One Road, Death, Life Judo Brings Back Smiles, “It is now that everything is starting, please do not forget us”

Life Judo Brings Back Smiles, At the end of the third day of the Judo Grand Slam, Tokyo 2011, the International Judo Federation and the French Judo Federation made a donation of US $300,000 ($200,000 from the IJF + $100,000 from the FFJ) to support the reconstruction in the Japanese quake zone, after the disaster that struck the country in the mid-afternoon of March 11, 2011 (Fukushima Miyagi).

After a moving ceremony led by President Marius L. Vizer (IJF), President Jean-Luc Rougé (FFJ) and the representatives of the three most severely affected provinces (Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi), the IJF and the All Japan Judo Federation traveled to the north, to Rikuzentakata (Iwate Prefecture), to assess the progress of reconstruction, in a zone where the toll of disaster is approximately 20,000 deaths and thousands of missing people are still unaccounted for, more than nine months later. Here is the story of the visit.

 Apparent Normality:

The first thing you notice when you arrive in Japan, several months after the earthquake, the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, is that everything seems strangely calm and normal. But a disturbing calm and strange normality because even if no one says anything, everyone knows that something has changed.

For decades, nothing will be the same and the famous Japanese woodblock print depicting a giant blue wave breaking on small boats against a backdrop of Mount Fuji now takes on its full dimension. Except that this time, the wave was not blue, but a deadly black colored mountain of water carting thousands of tons of debris that became weapons of mass destruction (Fukushima Miyagi).

Having no other possibility but to accept them, Japan has become used to the whims of Mother Nature. Earthquakes, typhoons or tsunamis, although they have already killed so many people, as was the case in Kobe in 1995, they have become common.

Yet, when the earth began to violently tremble on March 11, 2011 at 14:46 sharp, the first earth tremor turned out to be a tremendous one, actually the biggest one ever measured in the country. “In Tokyo (several hundred kilometers from the epicenter), buildings began to undulate and the whole phenomenon lasted several minutes.

It was hard to stand up and everything was falling all around,” explained several capital inhabitants, as well as the French judo national female team, which was training in Japan at that time.

Nevertheless, in December 2011, Tokyo is decorated with a thousand lights to celebrate a global Christmas, and there is no trace that indicates what happened last March.

For several days, the celebration of the judo world, on the occasion of the Grand Slam 2011 edition, carried on smoothly. Only the moving ceremony, which was organized for the IJF and FFJ to present their donation checks, was there to remind us that it is the entire Japanese nation that was bruised in its body and its mind earlier this year.

On the morning of December 12, 2011, as the Shinkansen high-speed train raced to the North, there was still no apparent sign of the disaster in the landscapes that passed in front of the passengers’ eyes. Some form of unreality was hanging over the train, knowing that on March 11, 2011, a similar iron horse derailed off the track due to the power of the earthquake.

Now, the endless suburbs of the capital were gradually replaced by more bucolic country landscapes. The snow-capped mountains were getting closer. All was calm … so Japanese.

It was only when the Shinkansen passed the cities of Fukushima and Sendai that one could start hearing names so evocative for those who had directly experienced the drama and all the others who remained glued to their TV screens in the days following the earthquake. But again, nothing! Not the least sign of the disaster.

How was it possible? The explanation was simple. “Even if the earthquake was so powerful, it caused little visible damage. For centuries Japan has been getting ready to confront the most incredible seisms.

What destroyed everything was the wave,” people say. In places it was nearly 40 m high.

“In Rikuzentakata, it measured 18 m high and materialized in less than five minutes, almost an hour after the earthquake,” said Kobayashi, who was in charge of organizing the IJF and All Japan Judo Federation’s visit to the North.

A Desolate Landscape:

Since departing from Tokyo, the search for disaster signs remained fruitless, then suddenly, after a final turn, everything changed dramatically. To the left of the road, everything seems ‘normal’: cars are moving, traffic signals are working, pedestrians continue strolling on the sidewalks, across the way a barber’s sign goes on turning and indicating that the shop is open, nearby a few children are playing … This is life.

On the right, the houses seem empty and lifeless, as if frozen in an invisible shroud. There is not a single person walking in the street, not a single child crying.

Time has stopped. Even the birds, fluttering on the left side of the road, have deserted the right side. A few hundred meters away between two buildings, stands a huge pile of shapeless rubbish of all kinds. Impossible to know exactly what it is. Here the kingdom of death has taken its winter quarters.

