Coping With Tragedy: An Intimate View Of Japanese Daily Life

Pine trees, uprooted during last year's tsunami, lay strewn over the beach in Rikuzentakata, Japan. i i

Pine trees, uprooted during last year's tsunami, lay strewn over the beach in Rikuzentakata, Japan. Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Pine trees, uprooted during last year's tsunami, lay strewn over the beach in Rikuzentakata, Japan.

Pine trees, uprooted during last year's tsunami, lay strewn over the beach in Rikuzentakata, Japan.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

"The Japanese people have a strong connection with nature and the ocean and a huge respect for them," says Australian photojournalist Daniel Berehulak. "They do not blame the tsunami; they feel like it is part of nature's way of regenerating."

For more than seven years, Berehulak has circled the globe covering news events for Getty Images. And for the past two weeks he has been working in northeast Japan, traveling from one ravaged city to another, meeting survivors and listening to their stories. While we have seen a host of images coming from the island nation, Berehulak's visual reporting is uniquely intimate.

The Picture Show caught up with Berehulak, currently working in Japan, and in between assignments and traveling via small windy roads he offered further insight into his images and experience.

A Gymnasium Of Memories

  • Daisuke Arakawa (right) searches for a photograph of his grandparents, with his uncle Katsuhiko Arakawa, in a school gym set up as a collection site for articles found after the tsunami, in the Yuriage area of Natori, Japan.
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    Daisuke Arakawa (right) searches for a photograph of his grandparents, with his uncle Katsuhiko Arakawa, in a school gym set up as a collection site for articles found after the tsunami, in the Yuriage area of Natori, Japan.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Omoide-Sagashi, a nonprofit started by a couple whose daughter is missing, gathered and catalogued the lost memorabilia.
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    Omoide-Sagashi, a nonprofit started by a couple whose daughter is missing, gathered and catalogued the lost memorabilia.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • A volunteer wheels unclaimed articles inside the gym. Volunteers help clean, catalog and store the found items.
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    A volunteer wheels unclaimed articles inside the gym. Volunteers help clean, catalog and store the found items.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Katsuhiko Arakawa holds up a family album belonging to his parents while Daisuke takes a photo. "They were elated," says photographer Daniel Berehulak. "They left that morning with a trove of memories."
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    Katsuhiko Arakawa holds up a family album belonging to his parents while Daisuke takes a photo. "They were elated," says photographer Daniel Berehulak. "They left that morning with a trove of memories."
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Daisuke looks at notes left by schoolchildren inside the gym.
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    Daisuke looks at notes left by schoolchildren inside the gym.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • A memorial for those killed by the tsunami in Yuriage.
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    A memorial for those killed by the tsunami in Yuriage.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

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When Berehulak entered a school gymnasium in Natori, he got an eerie feeling. He arrived before the organizers and recalled hearing the creaking of the floorboards inside and the howling wind outside. A local nonprofit, Omoide-Sagashi, started by a couple whose daughter is still missing, has been gathering and cataloging lost possessions such as photographs, traditional dresses and wedding portraits.

Yohei Arai, 33, a representative of Omoide-Sagashi, says that the place is full of mixed emotions. Some people cannot enter the gymnasium, citing unresolved feelings. But others leave elated when they find a piece of their family history. The tragic irony lies in the fact that the couple who founded the nonprofit still go out searching for their daughter's body, a year after losing her.

