Notes from flood-hit Japan

They sat in silence, stares unwavering, brave in their focus but clouded by the grimness of the scene.

A dead body was being excavated.

It was someone, yet to be identified, from this small community who had been lost for nearly a week.  

Rescue workers and members of the media buzzed around the onlookers, all locals of Kumano-cho, but they paid no heed.

One man, the youngest one there, wore dark sunglasses. It was perhaps just a small admission of heartache, something to mask the pain.

Above this small group of local onlookers, a large blue sheet was slowly draped over a jagged pile of twisted metal and mortar. A landslide had wiped out these houses days before and now a digger plucked at their foundations, pumping out thick, dark exhaust fumes as it went, thickening an air already heavy with reluctant expectations.

In the background, a second family had gathered to watch on too. They were still missing two young boys. The aunt of the boys - Rika - had spoken to me earlier before a dreaded walk across a dirt track to the site.

"My brother and his wife just keep looking at the photos of their sons. They are talking about their memories and old stories with their boys. And they cry."

Eventually, emergency crews usher a body away on a stretcher. The identity remains unclear as it is taken into a vehicle and slowly driven away, members of the rescue team bowing deeply as it passes.

But no tears were shed at that moment for a man whose name I still don’t know.

Raw emotion is always exposed in communities hit by death and loss. But at the same time, there is an innate resilience among people who struggle through the regular realities of floods, typhoons, fire or drought.

They understand their place in the world, in the way of the ferocity of Mother Nature. And, mostly, they accept it. It is an attitude that knocks me over sometimes.

Physical structures and belongings seem to be less defining for these communities - in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand or Nepal. Life is precious and it can be fleeting.

And Japan is no stranger to the distress of disasters. But this one hurt more than most.

Stoicism does not help healing in towns left shocked by the country’s deadliest natural disaster since the unprecedented days in Fukushima - an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.

On July 7, a nation fatigued by disasters this century had another one to contend with.

When torrential rain - in some areas, remarkably, up to 15 inches over one weekend - soaked and overwhelmed western Japan it dredged up regret and long-buried memories.

I saw it and felt it as I walked through the muddy streets of Mabi, a town in Okayama prefecture. On some streets it seemed like only elderly people were braving a prolonged heat wave that followed the flood to clean up their homes.

Many of them told me about the last time their town was left underwater. It was 1972 and back then when the river burst it barely reached their waists on the streets, they said.

For a 71-year-old woman named Kyoko, this time, when she was standing on her first floor balcony waving for help to helicopters in the sky, it was a moment of unforeseen fear.

"I wasn’t expecting it to be like this. So we didn’t evacuate. We thought we could just go upstairs if the water got higher," she said. "And most of the people around here thought that too and stayed at home."

"The water came up to the ceiling on the first floor. There was a whirlpool. And then I started to feel very scared."

"I always saw disasters on the TV in other places and thought how hard it was for those people," she told me. "We are so tired. It’s so difficult for us. Now, I really understand."

That tale of surprise followed me throughout Mabi.

Everyone should have been prepared for this yet it seemed no-one was. Japan has a sophisticated alert system to warn residents of looming danger - I even received an evacuation order one day, tracking me to a very specific location, despite only using a tourist SIM card. Yet, when the skies opened on July 7, few followed the instructions.

It is hard to know what actions might have made a difference for these poor folk.

Leaving their house would not have saved their life belongings. It would not have stopped the imminent demolition of their homes, now left uninhabitable. The growing piles of discarded waste would still be there, laid out evidence of the fractured lives of thousands of victims.

Tsuyoshi, a fit-looking 75-year-old waited too long to be able to evacuate. He’s happy to be alive, he says, but he has little left but the framed photographs of his grandchildren that he’s pulled from the sodden interior of his home.
The death toll is more than 222 and dozens are still missing. No one needs to be reminded of the misfortune that could have befallen them.
Tsuyoshi Fukuchi holds the salvaged photos of his grandchildren. (Photo: Jack Board)

I went out in search of a young man in Mabi who had defied what even his parents believed he was capable of, to save 20 people in his inflatable boat when the floods hit.

Amid the expected hazy gloom that hung over the town, fuelled by frustration and fatigue, Hiroshi Nomura was a smiling beacon - a humble hero - when I met him.

After paddling his boat for some five hours pulling stricken neighbours from their rooftops, the 31-year-old collapsed and had to be rescued himself. He was taken to hospital barely able to speak but crying out that some people still needed help.

For hours he had cut a sole figure amid the dark grey skies and churning brown rapids. But when he could go no further, others stepped up in his place to finish what he had started.

“There are many kind and warm-hearted people so I hope that they will stay here together. I just want to continue to spend my life just how it was before,” Hiroshi told me as he cleaned up his grandparents’ house, full of mud and probably damaged beyond repair.

His attitude was uplifting after days of observing sadness. It reminded me of others I’d met in different countries, those who had lost so much but faced difficult days ahead with courage.

With an age-old unflappable facade but exposed soul, Japan, as a collective, will have to move forward after this. Another disaster will surely come some day.

As a witness to the wake of such moments though, I hope I won’t be returning soon.