My first recon trip

So, here I am in Japan. It’s been a while since I’ve managed to do any updates in on here, due to being busy and trying to settle in. However, I feel like I am back on track with life and have subdued to a mundane everyday existence on the other side of the globe finally, and feel I should write something here again.

Yesterday was my first proper venture outside the city of Sendai for research purposes. I have done a great deal of research in the last weeks (which has kept me busy) on the locations of potential research sites, as well as compiling a list of organisations to contact to participate in the study. A few weeks ago I made contact with an organisation working in Minamisanriku north from Sendai, and we set up a meeting in Ishonomaki for yesterday. Along the way I decided to stop by at Matshushima which is famous for its beautiful coastline, and also suffered some damages during the trunami. I had no particular goal in mind with this trip, except for gaining some raw observations.

So I hopped on the train in Sendai central station, taking the Senseki Line north. Matsushimakaigan lies approximately 25km north from Sendai and takes 40 minutes to get there on the local train. It was a lovely day and the area around Matsushimakaigan was filled with visitors aiming for the boats that will take you onto a cruise around the island landscape in the bay. As I only had about an hour, I opted to visit a tiny coastal island of Oshima, and then walk a bit along the coast towards Takagimachi to hop back on the train towards Ishinomaki. Reminders of the tsunami were present however, but were quite subtle…

Tsunami evacuation sign along the coast

Tsunami evacuation sign along the coast


"Work hard Miyagi, Matsushima"

“Work hard Miyagi, Matsushima”


Depth of the inundation caused by the 3/11 tsunami. The line reached my neck, so around 140cm

Depth of the inundation caused by the 3/11 tsunami. The line reached my neck, so around 140cm


Below are also a few touristy shots from Matsushimakaigan, which represents a stark contrast with the rest of my journey….

IMG_6782 IMG_6792IMG_6779

In Takagimachi I hopped back on the train. The station was tiny and for a brief moment I had the thought that it was not even open. There were no people on the platform, and in general I saw few people on the streets. This was a little surprising at first considering the hoards of people I saw in Matsushimakaigan. But, as a tourist spot Matsushimakaigan is bound to attract people around the year.

The Senseki Line to Ishinomaki was fully restored only this year. From Rikuzen-Tomiya, the train line descends to the coast and opened my view to the beautiful bay area, as well as the newly built sea defenses. The entire coast from Rikuzen-Tomiya to Tona is bordered with a sea wall, creating a barrier between the sea and the land along the natural coast line. Similar structures were visible elsewhere as well.

After Tona, the train advances to the district of Nobiru in Higashimatsushima. The town was severely hit by the tsunami as can be seen from these eye witness accounts right after the disaster. The plan for the district is to move the entire community inland up on the hill. The relocation of the railway station has already taken place and can be seen in Google Maps (see screengrab below), while the map itself hasn’t yet been fully updated to accommodate the relocation of the trainline as well. So now it looks like Nobiru has a station but no railway.

Nobiru railway station with no rails

Nobiru railway station with no rails


The area around the new station however still remains completely barren. The bulldozers, trucks and builders are working energetically, but still 4.5 years after the disaster, you cannot see many structures on the hillside or on the new community site. It is elevated land, with car parks and main roads constructed but few buildings. It was interesting to see how much energy is being put into a place that to someone who might not have any knowledge of what has happened here, looks like a construction in the middle of nowhere. The lack of people and life was somewhat unsettling to me. Of course, this could just be the time of day as well…I was traveling around noon.

The train then advanced towards Rikuzen-Ono, Azuma and Yamoto. The train descends from Nobiru towards the plain again and you can see that a great deal of activity is taking place along the coastal area, but it is impossible to make out what is happening. Along the way I observed freshly laid tarmac, newly built houses, and beautifully reconstructed stations and rice fields being cultivated again. If you did not know something disastrous had happened in this area just a few years ago, you would think it was an area experiencing an economic boom with building works and new residential areas popping up everywhere.

So I finally reached Ishinomaki, which was one of the hardest hit towns in this area. It is also the biggest town and the centre of activity on the peninsula with a population of about 150 000. Before meeting with my contact, I took a walk around the town and saw it mostly being rebuilt and in good shape. Along the way there were relics and evidence of the destruction that took place however. A few pictures of these are shown below.