Ishinomaki's Heartbreak And Resilience

  • Takahiro Shito, 47, sits at home next to a Buddhist altar dedicated to his daugher, 11-year-old Chisato, who was killed during last year's tsunami at Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki.
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    Takahiro Shito, 47, sits at home next to a Buddhist altar dedicated to his daugher, 11-year-old Chisato, who was killed during last year's tsunami at Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Shito and his wife, Sayomi, 46, speak about their daughter, often pausing to weep. They blame the school system, saying the teachers were not trained for tsunami evacuation.
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    Shito and his wife, Sayomi, 46, speak about their daughter, often pausing to weep. They blame the school system, saying the teachers were not trained for tsunami evacuation.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Out of 108 students at Okawa Elementary School, 74 are dead and four remain missing; 10 of the school's 13 teachers were also killed.
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    Out of 108 students at Okawa Elementary School, 74 are dead and four remain missing; 10 of the school's 13 teachers were also killed.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • A woman prays at a shrine commemorating the victims of the Okawa tragedy.
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    A woman prays at a shrine commemorating the victims of the Okawa tragedy.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Many in Japan view the school's loss of life as one of the biggest tragedies of the tsunami.
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    Many in Japan view the school's loss of life as one of the biggest tragedies of the tsunami.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Naomi Tsuda and her 5-year-old son, Shohei, wait for her 10-year-old-daughter, Kyoka, to finish her piano lesson.
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    Naomi Tsuda and her 5-year-old son, Shohei, wait for her 10-year-old-daughter, Kyoka, to finish her piano lesson.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Piano teacher Manami Kuga, seen reflected on the left, instructs Kyoka. Two of Kuga's students, Hana and Kento Suzuki, died during the tsunami. Kento's body was found three weeks after the storm; Hana's body is still missing.
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    Piano teacher Manami Kuga, seen reflected on the left, instructs Kyoka. Two of Kuga's students, Hana and Kento Suzuki, died during the tsunami. Kento's body was found three weeks after the storm; Hana's body is still missing.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Koichi Matsumoto's home was destroyed. Here, the 74-year-old holds his dog, Jyonko, as he walks through his temporary housing unit.
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    Koichi Matsumoto's home was destroyed. Here, the 74-year-old holds his dog, Jyonko, as he walks through his temporary housing unit.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Kikuko Abe, 65, looks on as her grandchildren, Iroha Kodama, 8, and Naiki Kodama, 15, play hand-held video games in a temporary community center.
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    Kikuko Abe, 65, looks on as her grandchildren, Iroha Kodama, 8, and Naiki Kodama, 15, play hand-held video games in a temporary community center.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Yoshitaka Abe, 60, an oyster farmer and local councilman, checks on his oyster seeds. While Ishinomaki's oyster beds were destroyed in the tsunami, the cove where oyster seeds are harvested remained intact, allowing cultivation to continue.
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    Yoshitaka Abe, 60, an oyster farmer and local councilman, checks on his oyster seeds. While Ishinomaki's oyster beds were destroyed in the tsunami, the cove where oyster seeds are harvested remained intact, allowing cultivation to continue.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Farmer Yoshitaka Abe's wife, Yumiko, 54, works in an oyster factory.
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    Farmer Yoshitaka Abe's wife, Yumiko, 54, works in an oyster factory.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Shiro Uwano, 82, and Reiko Uwano, 76, eat charcoal grilled oysters at Ishinomaki's only functioning restaurant. On this day, the wait for a seat was more than hour.
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    Shiro Uwano, 82, and Reiko Uwano, 76, eat charcoal grilled oysters at Ishinomaki's only functioning restaurant. On this day, the wait for a seat was more than hour.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

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The Okawa Elementary School tragedy in Ishinomaki has become famous in Japan. According to Berehulak, many people feel it was the biggest tragedy of the tsunami: Indecision and poor disaster training led the teachers to keep their students on shallow ground as opposed to taking them up a nearby mountain.

Of 108 students at the Okawa Elementary School, 74 died and four remain missing; 10 of the school's 13 teachers were also killed.

In Ishinomaki, Berehulak met Takahiro and Sayomi Shito, who lost their 11-year-old daughter, Chisato. During the four-hour interview, the couple openly wept, still mourning their loss. They believe the education system needs to foster free thinking, because the few students who survived went against teachers' orders and ran for higher ground.

While heartbreak may describe Ishinomaki, so does resilience. A lone Oyster restaurant offers a semblance of normalcy; a piano teacher continues to inspire; and families stay intact in temporary housing. But Berehulak notes that the Okawa Elementary School has become somewhat of a shrine. "It is seen as the most tragic of events," he says, adding that people are debating whether to rebuild the school or keep it as a memorial dedicated to the victims.

Temporary Comfort In Minamisanriku

  • Women who lost their homes in last year's tsunami and are now living in temporary housing in Minamisanriku share a laugh.
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    Women who lost their homes in last year's tsunami and are now living in temporary housing in Minamisanriku share a laugh.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Mitsuhiro Abe, 7, who lives in temporary housing with his grandmother and parents, plays with a toy gun in the family's living room.
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    Mitsuhiro Abe, 7, who lives in temporary housing with his grandmother and parents, plays with a toy gun in the family's living room.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • A boy walks to catch the school bus at the housing site in Minamisanriku. Thousands of people remain without homes.
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    A boy walks to catch the school bus at the housing site in Minamisanriku. Thousands of people remain without homes.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • The temporary housing site includes a community center.
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    The temporary housing site includes a community center.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Women mingle at a community center that was set up in a tent.
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    Women mingle at a community center that was set up in a tent.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Children who are still displaced catch the bus to school.
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    Children who are still displaced catch the bus to school.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

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Scattered throughout the devastated region are temporary housing units with a tent set up as a community center. According to Berehulak, many people were struggling in these shelters and rarely used the community tents. But one group was different.

"We stumbled across a special community," said Berehulak. "At this shelter we found a spritely group of septuagenarians and octogenarians who didn't know one another before the tsunami and seem to be lucky to have found each other."

While Berehulak is a seasoned photojournalist, this assignment has been uniquely emotional — in particular the time he spent with Chisato's grieving parents. "Listening to all their unanswered questions about their daughter — What was she doing in her last moments? — What were her last thoughts as she saw the water coming towards her? — What if the teacher [had] led them up the hill? They live through that every day; for them it is a painful reality. The experience of meeting them will stay with me forever."

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