Tsunami Debris and the Hope of Return

DSC00418On a sunny spring morning we walk the Arahama coast near Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region that experienced the March 2011 tsunami. Two years and a few days later, yellowed grass stands in cracked concrete outlines of houses, bathroom tiles still recognizable. A team of green-shirted volunteers is hard at work near the river, and in the distance, smoke rises from an incinerator built specifically for disaster debris. A telephone pole lays in the sand near the concrete seawall lining this stretch of beach; remains of a metal roof rest bent and twisted in damaged trees.

DSC00436I never intended to study tsunami debris or write about disaster. But I began fieldwork following marine debris in spring 2011, and plastic paths have led me across the Pacific to Japan where I am honored to attend a series of tsunami debris forums organized by the Japan Environmental Action Network (JEAN). The events bring beach cleanup coordinators from Hawaii, Alaska and Oregon together with coordinators in Japan and with those closest to the tsunami with the aim of fostering understanding and collaboration across the Pacific. Like the other participants, I have considerable experience looking for plastic on the shore, but today I walk a beach that does not feel like any I have visited before.

DSC00437The sand is windswept and free of footprints except for our own. Large debris has long since been cleaned up, but bits and fragments are scattered everywhere. Bottle caps. Broken glass. A cup half buried in the sand. Tattered scraps of wood and other building materials. These objects are at once familiar and strange, as mass produced and anonymous as items I have seen on other beaches, yet haunted by the conditions of their loss. Those who have careers cleaning up objects from beaches ask permission before touching anything. At the tide line I pause, staring down the horizon, thinking of California so many thousands of miles away yet connected by ocean currents and all kinds of crossings of people and things.

DSC00423The communities that lived nearby have constructed a memorial site with Buddhist statue and dark wall inscribed with names of those lost. A slow but steady stream of visitors brings small offerings: bottles of tea, flowers, strings of paper cranes. Small waves break in the distance, and the ocean air is laced with incense. I gaze up at the statue, backlit with a halo of morning sun, and try to imagine the clear blue sky as a wall of black water. At seven meters (23 feet) tall, the statue is the same height as the largest wave that inundated this stretch of the coast. The material record echoes in the surrounding trees, stripped of branches and devoid of greenery to the same height.

DSC00454As we walk inland, shards of roof tile and dishes crunch in the gravel underfoot. A box of dusty CDs is tucked in the corner of one house’s foundations, a fragment of a teacup, white with yellow flower pattern sits carefully perched on a ledge beside another. I imagine those cleaning up carefully placing these objects where they might be recognized. We approach the local elementary school, a designated community evacuation center. It flooded part way up the second floor and not all those who sought shelter there were able to climb to safety in time. With the school surrounded by water, several hundred people spent a long cold night waiting to be evacuated by helicopter, three at a time. We are shown photos from inside the school, chalkboard lists of those accounted for, classrooms organized by community. The damaged gymnasium is about to be torn down, but the fate of the main building is at the center of a debate common to many other communities. While some people want the building kept as a memorial, others do not want such a tangible reminder. A bright white banner hanging from the third floor reads “thank you! dream hope future.”

DSC00465At the afternoon forum in Sendia’s busy city center, the guest coordinators give presentations showing the arrival of debris in the US. Many presenters emphasize how marine debris problems far predate and will long outlast tsunami debris. But they also detail local efforts to clean beaches, and the care taken to ensure volunteers treat found objects with respect. A succession of audience members express their gratitude and the hope that items can be brought back to Japan, reunited with their owners. There is a strong sense that these objects still belong to someone, that they are ‘pieces of lives,’ one speaker even comparing them to human remains. Like many people in Japan, they do not want tsunami debris treated as or even called debris. Speaking instead of ‘lost things’ or ‘personal items,’ they separate with words what they hope people cleaning the beaches of Hawaii and the West Coast of North America can separate in practice.

DSC00485Near the end of the event, a speaker points to a yellow fish crate on a table at the side of the room. Lost in the tsunami, it floated to Alaska where it was identified as tsunami material and brought back to Japan with hopes of finding its owner. Word has just come that the owner of a soccer ball that traveled a similar path has finally been located. Though these anecdotes are uplifting, for many in the audience everyday life still means temporary housing and a continued struggle with uncertain futures. While most land has long been cleared, the government is not allowing residential rebuilding near the shore. Many people do not know when and if ever they can go back to their communities. A hand-painted sign at the beach reads, “losing living from Arahama in Sendai is the same as losing history, culture, or even the same as losing our home.” Here ‘home’ is furusato, a Japanese word that carries the cultural politics of origins, linking local and national, nostalgia and future, lifestyle and landscape. Above, strands of yellow flags signal the hope of return.


Living Small in Tokyo


When I decided to move to Tokyo to share a 160 square foot apartment with my partner (and his bicycle) for six months I had mixed feelings. How were we going to do research and write dissertations – and not kill each other – all in a house that could fit in to one of the two bedrooms in our San Diego student housing apartment? But a romanticized vision of having A Life Experience (“remember when we were students and lived in that tiny room in Tokyo”), and the chance to live in a big Japanese city won me over.

