Following Japan’s 2011 earthquake, a furious tsunami swept away an entire forest of pine in the city of Rikuzentakata. The single surviving tree has become a national symbol of hope and a local reminder of pain.
By Joshua Hunt
A day before the 4th anniversary of the Great Eastern Earthquake and Tsunami, a woman takes a photograph in front of the miracle tree on March 10, 2015, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate, Japan. (Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
On Christmas Day last year, an hour before the sun slipped behind the hills surrounding Rikuzentakata, in northeastern Japan, Hiroko Funamoto and her teenage son strolled along a narrow path toward a tall, lonesome pine tree at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. In blue jeans and a gray anorak, the small woman walked with the exaggerated, erect posture that one adopts when wearing a kimono. Her son, dressed in chinos and a dark hooded sweatshirt, slouched forward, his hands pulled up into his sleeves to protect against the cool December air.
Every few minutes, strong winds blew in off the sea that sustains this small fishing community.
Not long ago, a forest of 70,000 pines would have tempered these gusts. But on March 11, 2011, following the biggest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, a furious tsunami washed them away. The tsunami also killed 7 percent of Rikuzentakata’s residents.
Four years after the disaster, nearly one-third of the tsunami victims still showed signs of clinical depression.
When the waters receded, the entire 250-year-old forest went with it — all except for one tree. Known as ippon matsu, or “the lone pine,” the tree stands alone, 89 feet tall, in front of the moldering ruins of a two-story youth hostel. It is considered both a miracle and a monument.
“I saw the tsunami from higher ground as it approached,” Funamoto says. “It was 15 meters high, like a wall, and it just kept coming. It really is a miracle that this tree survived.”
Her son had just returned home from Kyoto University, where he studied history, for the winter break. His mother told me she brought him here because she never wants him to forget what happened that day.
“It’s a symbol,” he says. “A symbol of Rikuzentakata and of all that was lost.”
Twenty minutes after the Funamoto family left, Keita Iwase arrived and asked me to use his iPhone to snap a photograph of him beneath the tree. He’d come all the way from Chiba prefecture, near Tokyo, a four-hour journey by train. Each year, on the anniversary of the earthquake, he’d seen news programs about the “miracle pine” of Rikuzentakata.
“For me, it symbolizes the resilience of the Japanese people,” Iwase says. “I had to see it for myself.”
When saltwater poisoned the tree’s roots in September 2012, Internet commenters and newspaper columnists protested the use of public funds for a restoration estimated to cost 150 million yen. A donation campaign helped raise the funds, but the tree could by then only be preserved, not saved.
Its roots now sit in a museum just down the road. The pine itself stands with the aid of a metal skeleton inserted beneath its bark. For some outsiders, it’s an abomination. But for the people of Rikuzentakata, it’s real enough: From a distance, its silhouette looks the same; and, up close, its bark feels to me like that of any other pine.
The miracle pine has come to be seen as a kind of totem, a sign of hope in a country still reeling from the disaster and still coming to terms with the fact that another one is inevitable. It is, as the history student says, a place to remember all that was lost.
A version of this story first appeared in the
of Pacific Standard.
For others, it’s just another reminder of all that they’d like to forget. Few communities were affected by the disaster as deeply as Rikuzentakata, where close to 2,000 people perished, including one-third of its municipal officials. Three years after the disaster, government researchers found that mental illness had taken a serious toll on Rikuzentakata’s survivors. An annual re-construction budget includes nearly a quarter of a million dollars earmarked for costs associated with mental health care. Four years after the disaster, nearly one-third of the tsunami victims still showed signs of clinical depression.
A local doctor named Akira Unoura says most of his patients in the years since have suffered from insomnia, headaches, stomach pains, and other symptoms that seem to be related to the stress of survivor’s guilt. He advises counseling. Because of the stigma attached to mental illness, he says, only about half agree to it.
In the flat, wide plain just shouting distance from the ocean, rice and vegetable fields stretch all the way to the foot of the surrounding mountains. From the vantage point of the tree-lined hillside community above the empty expanse, the lone pine seems determined to remind the lucky of the unlucky. The survivors who witnessed the carnage below witness it still, when they look out upon that single tree.
I ate Christmas dinner alone at a sushi restaurant in one of Rikuzentakata’s hillier districts. Between bites of fresh salmon and fatty tuna, I drank sake and traded stories with Ozawasan, the shop’s owner. At the end of the evening, I told the tall, muscular sushi chef that I’d spent my day at ippon matsu. I told him I wanted to understand how the Japanese felt about it.
“Well, it would be very strange if you saw someone who wasn’t Japanese down there,” he told me.
“Have you been there?” I asked.
“No, I’ve never been there,” he said. “And I don’t ever want to go. A lot of people I knew died down there.”
I took a taxi down to the bottom of the steep hill, then walked in darkness down the path that leads to the miracle pine. Each night, the tree is illuminated, and I wanted to catch a glimpse of the memorial beneath the lights. The winds had grown stronger, the air much colder. The gusts that whipped through the tall grass lining the path sounded to me like a thousand mouths gasping for air.
At the water’s edge, the tree stood as radiant in the moonlight as it had beneath the late afternoon sun. But all around it was darkness, as though the forest that vanished on March 11th, 2011, somehow still cast its shadow over this place.