Children have a way of getting to the heart of things, and a new BBC documentary in the run-up to the anniversary of last year’s tsunami and nuclear crisis allows Japanese children the time and space to do exactly that.
“Children of the Tsunami,” which aired last week, relies heavily on the words of those affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, which killed at least 16,000 people, to present a fresh picture to the world’s desensitized eyes. It’s a moving story that should refocus minds on a country where so much loss and devastation so recently occurred.
Students from Okawa elementary school, where 74 children died in the tsunami, offer harrowing details about March 11, 2011, distilled down in a way only a child can do. “It was Manno’s birthday…she was my best friend,” says Fuka. “I didn’t realize I’d never see her again…So I didn’t even say goodbye to her.”
A classmate of Fuka’s echoes her feelings of sadness and grief: “There were 17 in my class. Four of us survived,” says 10-year-old Soma. “They’re probably watching me from above…They’re all by my side. They’re my friends, and I don’t want them to leave me. I don’t want everyone to disappear.”
The words of these kids really strike a chord.
Yet the documentary doesn’t try too clumsily to pull at our heartstrings. It plays it straight; we aren’t bombarded with overwrought music or indulgent montages. The young voices are allowed to speak for themselves. Coupled with images of the glistening sea set against wreckage, or the ubiquitous setting/rising sun images so often associated with Japan, we are reminded of both the suffering and devastation, but also of the beauty and dignity to be found in the country.
With over 340,000 people displaced, it’s clear this crisis is far from over for many Japanese. Yet while many are caught up in criticizing the Japanese government’s response to the disaster, making pronouncements on what should have been done and what could be being done now, these children are managing to put their best foot forward.
The adults in “Children of the Tsunami” are more visibly shaken. A mother, Naomi, describes finding her daughter’s lost body, which had been decapitated and picked apart by seagulls after being washed away in the tsunami. We see few histrionics in this documentary; a single tear glistens down Naomi’s cheek, almost blending with the sea behind her as she calmly tells her story.
One father isn’t as calm as he vents his anger at school officials, slamming an item of clothing down in front of a row of bowed heads: “See this shoe? All that’s left is this shoe. Is this all that’s left of my daughter?”
In the end, though, what “Children of the Tsunami” leaves us with is hope. It was uplifting to hear the children talk about how they want to “help people” when they grow up. Some even mention becoming radiation researchers or building safety technicians. “I want to work at weekends as a volunteer,” says 7-year-old Mutsumi. “I pity everyone who suffered during the disaster. Is pity the right word? They’ve had a hard time, so I want to help them.” The children seem mature beyond their years – and remarkably philosophical.
Despite the trauma, and the scars the disaster no doubt leaves, the capacity these young souls have for coping is extraordinary and moving. The documentary makers have rightly allowed these small voices to capture for themselves the magnitude of the disaster. There are a mass of programs scheduled to mark the anniversary, but few will be as delicate yet powerful as this.
“I’m not angry,” says Soma. “Sometimes nature is good to you, and sometimes it makes bad things happen. That’s something we have to accept. The sea has lots of fish in it…and we get to eat those fish…”
Trenton Truitt is a U.S.-based freelance writer. He lived in Tokyo for five years, including during the earthquake.