Building a Better Tohoku

An American film maker documents the rebuilding of a Japanese village


None can forget the tragedy and despair that followed in the wake of the combined disasters that struck northeast Japan in 2011. Images of black waves sweeping away entire villages, churning and spewing them out to sea were truly the stuff of nightmares. And yet over the past five years those memories have slowly been replaced by the inspiring stories of the resilience and determination of the Tohoku people. While the long road to recovery at times seems fraught with insurmountable challenges, there are countless tales of courage and dedication to bring hope to a seemingly hopeless situation. One such story, about a tiny fishing hamlet in one of the most devastated areas, even captured the attention of an American film maker.

Documentarian Clary Estes’ interest in Japan goes back as far as her college days, where she studied Post-war Japanese art and literature at the University of Kentucky. After the earthquake and tsunami ravaged the Japanese coastline, she felt compelled to tell the story of the survivors, which lead her to Hamagurihama, a small fishing village in Miyagi Prefecture which became the subject of her documentary “Hamagurihama Project.”

The film follows the life of Takakazu Kameyama, the leader of a rebuilding project in Hamagurihama. Kameyama, who lost his wife to the tsunami, returned to find only three houses still standing in the village that he had been born and raised in. With less than 10 residents remaining, Hamagurihama faced the very grim possibility of disappearing altogether. Determined not to let that happen, Kameyama leased the land from his neighbors and has since dedicated all of his time and resources to revitalizing his community. Says Estes, “They are not only saving a village that would otherwise disappear as a result of the disaster, they are making it a meeting place between the old traditions of Japan and young minds. They are emphasizing the importance of history and culture, as well as one’s closeness to nature and how to work with it, not against it.”

Coming from a rural background herself, Estes felt a certain kinship and connection to the rural communities of Tohoku. “The thing that really moved me about this project,” says Estes, “was Kameyama Sensei’s commitment to his rural village. While I am someone who feels compelled to travel often and far, I am really impressed by people who stay in their home situation and put all of their heart and soul into improving where they are from.” In fact the plight of rural communities is a theme that appears in much of Estes documentary work. “As we see a constant migration of people to the city, rural stories can often be forgotten,” she laments. For Estes, the efforts being made in Hamagurihama are much more than just rebuilding. “While their project is heavily interested in recovery, their mission is much more than that; they want to improve rural Japan for future generations and fight the almost compulsory migration of young people to the city.” With recent news stories about shuttered schools and empty playgrounds left to rust, the flight to urban centers is a very real problem in Japan. In the film Kameyama echoes these concerns, “I wonder what will happen after we finish, after the houses are built, cleaned up and returned to normal. When the outside support stops, how will people start to build their lives here? [It] should not go back to the way it was…It should be a place where young people come back to and where people feel like visiting. I think this is our chance.”

In the film, several workers share their excitement and hopes for the cafe and campgrounds they built. Chie Kameyama, who previously worked with children in Sendai describes how children in urban areas have no place to play and no connection to nature, and she hopes that these facilities can provide those experiences. Another team member, Sayuri Inoue wants visitors to use the area to meditate and contemplate life. As for the director of the film, Clary Estes has been deeply touched by the entire experience, and hopes to revisit the subject in later films. “I would love to work more in this realm in more of a fine-art documentary photography sense in the coming years, especially with regard to tsunami artifacts and how document, experience and memory are connected in this event.”

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