi Prefecture. Video by Julian Simmonds, additional editing by Charlotte Krol
source, including a good video of abandoned Naraha town