The Forgetting Stone
"No matter how many years may pass, do not forget this warning": A poet’s look at Japan’s centuries of rebuilding over fault-lines, from FP’s latest ebook.
The ruins of Miyagi prefecture’s Taga castle; at right, children in the same region a month after the quake share food rations.
July 13, 869
The land of Mutsuno-kuni trembled and greatly shook. Thunderstorms covered the night sky, lighting it up as if it was daylight. Immediately afterwards, the people cried and screamed, unable to get up from the ground. In some instances, the houses fell on them and they died under the weight, and in other instances, the earth sheared open and some died buried alive under the earth and sand. The cattle ran in surprise, stampeding each other. Numerous walls, gates, storage sheds, and the moat fell and were turned upside down. The mouth of the sea howled, sounding like thunder. And the violent waves and high tides arrived, going upstream into the rivers, continuing until, in the blink of an eye, they reached the wall of the Taga Castle. The scene of the flood that had extended several dozen li was so vast you could not tell where the sea ended and the land started. Plains and roads all turned into the ocean. There was no time to get onto boats or to climb the mountains; a thousand people drowned. Nothing — property and fields — remained; everything was utterly destroyed.
— Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku (901)
A boy has been walking like this for several days now, going from one evacuation shelter to another, still shy around strangers, but he knows that if he does not do this, no one will. The missing person’s report can be filed if someone is still alive and looking for them; if the entire family has died, then there is no one left to file the missing report. He does not know who told this to him — maybe a helpful adult trying to cheer him up, maybe the man who took him in — but the boy knows that he is the only person alive in his family. It was only a week ago: He remembers his parents in the front seat; he remembers his cousins and his grandmother in the backseat; he remembers the car speeding along the familiar road, away from the elementary school, as quickly as it could, away from the oncoming waves; he remembers his mother screaming, The waves, turn to the left, left, he remembers breaking the window open when the car was suddenly engulfed, underwater, tossed around, with so many familiar objects turning deadly: corpses, vending machines, telephone wires, shelves. He remembers holding his cousin’s hands as they broke away from the car, and waves tossing them in, out, as his grandmother screamed for help, and the hands letting go. He remembers losing consciousness, then he woke up, and found himself adrift on a board.
That is all he remembers. He does not remember what happened to his family. Nor what happened to the car that was supposed to be carrying them to safety, but didn’t. Now, he walks from one shelter to another, walking between homeless people, too shy to call out the names of his family on the sign he holds up, too scared to ask around whether anyone knows anything about his family. Who will look for them if he doesn’t? He is the only one left, and even though he is only eight years old, he knows that he is the only person who can look for them, because there is no one else.
Wikmedia Commons; AFP/Getty Images
A stone tablet warns of the height of a historic tsunami in Iwate prefecture; at right, Iwate three months after the quake.
May 14, 1585
On this stone by Tokura Village lies a testament to the violent sea waves.
— A stone tablet by Tokura Village, Miyagi prefecture (1585)
The dead die twice in Japan: once, when the soul disengages itself from the body, and again, when the body, the husk left behind by the soul, is cremated or buried. During the Heian period, the sick and dying were driven out of their houses because they were believed to pollute the entire family; corpses were left by family members along riverbanks for nature to do its job. The body was seen as only a carrier of the soul, a vehicle that carries men through their fated lives. Today, however, the body is considered as something more than it had been for many years; the body is the representation, it is the tangible, and the proof. The dead cannot just leave anymore, hiding the body as a dying cat would, seeking out its last place.
For the living, it is not enough for the soul to depart, for someone to have died. The living must redefine the body, from the thing they called in the morning, Wake up, you’re going to be late, the thing they used to make fun of, Look at you, you look like a bear, the thing they stroked lovingly, the thing that carried names, Toshio, Kane, Hiromi, into something that must be let go. The body needs to be there so that the living can outfit them in the final pilgrimage with clothes and canes, so that the living can place the dead one’s favorite items — letters, photos, stuffed animals — to take with them to the otherworld; so the living can stroke the cold cheeks and whisper the last words, and to finally let go by closing the lid of the coffin and see the body reduced to its fundamental form: ashes.