Or maybe it was all those articles about tiny houses and micro apartments I’ve seen circulating the internet. Videos tours of high tech apartments with moving walls and all kinds of hidden amenities like giant TVs that drop from the ceiling. Stories of individuals and families pursuing an alternative to the American Dream, trading picket fences and multiple bathrooms for freedom from debt, and in some cases, from foundations. These spaces embody the triumph of design over everything from rising housing costs (although one Vancouver small house I recently read about cost a whopping $250,000 to build) to problems of environmental sustainability, problems from which I am far from immune. So why not pack light and give living with less a try?

Our Tokyo apartment, while clean and cozy, is not exactly a showcase of exceptional design. It is carved out of the upstairs of an older house on a street so narrow the only vehicles are bicycles and even pedestrians can only pass single file in places. With houses practically touching, windows are opaque for privacy. I took the main room photo from outside on the communal balcony, the kitchen one from our bathroom. Stephen occasionally bumps his head on the low doorframes. We sleep on Japanese futon (which are simply folding mattresses), which we stow in the closet each morning (ok, more like noon) for maximum floor space. We have a two-burner gas stove, and a mini-fridge-microwave-fruit bowl tower. The bathroom sink faucet swivels to fill the tub, and more often than not, there’s laundry drying in the main room. And all of this is pretty unremarkable for a city where living in a small space is not a lifestyle choice, but more simply, a way of life.


Two-months into this experiment, I am struck by the mundane, but by no means insignificant ways sharing 160 square feet requires redesigning not only where but how you live. In no particular order, we’ve learned to:

  1. Buy groceries more often. With little fridge and cupboard space, you can’t stockpile sale price boxes of Annie’s shredded oats (not that they have those here), or make of ginormous vats of veggie chili for the freezer. Japanese grocery stores (like many I have seen in Europe) cater to this kind of shopping, offering half loves of bread, tiny bottles of mayo and miniature cans of corn (I saw ‘bunches’ of 3 asparagus spears at the store yesterday). You get to eat fresher foods, and whatever you feel like at the moment, but it costs more.
  2. Own less stuff. Shopping means considering not just if I ‘need’ something, but whether there is somewhere to put it. And this extends to books, which are usually an exception to my non-accumulation policy. Understandably, renting all kinds of things is pretty popular here, and with strict anti-piracy policies, video stores are still going strong (seriously, when was the last time you went to blockbuster?). Our local chain even rents CDs and manga.
  3. Do chores more often. When you have less clothing, you have to wash it more often. When you spend a lot of time on the floor, you are compelled to sweep it more often. When you only have two spoons…you get the picture. And if you look in the picture, you’ll see our laundry drying rack occupying precious floor space. With small washing machines and no dryer (as is standard in Japan and pretty much everywhere else I’ve traveled), all clothes hang to dry.
  4. Go out more. People in Tokyo almost never invite people to their homes (regardless of size). Restaurants, Izakaya and coffee shops are living and dining rooms. Parks, most famously Yoyogi Koen, are full of dance troops and music groups short on rehearsal space. Luckily, I am not the one that has to practice tuba outside in January (true story), and going out in an amazing food city is generally pretty fun. But it’s also expensive and I miss excuses to cook for my friends.
  5. Compromise to new extremes. We have very different sleep schedules. I am a morning person (at least in theory). I often wake up with sentences swimming in my head and do my best work before noon. Stephen is not a morning person (in theory or practice). He works best late at night, sometimes until 4am. But you can hardly walk in here when the bedding is out. So as a joke, I invented the 11-11 rule: either person can put the bed out after 11pm and ask for it to be put away after 11am. Except this is kind of the law now.
  6. Adjust in unexpected ways. Small is relative. Even after 6 weeks the apartment does not usually seem tiny, especially if the bedding and laundry are put away. It might just be getting off trains so full you can hardly breathe (for real), or leaving coffee shops where tables and sometimes elbows are touching. You quickly learn to retreat into headphones and adjust expectations. We’ve actually taken to sleeping on a single futon, so there’s less rearranging twice a day. And, as a bonus, I am extra looking forward to having a 325(!) square foot hotel room and queen bed all to myself on my next research trip.

With romantic visions quickly drowned out by the incredibly loud snoring from the room next door, the practical lessons are that much clearer. It’s not the magical small house technology or clever cabinetry alone that makes for green living or happiness on a different scale. Yes, folding bicycles are kind of amazing, but so is figuring out you can use a hot sauce bottle as a rolling pin. More importantly, truly livable small houses are part of livable communities. Here we benefit from the multitude of amazing restaurants, from never being more than a few minutes walk from a grocery or convenience store. Tokyo could certainly use more public spaces, especially green ones, but I will most certainly miss living in a city where bicycles and pedestrians are the rule.

At the end of the day, there’s a huge difference between giving up my oven/ blender/ books/ bed/ garden/camping gear etc. for a few months, and doing so permanently or without choice. So when Stephen hits his head on the door frame, and I sometimes have trouble falling asleep with the light on and someone playing video games two feet away (it’s research, really), it is with the knowledge that we can return to living in more than one room in the near future.