Ghost town

I DIDN'T WANT to go back to the town that wasn't there. It was three months after the wave receded, and the network wanted a report on conditions in the north. They sent me in the first time, just after the wave struck. I saw the bodies in the mud and the survivors on their knees in the freezing cold. Their eyes were squeezed shut, their hands clasped over white cotton facemasks. Their shoulders shook. The other reporters and I walked around in our hardhats and pointed our cameras at splintered buildings and overturned vehicles. Then we went home.

In Tokyo musicians held concerts to raise money for the survivors, and people said how awful it all was. After that, I didn't feel qualified to go back. I could do nothing for the people there. There was no way to describe the lives of the survivors on a piece of paper or squeeze it through a lens. My boss said if I wasn't qualified, nobody was. And he was right: nobody was. But it was my job, and I thought I might stop thinking about Yuko if I spent time with people more unfortunate than myself. I decided to dilute my misery in the collective sorrow of others who had lost far more.

When I arrived everybody was living on the high ground. The international film crews and relief teams were gone. Most of the local reporters from Tokyo and Osaka were off covering the radiation leak at the nuclear power plant to the south. There was still something happening down in Fukushima, something to tell people. Events were still unfolding. Perhaps it was because the news from the leaky reactor remained so bad the network wanted to know if things up north were getting better. I didn't want to be the one to tell them the truth.

I arrived with a box of canned food and juice. Takeshi's sixty-year-old mother accepted it with a deep bow. If someone cared enough to come here, she was appreciative. The survivors didn't want to be forgotten. After what they had been through, it was their greatest fear.

'Thank you very much for coming,' she said.

In the evening Takeshi and I sat on fold-up chairs outside the temporary shelter the government had built for his family in the grounds of an elementary school. Each room was fabricated in a factory and transported here for assembly. They had refrigerators and washing machines from the Red Cross, toaster ovens and rice cookers from the municipal government. The little house smelled of resin and new tatami. Takeshi and his family were glad to have it after three months of living with a thousand others on the floor of the city gymnasium. I had a room at a local guesthouse that was not damaged by the water but Takeshi and his mother offered me a futon, so I slept there. The futon was thin and I was uncomfortable on the floor of their little unit. Being there made me feel better, as if I was sharing their suffering.

Takeshi and I propped our feet on a plastic beer crate. Another upturned crate sat between us as our table. We worked our way through a plate of skipjack tuna and got pretty drunk. The fish had arrived in the harbour that morning, part of a forty-tonne haul landed by a trawler that came up from Shikoku; all of the fishing boats from this area were lost to the wave. Takeshi's mother seared and sliced up the fish for us with some daikon and perilla. Then she sat on a cushion on the floor of their prefab shelter, the laptop open on the low table in front of her. She still looked for her friends. Takeshi had shown her how to go online, so each day she could check the updated list of identified victims. The list for Miyagi Prefecture alone was over two hundred pages. She gripped the mouse in one hand and held a cup of tea in the other. Occasionally she found the name of somebody she knew. She rocked back on her cushion, said 'ah' and nodded.

Takeshi's father was one of five thousand still missing. He and Takeshi's mother had evacuated to high ground after the earth stopped shaking, but he had gone back into town to look for his son before the water arrived.


THE RAINY SEASON was ending. The drizzle that began in the morning lifted when the sun went down, but left the air heavy with humidity. During the day we heard the rumble of heavy vehicles moving debris from the worst hit areas near the waterfront. The sound of hammering echoed across the high ground as teams of workers hurried to build more prefab units for the evacuees still left in the gymnasium. But the night was quiet. To the east the ocean glinted in the moonlight. Where once a carpet of lights would have twinkled in the town below between us and the sea, now there was darkness punctured only by the muted red glow of emergency lights left by the recovery teams. We sat on the edge of the abyss and poured more shochu into our plastic cups. I knew I shouldn't be drinking.

There was a shout from one of the kids in the unit two doors down.


We got up and walked over to the little stream that ran down the hill alongside the school. My head swam. Beneath the trees, the darkness was a curtain I pushed at with my hands. I heard one of the parents caution a child not to fall into the water.

'Fireflies! Can you see them?' another kid shouted. 'Fireflies!'

A dozen tiny yellow-green lights drew circles in the black air. The kids thrust up their hands but were not tall enough to catch them. I extended my arm and in a moment one of the insects was on my palm, the lamp in its abdomen flashing every few seconds. The soft light expanded in my vision, absorbing the darkness around it. As I tried to focus, the glow made me think of the burning oil slicks on the harbour after the wave receded three months ago. They, too, had seemed larger in the darkness. For days afterwards the fire shimmered through the night like monstrous eyes glowering back at the shore.


I HAD MET Takeshi when I arrived two days after the wave. He was wandering through the rubble. I showed him my press badge and introduced myself. I didn't know what to ask him, so we just walked. He didn't seem to mind my presence. It was very cold. The grey sky and flickering snow sucked all the colour from the landscape, except for the red flags stuck in the debris marking the locations of bodies. Teams from the Self-Defense Forces in camouflage uniforms and facemasks searched the rubble for survivors. From time to time we came across groups of them, standing with heads bowed and hands together over a human form wrapped in a tarpaulin.