But what if there is no body to grieve over? The bodies have been carried offshore, miles and miles away from their homes. The living, instead, wonder if perhaps they have not died, that they have survived the catastrophe, and are waiting for them at a shelter, looking and waiting for the living to claim them as their own.
AFP/Getty Images; Getty Images
Statues were rocked in the quake’s path; meanwhile, survivors search for their relatives, both in Miyagi prefecture.
December 2, 1611
Our territory shook greatly, and the sea flooded, drowning and killing 1,783 men and women and 85 horses and cows. Immediately, we command the fishermen to the sea; they say that the color of the sea is not normal, and has not returned to its usual color; with their permission, we have six or seven fishermen take us out on their boat. The waves have reached so many miles inland … in the field of sea, there is no house left standing, so many have drowned, and many boats are tangled in high trees .…
— Sunpuhan Seijiroku Sansho (1611)
Men and women scan through the list of descriptions of the dead: a mole on his shoulder. A surgical scar on her abdomen. Four wisdom teeth pulled out; fillings in molars; a missing pancreas. The familiar bodies, with their small marks that one took for granted, have become the defining feature of the dead, and it is that feature the mourners are looking for, to see for themselves that their missing is as singular in death as they were when alive. Men and women crane their necks, left, right, some following the descriptions with their tired fingers. One person recognizes the body’s signature; the staff in charge takes her aside and shows her a photo, the body so unrecognizably decomposed that the identifier falters. She is not sure.
On the other side of the curtain, the medical examiners work in a group of two, three, excavating the body’s intimate details, to identify the bodies in front of them so that someone can name them. It is their job, they know; it is their job to pry open the body, to find marks, because the dead cannot speak, because without the details of how these people died, the mourners will not be able to let go. The exact time and day of death for all the dead: March 11, 2011, 3 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images
At left, the historic coastal region of Sanriku, which has been devastated by tsunami repeatedly in its history, from 1611 to 1677 to 1896 to 2011; at right, elsewhere on the same coast after the quake.
March 12, 1677
Several dozen earthquakes hit the southern part of the territory. Though there were no direct casualties from the earthquake, a tsunami came and engulfed villages. Many houses were washed away.
— A stone tablet (1677)
The land, after a tsunami, is a broken land, so full of sea salt that nothing will yield from this earth for many years, not even the most resilient of crops. The ocean, which gives bounty to the coastal villagers, can turn into an unwieldy beast, rummaging through the land with its claws and fangs, taking everything in its path as it ravages through its journey. And it leaves behind not just the ruin, but a polluted land rendered useless. The harvest will not come this year or the next, but the villagers will do everything to purify the land, and they will keep going, as their fathers have done and their grandmothers.
Wikimedia Commons; AFP/Getty Images
Yamada Bay before the tsunami, and salvaged photos from the same town, found days after.
Tsunami in Rikuchunokuni
— A stone tablet
The warning did come in time, but some did not remember. The warning blared after the earthquake, the tsunami warning that came out of nearly every village and town hall, There is a tsunami warning, please evacuate to high ground, This is a tsunami warning, please evacuate to high ground. They were too used to it, too used to the warnings that came nearly every year, the warning that did not amount to anything more than a mere splash. Those who did not heed the warning went back to retrieve their memories, their past, what they deemed important: photos, documents, the tablets of the dead, cash cards. Go to the mountain when there’s an earthquake, no matter how small, the old people used to tell them, the ones who remembered the tsunami from Showa 8, the ones who remembered what the one who remembered the Meiji tsunami said. They did not remember that this coastline has been plagued with the angry waves as long as written words have existed, each devastation chiseled into stones. It is grief impressed upon the pages and stone tablets that dot the coast of Sanriku area, though the names have changed with time, with the borders shifting along with the new warlords and governments. It is regrets contained in these words, regrets that translate into warnings for the future, for the present. But some had forgotten. So instead, they went home, thinking they have enough time.
chrisyamadajapan; AFP/Getty Images
An 1853 print of the Matsushima Islands off the coast of Miyagi; 150 years later and not far inland, a soldier carries a man through the rubble, also in Miyagi.
