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On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami hit the Japanese coast, killing 200 residents of Kesen, a centuries-old village. Only two of the 550 houses have not been destroyed and most of the survivors have relocated. But 15 locals have vowed to stay and rebuild the village, and New York Times photographer Hiroko Masuike from Japan has traveled twice a year from New York for the past decade to chronicle their efforts.
Last month, a photo report and article recounted their determination over the past 10 years. In an interview, Ms. Masuike discussed the progress of her project.
Many towns and villages were devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. Why did you decide to focus on Kesen?
When the tsunami hit, I had to be there because my home country was going through a major disaster. Rikuzentakata, the town where Kesen is located, has been one of the hardest hit. I had a vacation planned, but 12 days after the tsunami I landed at the nearest airport. I started to photograph debris and people at an evacuation center in Rikuzentakata, but I was still numb.
One day I was driving in Kesen and saw a small temple on higher ground. Ten people lived there, and across town there were other people living among the debris. They were very different from everyone else living in the evacuation centers – they were so energetic. On the second day, when I visited the people in the temple, they said to me, “If you want to stay with us, you can.” I started to photograph how they lived: they built a little hut where we ate; they made a bonfire every day; they would try to clean up the place. They hoped to reunite their community.
How did it go from photographing the aftermath of a major disaster to a long-term project?
When I first went there everyone opened up to me and trusted me. I didn’t want to be someone who goes to a disaster area and then when the news fades, leaves and never comes back. So I kept going back, photographing everyone each time and catching up. Over the 10 years I have been able to spend a lot of time with the survivors and capture the right moment. I tried to be a good listener – I think they wanted to tell someone their stories, their feelings and their frustrations. So they would open me up even more when I came back.
What did you hope to capture at the start of the play?
I hoped that this community would rebuild itself. My first trip home was in October 2011, and the government had started building prefabricated houses, so people were living there – except for this guy, Naoshi, who lost his son, a volunteer firefighter, in cause of the earthquake. He thought that because his son’s spirit could come back he had to be in the same place, so he rebuilt his house in August 2012. And I was hoping to capture when the temple was rebuilt, because he had been the center. of the community for centuries.
Have you encountered any challenges with this project over the past decade?
Most of the time when I returned there was no change in the community. The temple was rebuilt in 2017, but Rikuzentakata told survivors that they cannot rebuild their homes where they once stood. The authorities have worked on raising the level of the land for residential use. But the construction took a lot longer than they thought, and a lot of people couldn’t wait that long and moved elsewhere, and the land was left empty. When I returned this year for the 10th anniversary the construction was complete and seeing the vacant area was beautiful: the village was once full of people and houses, but 10 years later there was nothing.
Are you going to continue photographing Kesen?
I probably don’t need to go back twice a year. But the people I photographed are making progress. Someone is going to open a dog cafe this summer. So I would like to continue to visit and photograph their lives. I have seen them for 10 years. It’s hard to stop.