This past weekend, while travelling around Japan’s disaster zone, I found an uplifting story. Or so I thought.
I had just eaten dinner – chicken confit, lasagna and deep-fried oysters – at an Italian eatery in Kesennuma, along the northeastern coast. The location was a stone’s throw from the harbour. Across from me sat Toshiyuki Kameya, the chef and proprietor of Ace Port Kushi. Short and muscular, he was dressed in chef’s whites, with the sleeves rolled up, his arms folded across his chest.
Kameya told me his restaurant had once been on the third floor of a nearby building, with a sweeping view of the sea, but the tsunami had put him out of work. And he wasn’t alone. City officials say the waves destroyed 70 per cent of Kesennuma’s restaurants, noodle shops and Japanese-style izakaya. At night the waterfront business district was pitch dark.
A few months ago Kameya got a lucky break. In November he reopened in a prefabricated box built with funding from city hall and private donors. Fukko Yatai Mura they called it (fukko means recovery – a collection of izakaya, noodle shops and bars arranged around an alleyway, each shop with its name on a red paper lantern hanging out front.
It was a symbolic step toward rebuilding for this hard-hit fishing port of 70,000 residents. The tsunami had smashed buildings and tossed giant fishing boats as far as 1km inland. More than 1,350 residents had died. Most of the debris has since been carted away. What’s left behind is a wasteland of cement foundations, twisted bus carcasses and the steel skeletal remains of fish-processing plants.
By the time I arrived at Kameya’s restaurant he was attracting a steady clientele. I expected him to be excited about getting back to work after an eight-month hiatus. After all, he had regained his livelihood, and though his home is damaged, his wife and child are alive and well. Meanwhile, thousands of others were still jobless and living in temporary housing in school playgrounds and parks.
But Kameya wasn’t exactly a picture of happiness. He was surly and dour. He later told me that he’d been wary: here was another misguided journalist searching for hope in a city where tragedy was still the norm, he thought.
After the city got wiped out, Kameya initially saw no point in restarting his restaurant but later changed his mind after local officials approached him. “It was dark around here, and I wanted to bring back the light,” he said.
Now locals drop by for meal and to swap tales about their lives. Kameya’s restaurant and the other eateries in the alley have become a place for the community to gather – a sign that the city is healing.
Still, Kameya felt that there were too many others who continue to struggle and aren’t getting enough attention. Perhaps he didn’t want to seem like he was gloating. Maybe it was just a way for a disaster victim to cope with the loss of so much.
Chatting with Kameya reminded me of a conversation I had a couple of weeks earlier. I was discussing happiness with Yukiko Ueda, a psychiatrist and professor at Kyoto University. She told me, “For Japanese, happiness isn’t just about how you, as an individual, evaluate your life. Personal happiness is as much about family and community. This might seem weird but even though we feel happiness it’s embarrassing to talk about it.”
The rebuilding in Kesennuma will likely take years. It could be some time before the community’s rebounding fortunes can boost Kameya’s mood and he’s able to talk about it.