On a hill overlooking the ocean, in what was once the city of Ootsuchi (大槌), sits the Kaze no Denwa (風の電話) or Wind Telephone. It is a white, wooden phone booth equipped with an old, black rotary telephone that sits on a makeshift shelf. This phone is connected to neither a telephone line nor a satellite.
The words spoken into the receiver are carried away by the wind, perhaps to be heard by the loved ones of the people who come to speak into the Kaze no Denwa.
“Why only me, dad? I’m the only one. People don’t realize what it’s like“, says a teenage boy speaking to his still missing father.
“Everyone’s good here. We are all trying hard“, an elderly lady tells her long-time spouse.
“You were going to buy me a violin. I just bought it myself finally“, a girl says through tears.
“I’m building a new house but without you or our little girl and boy, there’s no point is there?” The words choke up in the throat of a middle-age man who has lost his entire family.
In the town of Ootsuchi in Iwate Prefecture, over 800 people were killed and over 400 still remain missing from the events of March 11, 2011, when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of north-eastern Japan and the ensuing tsunami crushed the east coast of Touhoku.
“It’s been five years now. Feels like less. But, it feels longer too. We are still waiting for you to come home.”
It’s been five years.
Five years is a long time. A lot can happen in a year let alone five. My life can attest to that. However, while a lot has been accomplished in the affected regions since that day, relief, piece of mind, and closure are things that haven’t come to most people in the last five years and for many don’t look to come any time soon.
Five years on people are still living in temporary shelters designed to last for one year. Of course, this is a sad thing but, though many have left, unless those remaining are willing to move away from the town they’ve lived in for so long they really have no choice but to wait. If the government was quick to put up houses right back in the areas that were devastated these people would have homes quite quickly, I imagine. Instead, however, the delay is due to these affected areas redesigning the layouts of the towns. It’s not enough to just replace a breakwater that ended up being almost ineffectual. What many of these towns are doing instead is quite impressive. How do you ensure that a 10 meter tall tsunami won’t destroy your town again? You rebuild the town on ground 12 meters higher than it was before.
That’s what they are doing.
Small towns like Rikuzen Takata, ’the town that was erased’, a place almost no one had ever heard of until March 11, 2011 when it lost 7% of its population and its downtown, are rebuilding.
Reconstruction has involved bringing in 5 million cubic tonnes of dirt, piling it high, and compacting it so that buildings, roads, and a train station can all be built atop it. After five years Rikuzen Tataka will be building homes again starting this summer.
The same is happening in other devastated communities such as MInami Sanriku and others along that coastline.
But while reconstruction carries on, often at a pace survivors feel is far too slow due to being bogged down in regulations, most peoples’ spirits aren’t recovering anywhere near as quickly. For them, five years is never enough. How much time is needed to allow your heart to get over the loss of your entire family? How long until you forget those scenes you witnessed and can sleep without nightmares?
As the fifth anniversary of the disaster approached the television programs started revisiting that day. Once again that awful footage appears on almost every channel and interviews with witnesses who, five years after the event, can remember every horrifying detail.
A man who has helped clear tonnes of debris for the last five years talks about how he raced home after the tsunami receded desperate to find his family. He found his daughter’s body in a field along with the bodies of many other people he knew. His son wasn’t there. For five years he has continued to look for his young son, the debris he’s cleared a by-product of that search.
An elderly gentleman participates in the reconstruction by helping keep the roads clear. He lost his wife, child, and grandchildren. Three generations. “We can’t give up. We can’t give up“, he says.
These are the kinds of people who come to use the Kaze no Denwa.