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At a glance: Japan

One year after the quake disaster in Japan, children's photographs reveal recovery

By Rebecca Zerzan

NEW YORK, USA, 14 March 2012 – It has been one year since Japan’s ‘3/11’ tragedy, the 11 March earthquake that set off a cascade of disasters on a scale scarcely imaginable.

The EYE SEE TOHOKU photography workshops gave children in Japan the opportunity to document their lives in the aftermath of the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Organized by the Japan Committee for UNICEF with support from Sony.  Watch in RealPlayer


The 9.0-magnitude quake – so violent it shifted the earth’s axis by 10 to 25 cm – triggered a tsunami that devastated much the north-eastern coastline, ultimately claiming nearly 16,000 lives and leaving over 3,000 missing. 

Even after the waters subsided, the perils were only beginning for 12-year-old Akira Sato and her community in Fukushima Prefecture. The force of the catastrophe caused a radiation leak at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, a crisis that would reach International Nuclear Event Scale 7, the highest possible level.

“The vice-principal of our school measures radiation levels every morning at the playground and at the entrance to the school. I think it’s hard to detect something invisible,” Akira said, reflecting on the uncertainty that is now a part of her daily life. 

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-2315/Minatogawa
Saaya Minatogawa, 14, photographed a crumpled car in the town of Otsuchi, Iwate. “The driver may have been inside the car when the tsunami struck. It’s sad,” she said.

Eight months after the disaster, she and 26 other children, between ages 8 and 15, participated in ‘EYE SEE TOHOKU’, a series of photography workshops conducted in three disaster-affected prefectures. The workshops, organized by the Japan Committee for UNICEF with support from Sony Corporation, were designed to give the children an opportunity to express their feelings and illustrate their experiences in the shadow of the crisis.

What emerged was a portrait of strength and recovery.

An example of resilience

“I want everyone to know how afflicted people are feeling today,” said Juri Fujiwara, 15, at the workshop in Fukushima, where UNICEF photographer Giacomo Pirozzi gave participants a basic education in framing, composition and other techniques before they set out to photograph their lives and communities.

The project was not without challenges. At the time of the workshops, powerful aftershocks remained common. Emergency food and shelters had to be secured, and the children’s safety was paramount.

Yet through their imagery, they offer an example of resilience.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-2342/Yoshida
A woman dressed as a clown distributes food aid at the Haragama ‘market’ in Soma, Fukushima. Photographed by Riri Yoshida, 11.

“This used to be the only swimming pool in town. I swam here when I was in elementary school,” said Saaya Minatogawa, 14, standing at the edge of an empty pool, now a jumble of steel beams and broken glass, in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture.

Saaya now lives in temporary housing at the Kikikiri Junior High School, where one of the workshops was conducted. But she sees the progress being made, day by day. One of her photographs shows blossoms emerging from broken concrete. “Flowers are blooming in the middle of the devastation,” she said.

Destruction and healing

Much of the destruction is still visible in Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, where over 3,000 people died and nearly 900 are still reported missing.

“[Port] Ayukawa was washed away. It makes me sad to see my town,” said Ryota Atsumi, 11.

He and his friends photographed volunteers clearing debris, focusing on the community’s efforts to rebuild. “Volunteers were carrying big trees. I noticed how hard they were working,” said Miki Furuuchi, 10.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-2290/Goto
Ten-year-old Chihiro Goto photographed Miku Sato, 8, at the beach in Ishinomaki, Miyagi.

In Fukushima, where the nuclear crisis is ongoing, 15-year-old Yuzuki Sato photographed piles of contaminated soil that had been scraped from the grounds of a school. “There was a ‘Keep Out’ sign in front of a mound of polluted soil, but small children might still get in,” she said. “I saw this same ‘Keep Out’ sign everywhere.”

But her peers also took stock of their community’s healing. In Soma City, an old fishing town, they visited Haragama, a local market where aid was being distributed.

“After the earthquake, I think the people of Soma have become more cheerful as stronger ties have developed,” said Juri.

Collectively, their photographs offer a stark reminder that life has irrevocably changed. “Part of me hopes they will forget what they saw through the camera lens,” Miki’s mother said. “The other part of me hopes they will always remember what took place.”

The children’s images are on display at UNICEF Headquarters in New York. The exhibition, called ‘The Road Ahead’, will run from 5 March to 31 May.



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