As the road continues to snake between life and death, Mr. Kobayashi explains that the wave came up to this point, carrying debris that had been uprooted from downstream, even though the ocean is several miles away.

“The right of the road has been declared unsuitable for development. A law was passed. There cannot be any human activity whatsoever, except for the cleaning. On the left, we continue to live as if nothing happened.”

After a few more miles, at a bend in the road, the ocean appears on the right, quiet and peaceful, dotted with oyster farms, the main activity of the region.

This time, it is on the left that there is nothing. As far as the eye can see there is nothing but emptiness, the very negation of life. The driver explains that here is where the city center of Rikuzentakata used to stand, where 23,000 people lived peacefully and where countless small traditional Japanese shops were visible.

Today there is nothing but a large extent of dull gray stones, dotted with a few skeletal buildings swept by the offshore winds.

The ghostly figure of a huge hotel facing the sea indicates that the wave reached up to the fourth floor and on its way, destroyed everything … everything.

From the bridge passing over the little river that winds through the city, only the piles are left, the deck having been pulverized. In places, mountains of waste, sorted according to their nature, give a semblance of relief to the great devastated plain.

But for the last two days, due to the fermentation raging since the disaster, firefighters have been trying to extinguish a fire that has taken over one of these fatal mountains.

“Do not forget us!”

An appointment was made with two city employees, just outside the town hall, which remains a simple concrete structure, filled to the roof with a bric-a-brac of waste.

At the front of the building, in what used to be a city park, as far as the eye can see, carcasses of cars are gathered in a metallic cemetery, piled up creaking and rusting under the onslaught of winter weather.

For over an hour, the two city agents explain what happened here on March 11, 2011, and since then, what has become of their lives.

Yet even those who lived through the whole chain of disaster still cannot believe it and must make real efforts of concentration in an attempt to put all the pieces of the nightmare back together.

“Everything happened so fast. Around 14:30, we were struck by an earthquake of an unimaginable magnitude. Firefighters went out in the field and later many were swept away by the wave.

Less than an hour after the seism, the tsunami warning sirens rang out, but we thought we were safe. The ocean was more than 2 km away. People started to calmly gather together in a safe zone.

In the distance, we saw kind of a large cloud moving toward us. We believed it to be a huge fire resulting from the earthquake. But in less than 5 minutes, the fire had become an implausible tsunami, reaching the fourth floor of the buildings and digesting all the little houses in its path. Those who were lucky enough to reach the roof could save their lives, as for the others… “.

On this ellipsis, the two men continue their macabre story: “In the building across the street, over 100 people entered, but only 10 came out alive.

In this building which was supposed to be the meeting place in case of emergency, there were over 200 victims and only four survivors. You should know that at least six waves came up to here, and between each of them, we had to take refuge on the top of the tallest buildings, which were also threatened of being carried away by the power of the waves.

In front of the city, in order to protect it, there was a small forest of 70,000 trees, only one is still standing today. It was unthinkable, unimaginable and even today we do not understand what happened.”

Paradoxically, what now seems the hardest to bear is the wave of oblivion: this ultimate tsunami, which inexorably isolates a population that has shown exemplary dignity.

“We have always lived here; we grew up in Rikuzentakata; we built our homes, our families and our lives in this place. And yet today, nothing is left — everything was swept away in a minute. We do not even have a single photograph of our past life. Dozens of colleagues were swallowed up by the tsunami.

Others survived but lost their families. Even our mayor lost his wife in the disaster. Yet every day, we need to work to clean up everything. But to clean what? Nothingness? A few miles away, or in Tokyo, people have resumed their lives as they were before, and we are left alone and isolated.

Today we must continue to live with the permanent death and disaster that is spread out in front of our eyes.

So please, do not forget us, do not leave us alone…. do not forget us…!” begged the two city employees with dignity, one of them having lost his wife and child on March 11, and the other having saved the lives of 124 people by carrying them onto the roof of the City Hall.

When asked what can now give them back their smiles, despite the hardships, the two men agreed: “To see the children smiling again when they go to judo training under the guidance of Mr. Iwasaki, that’s a real pleasure.” A week after the disaster, Mr. Iwasaki, whose house was reduced to dust, resumed judo sessions on the asphalt of a parking lot – without any throws but with the joy of being together.