Takeshi used to work in a machining shop that processed metal parts for a subcontractor to one of Toyota's subcontractors. Or something like that. He was a long way down the food chain. He showed me what was left of his company's little factory. Two of the four walls were gone, the blades of the lathes red and rusty. Somehow the force of the water had bent one of them.

I saw a lot of Takeshi in the days that followed. He told me what had happened. He was my proxy. I lived it through him. I used him to make my own words more plausible. After the earthquake he and dozens of others evacuated to the local shrine on the hill overlooking the town. A kilometre from the sea, the wave didn't look like anything to fear. From such a distance it seemed to move slowly, filling up the harbour on the far side of the ten-metre-high concrete sea wall. It made no noise. When the water came over the top of the wall, it slopped into the street like water overflowing from a bathtub. For a second it looked as if that would be the extent of it, as if the ocean would pull back. But then the second wave came and the water stood up. It surged over the barrier, sliding off the top of a sea that didn't have enough room for itself. Pushing cars and boats ahead of it, the water built momentum, crunching and swallowing as it moved.

As the water sloughed off the sea there were gasps and even laughter at the sight of cars and buildings sailing along the streets of the town. Takeshi was embarrassed as he told me.

'We didn't realise what we were seeing,' he said. He twirled his finger in the air next to his ear. 'Your mind sometimes can't process things. We've had disaster drills since we were kids. I think we just, you know, forgot what they were for.'

In those few moments – the last in which there was any hope for the town – the people on the hill assumed everyone must have made it out, that there was nobody left down there in the hospitals and nursing homes. They waited for the black water to stop, for it to drain back into the sea after swamping the two or three blocks closest to the breakwater.

But the wave kept coming, filthy and boiling. By now it was roaring. Takeshi said he remembered the noise most of all: the rush of the water, the monotonous wail of the siren, glass shattering, metal bending. The water wanted more of the earth. The onlookers began screaming. They saw people down in the town running ahead of the water. They watched cars driving along the road knocked sideways and flipped over as the water poured in. Reaching out like a huge hand, the wave crushed the town in its fist and flung it up the valley.


WHEN I GOT back to Tokyo after that first trip north, Yuko didn't want to hear about what I'd seen. It was as if the smell of the place was still on me. Like everybody else she stayed glued to the television for two or three days after the wave but then decided to block it out. It upset her too much. She was from Kyushu and knew nobody in the tsunami zone, but it didn't stop her having nightmares.

'Don't tell me,' she said. 'If I want to know I can see it on YouTube.' Her shoulders shook like those of the people I had met up north. I didn't think I had suffered enough to report accurately what had become of the survivors' lives. She thought I did it too well.

It would have been stranger not to talk about what I'd seen, but she seemed angry with me for bringing it into the house. Of course, things were already strained between us. I told myself she wouldn't have left if I hadn't gone up to see it for myself. But I don't suppose it would have made any difference. I think now she had been seeing him while I was away. He probably told her to bring matters to a head.

Takeshi and I went out again in the morning. He said he was looking for his father's safe. I didn't ask what was in it. I don't even know if he knew. Two safes had already been dragged from the rubble by the recovery teams – I thought that gave him the idea. The metal boxes now sat at the local evacuee centre, waiting to be claimed. Other survivors were doing the same thing, combing through wreckage for the smallest plate or photograph or pot to remind them of what was gone.

'I can't remember what brand it was,' he said. 'But it was olive green. And big. Or maybe it was a filing cabinet. I'll know it when I see it.'

We made our way down to where the sea had scoured the town from the flat land. The temperature was high and our T-shirts were wet through. A helicopter flew overhead. The stench was like the ocean rotting. Takeshi looked around. With all the buildings gone he found it difficult to get his bearings, and wasn't sure where his parents' house had been. He looked up at the hills above the town, as if noticing them for the first time. Rubble had been pushed off the roads into huge piles by hydraulic shovels. They sat like robotic vultures, pecking at the ground. Brown silt covered everything.

Takeshi told me he could not remember what the town looked like. The buildings and bridges, houses and shops were already sepia in his memory. What he witnessed when the wave came was more indelible than any structure washed away by the water.

Eventually he pointed to a square three-storey skeleton of steel beams that were orange with rust.

'I think that was the fire station,' he said. 'It's this way.'

We came across a tiny old woman shuffling along the road. She squinted at me, saw the press pass dangling from my neck and bowed from the waist. She smiled but something inside her was knotted, hunching her over. I couldn't believe how small she was, how she had survived, how she could be grateful for my presence.

'Thank you very much for coming,' she said.

I wondered what she thought I had done for her, what I might do. I thought I should probably take her picture, but I already felt like a voyeur.

