Fukushima: One Man’s Story


Over at More Intelligent Life:

BEFORE THE DISASTER, there was always something reassuring about life by the sea in Ukedo, on the Fukushima coastline. Farther up Japan’s north-eastern shores, the rias, or inlets, would often become deathtraps when tsunamis barrelled up the narrow coves, crashing over isolated villages before the residents had time to flee. But in Ukedo, which lies on a smooth grey beach, ruffled in the early morning only by gulls’ feet and crabs’ claws, the Pacific Ocean was typically gentler. In summer, surfers would lie idly for hours out at sea waiting for a wave big enough to ride. If ever the waves did rise, giant concrete sea walls stood between them and the village like grim-faced centurions.

For generations, villagers came together twice a year to celebrate the bounty of the ocean. At New Year, dozens of fishing boats, festooned with flags, would join a parade out to sea, their horns blaring. In the lead was the vessel that had caught the most fish the year before. Two months later, when the sea was cold and rough and the fishermen needed an excuse to stay on shore drinking, the main matsuri, or Shinto festival, was held. It honoured the sea and the paddy fields of Ukedo, which together provided the two staple ingredients of every Japanese table: fish and rice. Children would dress up in gaudy costumes, with red and yellow flowers on their hats, speckled robes and red clogs, dancing to songs that celebrated life by the sea. Young fishermen would strip down to a pair of tight white shorts, and, fired up with slugs of the village’s sake, they would hurl themselves into the icy water, carrying heavy wooden shrines that sloshed about on the waves. The name of the festival spoke to the success of their entreaties to the Shinto spirits of the sea. It was called the Amba Matsuri, or Festival of the Safe Wave.