A Wave of Emotion:

For two days, stories of this kind, told with a sense of decency, segue into one another and create a wave of emotion among the representatives of the IJF and the All Japan Judo Federation. Rikuzentakata’s population, which is aware of its isolation, perfectly understands the need to testify in order to try to emerge from its secluded state.

Futoshi Toba, the mayor of the city, summed up the situation: “The Japanese government has promised to finance 90% of all reconstruction projects, outside of the disaster area that is now forbidden.

Our destroyed cities have to find the remaining 10% of funding. But on the one hand we have no land to build because as you have seen, this mountainous region is already saturated with buildings.

We have already commandeered all the playgrounds and school playing fields to build temporary quarters and so children can no longer play sport.

On the other hand, finding the remaining 10% is a real headache because there is no more economic activity here. Rikuzentakata has been wiped off the map, but I still have thousands of people to relocate and to whom I must give hope.”

Hope – Tanaka came close to losing it and even today, the situation is still so fragile. Among the four survivors out of the 200 people who took refuge in a hall which was later devastated by the tsunami, Tanaka saved his life by clinging to the metal structure of the roof.

After several days of wandering in the rubble, searching for his wife, he discovered that she was swallowed up by the wave, just a few yards away from him.

“I thought of committing suicide when I learned that I had lost what was most precious to me in the world. Why go on living? I was an abandoned man, lost and hunted by the media who wanted to know my story. Iwasaki saved me a second time. He hid me for several weeks, he listened to me, he spoke to me a lot and he reached out to me.”

Tanaka’s poignant story is interspersed with sobs and demonstration of the gestures that allowed him to escape from the deadly flood. “If I had known, I would not have made these gestures,” he further adds.

“But today, I wanted to testify for the first time, for all the people who are still suffering and need to not be forgotten. I did it because Mr. Iwasaki asked me to do it, because of him and because of you. Because I know what judo, through Mr. Iwasaki’s implication, has done to help our children.”

Judo, as the New Social Cement:

During the two days spent on site by the IJF and the All Japan Judo Federation, represented by its General Secretary, Kiyoshi Murakami (whose commitment during the two days as a translator, interviewer and judo expert is total), the implication of a central person is obvious: Iwasaki.

Doctor – physiotherapist by profession, he is known and recognized by all and always ready to listen to everybody. His arrival seems to open every door. He too was hit by the tsunami.

In addition to the house he owned in the city center and which was totally destroyed, he was separated from his wife for six days, both believing the other to be dead.

He was able to just barely escape the deadly wave by taking refuge on high ground, whereas water had already reached his hips. A few days later, he started his medical consultations back up again for free, because “in any case, no one has the means to pay.”

His priority was also the revival of the judo club, whose dojo was razed. As it was explained by the two municipal employees, after only a few days, young people could be seen practicing judo, even in extreme conditions.

Today, the judo sessions have taken up residence in a small gym, which for several weeks served as a makeshift morgue.

“The children know nothing about it,” explained the master, who during the session, continues to take care of a painful leg over here, a sore ankle over there. Always for free. Good humor and ‘joie de vivre’ are part of the program of the judo clinic, even if all children have chilling stories in memory.

For 2 hours, judo serves as a social bond for a population in search of reference points, a population who does not want to be forgotten. The young athletes give of their best, let off steam, sweat, and this is what brings back their smiles and consequently, brings back their parents’ and their families’ smiles.

“Beyond the practice that we tried to start up again as soon as possible because young people need to release tension, every day we can measure the benefits of judo for our wounded people. We need common values to share and sports can bring that,” says Sensei Iwasaki, before adding, “But things are not simple.

First the room had to be cleansed of its funereal atmosphere, and now we must share it with other activities, hence this does not allow us to offer the full judo program to everyone.

We are not in our own place and we do not know where or how we will be able to rebuild our dojo. In this context, the support provided by the IJF, the French Judo Federation and the All Japan Judo Federation is crucial and it is with great emotion that we have received you here. Please continue to testify about what you have seen in Rikuzentakata, we need it.”

It is with these words, but also with smiles visible on many faces despite the situation, that the IJF and the All Japan Judo Federation retrace their steps back to the other world, the one where the ravages of the tsunami are already filed away in the past, when thousands of people are still suffering in silence and maintaining exemplary dignity. We must not forget them! IJF

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