"Ganbarou! Ishinomaki" outside the Ishinomaki railway station, roughly translating to "Work hard in tough times Ishinomaki"

“Ganbarou! Ishinomaki” outside the Ishinomaki railway station, roughly translating to “Work hard in tough times Ishinomaki”


Temporary shopping area close to the Ishinomaki Station composed of temporary shelters that house small local businesses

Temporary shopping area close to the Ishinomaki Station composed of temporary shelters that house small local businesses


Current training opportunities offered by Peace Boat from their headquarters

Current training opportunities offered by Peace Boat from their headquarters


Current projects of the Peace Boat whose headquarters are located in Ishinomaki

Current projects of the Peace Boat whose headquarters are located in Ishinomaki


"In 2011, this is how high the tsunami waters reached"

“In 2011, this is how high the tsunami waters reached”





...and another destroyed building still standing.

…and another destroyed building still standing. to a construction site....

…next to a construction site….


Destroyed house still standing at the seaside...

Destroyed house still standing at the seaside…


From the above images, it is difficult to see that destruction has taken place. Par from the few buildings at the seaside, the murals on the walls, and the explicit exhibits of proactive disaster reparations, the town has rebuilt itself fairly well that to an outsider like me who has not witnessed the town before the disaster, looks like there was never an earthquake or tsunami there in the first place. However, while I was taking the train journey to the town and walking around Ishinomaki, what really struck me was the lack of people. Perhaps, the timing was not great, but in a city of 150 000 people, you would expect to see more than a handful of people on the streets, in the shops and other areas. The only place where I was a little bit of life was on the construction sites and the railway station…perhaps a fitting analogy for the sadness that began to creep in as I was walking the streets of this town. People are coming in to build a ghost town, only to leave at the end of the day?

Ishinomaki pedestrian area...with no shoppers, and few shops

Ishinomaki pedestrian area…with no shoppers, and few shops


I met with my contact an hour later and the positivity they expressed towards the region reinvigorated me. They painted a beautiful picture of the region with energy and fierce will to rebuild their lives and communities and show them to the world. One of the things that struck me was what they said about the human connection they felt in Tohoku as opposed to Tokyo, which was in stark contrast with what I had just witnessed in the town and along the way, seeing few people.

This made me think about the nature of research and coming into these communities as an outsider, someone wanting to study them, find out what is going on and then going away and analysing them from a distance, still as an outsider. It made me re-establish that my research needs to be based on the people and what they want to say, not just what I want to find out. As researchers, particularly when doing ethnographic research, rather than seeing the people as vessels of information that we are just ladling from, perhaps we should change our perspectives and see ourselves as the vessels that need to be filled with information and analysis from our subjects themselves? Relying on observations as well is tricky…what I witnessed in the town as a visitor, was not the picture my contacts were painting which was full of positivity and visions for the future.

This led me to think about the value of the position of being an insider and outsider, and prompted me to ask this from my contact, who had earlier explained their journey to me. They have only recently located into Tohoku to carry out their work in the local community of Minamisanriku, and have acutely felt the shift from an outsider to an insider, while they still state being somewhere in between. When I asked what might be the value of each position, they had the following to say (I have taken the liberty to paraphrase the following from the original conversation based on my notes):

When you are living in the community you see how close-knit it is, and people know things about you before you have even told anyone. You are supported by your neighbours and have their support. Knowing the locals makes it easier to do the work, and we can see, observe and hear their needs much more closely, but the needs of the town are much more complicated than what you can just observe. As an outsider, it can be easier to see the larger context and bring in new ideas. It gives you a fresh pair of eyes…you might be Japanese, but you are still someone from the outside. Our goals in this community are both local and global. Having insights from outside will help in our work. 

I suppose this is a good lesson to bear in mind and perhaps I will try to be something in between. Creating trust and relationships between myself and the research subjects has been a strong component of my methodology from the start, and it was great to see how my personal conviction toward my research project, and the views of my contact were resonating with each other so well. To finish off, it was a very fruitful and thought provoking trip and meeting, and a successful one at that, as the contact has expressed interest in being part of the study. So my next trip will be to visit Minamisanriku in a few weeks time to have the next recon trip into the countryside. Looking forward to it already.


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