Some locals were relieved to see journalists, yet suspicious of those who tried to exploit more than report. The survivors were weary of those who only wanted the clichéd story of the baby born in the evacuation shelter ('new life to replace one of those lost'), not that of the raw sewage still bubbling up into the streets from ruptured pipes. Many journalists interviewed the barber who, having lost his shop, was giving free haircuts on a rickety chair by the side of the road. Meanwhile, they skirted around the news that disposing of twenty-five million tonnes of debris could take a decade.

I understood what the reporters were doing. It was tempting to try to find the good amid all the misery. But nothing good had come of it, so I wondered what I was supposed to do.

Takeshi and I walked past a fishing trawler perched neatly atop a two-storey building. His T-shirt flapped around his thin torso. I noticed that his arms were white. My camera felt like a rock around my neck.

And then I saw Yuko. At least, I thought it was her. A hundred metres away a woman stood staring out at the ocean. She wore white jeans and a white blouse. Her long black hair hung down her back beneath an orange hardhat. Her face was turned away from me, but I knew her immediately. She could not possibly be there, yet my mind quickly listed all the reasons why it must be her: she missed me, she was sorry, she wanted me back.

At that moment Takeshi called out to me. 'Help me, over here!'

I turned to look at him. He had clambered into a pile of debris by the roadside.

'I found a safe!' he yelled. 'Help me get it out!'

He grabbed a long piece of timber and jammed it under the safe. I took one more look back at the woman in white and went to help him. We both leaned on the lever and lifted the big metal box from its nest of rubbish. Takeshi breathed deeply.

'It's not my father's,' he said at last. 'Let's leave it here by the road. One of the trucks can take it back to the evacuee centre.'

Takeshi, I knew, was really searching for his father. He felt guilty because his father had gone back to look for him when the wave hit. I figured he didn't want anyone telling him it was pointless to expect to find the body after all this time. We both pictured his father entombed in the mud, or floating in the sea ten kilometres offshore, sucked out when the wave retreated. His grief, held so close to his chest, was the human story my bosses really wanted from me.

I looked up again and searched for the woman in white, but she was gone.

We walked back up the hill to Takeshi's prefab shelter. The owner of the local guesthouse passed us in his minibus, going in the opposite direction. With few guests to look after, he spent his time ferrying evacuees from the local shelter to the hot bath at his inn. Outside the local convenience store a volunteer was distributing free T-shirts and rice balls to survivors. On the automatic sliding door the characters Ganbaro, Miyagi! were painted on the glass. Let's do our best, Miyagi!

That day I met a strawberry farmer whose land had been swamped. His hothouses were washed away. Even after the tsunami receded, the salinity of the groundwater was too high to grow anything. He had decided to move his family to Hokkaido and start over.

The local seafood cannery had reopened, but not for any commercial reason. The manager had twelve employees who needed something to do. With the local trawler fleet gone, the cannery was buying fish from other parts of the country, and some from China. In any case, the small quantities of fish taken off the coast here had to be checked for traces of radioactivity from the Fukushima reactor. And the trawlers wouldn't be back anytime soon; there was too much unseen debris on the bottom of the harbour. Teams of university researchers armed with sonar devices were out trying to map the new sea floor.

'On the news they call this a disaster area,' said Takeshi. 'I wonder at what point will it stop being one? When will they stop calling it that?'

'I don't know,' I said.

Takeshi shook his head. 'They say they want to rebuild the town but I'm not sure why. And where? Nobody wants it back where it was by the water, and there's no space up on the higher ground. It's too steep.'

'You're not staying, then?' I asked. He had just learned that his company was preparing to restart operations. A big electronics company had decided to donate an idle factory to small manufacturers wiped out by the wave. The new site was an hour's drive inland. Takeshi didn't have a car.

I knew he was thinking of his mother. She had already seen the ghosts of friends lost to the wave, or heard their voices in the night. She was wistful but not frightened. She had yet to mention her husband.

'Do you believe in ghosts?' Takeshi asked. 'Because that's what this whole town is now: a ghost. It's dead and gone – it has no business coming back. You can see its outline, something you think you saw, but only out of the corner of your eye.'

I knew what he meant. I could have sworn there was a town here. But when I turned to look at it, it was gone.


THE DAY BEFORE I went back to Tokyo, Takeshi and I went to visit some of the old people who had moved from the gymnasium into their own prefab huts. The mayor had distributed pamphlets asking residents to check up on the older evacuees. Most lived alone. After weeks sleeping next to a hundred others, one woman was found dead in her new unit. The government had asked people to conserve energy, so she switched off her air-conditioner and died of heatstroke.

I wondered what would happen when the volunteers running the relief effort went back to their homes in other parts of the country. Most of the area's inhabitants were already old. In ten years a lot of them would be gone. I didn't know who the rebuilding was for. But to question the rebuilding efforts felt like treason. My job was to depict a hopeless situation as something inspiring.

As we stepped out of an apartment I saw the woman in white again. This time she was close and staring straight at me, and I could see that it wasn't Yuko. She was older and not as pretty. There were dark circles under her eyes. She had no volunteer's ID around her neck, so she must have been a local.

There is something about this place, I thought. It makes you see things that aren't there.

The woman bowed deeply. 'Thank you very much for coming,' she said.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review