TOKYO (AP) – The photos can still shock.
Dazed survivors march beneath huge marine carriers deposited in the mounds of rubble and the twisting iron that was once a crowded city center, with ships tumbling down like children’s toys. Grieving survivors move through the flat rubble of their homes. Abandoned farms stand in the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear plant, as the echo of the catastrophic collapse still reverberates.
The Associated Press captured these captivating photos in 2011 after a huge wall of water leveled part of Japan’s northeast coast, sweeping away cars, homes, office buildings and thousands of people.
Ten years later, AP reporters are back documenting the communities torn apart by what is referred to here as the Great East Japan Earthquake. The desire to rebuild on a land ravaged by thousands of years of disasters – volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, earthquakes, war and famine – is strong, and there are areas where there is no trace of the devastation of 2011.
But this triple disaster in Japan’s Tohoku region – the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown – was unlike any Japan had faced before, and the challenges of returning to what was normal a decade ago were formidable. Half a million forced from their homes. Tens of thousands did not return, emptying towns that were already struggling to prevent their youth from leaving for Tokyo and other major cities. Radiation concerns linger. Government inefficiency, petty bickering and bureaucratic bickering delayed construction efforts.
Despite setbacks and uneven progress, the Tohoku of 2021 is a testament to our collective willpower – national, local and personal. Look closely, though, and you’ll see that even the most astonishing transformation bears remnants of what happened in 2011, the scars of this deep wound to the region’s psyche.
These AP images, then and now, raise a fundamental question: How would you define change after a major trauma?
In a way, it’s the simplest thing in the world that can describe. Tons of rubble removed here, oil tankers not fallen there. Roads that have been re-paved where there were piles of asphalt cracked and twisted before. The shiny new buildings now rise above the dirt stains.
But the cruelty of this physical change also holds an idea of something much less obvious, something about the people who live in these places. Their resilience, their narrative, their grief, their anger, and their stubborn refusal to submit to forces beyond their control, whether natural or bureaucratic.
All of that, and more, is to be found in these powerful scenes of before and after, past and present.
The photos tell the story of the great change and the people who made it.