February 17, 1793
An earthquake and tsunami on the Sanriku coast …
— A stone tablet
An old man gets up early at the evacuation shelter, making sure not to wake the people sleeping next to him. He carries with him only a bottle of water and a rice ball. He walks through the now-familiar road, cleared, yet both sides flattened, filled with the ruins of houses and cars and boats, as if someone had painted a new reality: a car perched atop the trees, rooftops right by the earth, everything familiar has been ripped from his memory, and instead, this new landscape that brings with it the unfamiliar death. It has been a month. A long month, but he is still not used to it. His daughter is missing, and to him, she is not dead, only missing. He stubbornly refuses to go to the medical examiner’s offices strewn in the neighborhood. If he goes to the offices, if he finds himself looking for her identification marks, then that is admitting to himself that she is dead, and that he will be betraying her; if and when she comes to the shelter to look for him.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.; AFP/Getty Images
Left, the Aobo castle of Sendai, built in the 16th century by the Date family; right, in Sendai in May, junior high school graduation.
August 23, 1836
A big earthquake in the Sendai area; the walls of the castle fell and the area was flooded with seawater. Several hundred houses were washed away, with countless numbers of men and women drowned to death …
—The History of Higashihan
A sign atop the rubble: XX family used to live here where you stand. Please do not walk atop this rubble. There are bodies underneath. The police and the soldiers line up and bow when a body is found. Even though the dying came all too quickly, unprepared, taking the lives so quickly, the body is given the dignity it deserves.
Wikimedia Commons; AFP/Getty Images
Miyagi after the 1896 quake; rebuilding in April.
June 15, 1896
On June 15, a little past 8 p.m., strange sounds similar to cannon fire came from the sea and soon turned into the roaring sound of a locomotive engine approaching the town of Shizukawa-cho in Miyagi prefecture. While people stood around wondering what the sound was, the angry wave 3 meters high came roaring into the town. The speed and power was so strong that before people had the chance to be surprised, the playhouse was washed away, 90 or so fishermen’s huts were dragged to the bottom of the sea. The sounds of houses being torn down, the angry sounds of the water erased the sounds of men and women, the young and the old, screaming and yelling, these horrific sounds deafening the ear. Perhaps 24 or 25 minutes later, the waves receded, but the devastation left by the tsunami was so awful we had to avert our eyes. Dead bodies were strewn here and there, covered in mud and debris, and the severely wounded groaned and called for help amidst the mud. The house of Mr. Suwanari, the secretary of the neighborhood committee, was found in a field so far away from its original spot, and his wife was found dead with their child in her arms, while he himself was on the second floor of the house with his two children. He said that he finally feels like he is alive. There are so many more instances of devastation, but they are so tragic that the words fail to capture everything.
— Jijishinpou (June 19, 1896)
Nearly 2,500 bodies remain unclaimed after five weeks. No one is looking for them. No one is alive to claim them as their own, to name them, and to give them a proper burial fit for a life lived.
Wikimedia Commons; Bloomberg via Getty Images
Left, Kamaishi Bay after the 1933 tsunami; right, about 30 miles away in Iwate.
March 3, 1933
Houses built on hills will bring peace to the children and grandchildren
With the thought of devastation of the great tsunami,
Remember never to build houses below this marker
Both in Meiji 29 and Showa 8, the waves came to this very point
And the entire village was destroyed; only two survived in Meiji 29, and four in Showa 8
No matter how many years may pass, do not forget this warning.
— A stone tablet
And they did. As soon as the earthquake settled, but just as quickly, the tsunami warning blared in the afternoon, as the villager-fishermen were done with their day’s fishing. They instinctively gathered themselves, took the hands of their children, hoisted their elders on their backs, and ran up the narrow road, abandoning their homes and memories tucked in every crook of this palm-sized hamlet just by the sea. They ran nearly a kilometer as the ocean raged behind them, washing away their houses and carrying their boats, chasing them, but they did not look back, not to their past, not to their material goods. They only had one thing on their minds: go to the house beyond the stone tablet carrying the message, No matter how many years may pass, do not forget this warning. And finally, when they were all there, they looked back to find their houses gone, the water rushing toward them, rushing, rushing. And, as if it lost interest, the water stopped, only a foot away from the tablet, and began to recede back to the sea, as if nothing had happened.
They lost their houses, their lives’ worth made tangible through photos and the tablets of their ancestors; the village drowned under seawater. They lost everything that defined them, but they kept one thing: their lives, each and every life in this hamlet.
Wikimedia Commons; AFP/Getty Images
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.