Photos by Kiyotaka Shishido
Kiyotaka Shishido is a photographer based in Japan. Born in Sendai, Miyagi, Shishido traveled to North America to study documentary photography. In 1966, he established Kiyotaka Shishido Photography Studio in his hometown Sendai. From 1993 he has been photographing second generation Japanese Americans in the U.S. His work has received Ina Nobuo Award from Nikon Corporation and Art Encouragement Prize from Miyagi Prefectural Government. Shishido exhibits regularly in Sendai and in Tokyo and is a member of Japan Professional Photographers Society.
To my friends in Chicago:
A photograph comes into its existence the moment one puts his mind on the shutter button. I have always believed this as I had spent my life taking photographs, but the tsunami destroyed even this belief and took it away from me with its receding waves. On March 11, 2011, the day the earth howled and the ground shook, I was in my mountainside office on the outskirt of Sendai. I first heard a loud sound of the initial impact and then felt a large earthquake rocking my body over and over. Not knowing what had happened, I turned on the radio and heard that the town I knew so well had become submerged in a tsunami.
Four days later, I went to the area stricken by the tsunami and saw towns and lives in ruins stretching several kilometers along the coastlines. Unsteadily walking among muddy puddles and debris, I smelled foul odor of decay through my mask. Crushed fishing boats and pickup trucks were rolled all over the rice paddies and fields, and a house, ripped from its foundation, was floating on the river. I kept pressing on the shutter button of my camera, but I could not project my feeling onto the picture frame—I was only pressing the button. My photographs showed only the “emptiness” in which lives had been lost, and I felt myself unable to portray the reality of the situation through my eyes.
For about 30 years, I have been taking photographs of second generation Japanese Americans during World War II as my life’s work. While working with them, I often heard the phrase, “It is what it is.” Seeking a better life, first generation Japanese immigrants put emphasis on the education of their children, even in poverty. Some of their children had gone to college and were thought to have improved the social status of Japanese Americans. Nevertheless, the Pearl Harbor incident happened. Soon after the attack, the Japanese Americans in mainland U.S. lost their property to confiscation and were sent to ten internment camps throughout the United States. During that time, the Japanese Americans endured the unreasonableness of their situation by saying, “It is what it is.”
There are still more than 170,000 people living in temporary housings in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. The reality is: on top of losing family members and homes, the prolonged living in privacy-deprived temporary housing is causing some of these people to choose to end their own lives. Even in this situation, I often hear, “Shikataganai (It is what it is)” among the disaster victims. Four years have passed since the disaster and the recovery has certainly progressed. Reconstruction of embankments and seafood processing factories has helped to rebuild the fishing industry, which is a key industry of the coastal area. The land cleared of debris is now crowded with dirt mounds for ground leveling. In order to stabilize the lives of disaster victims, some public housing projects have already started to move the people out of temporary housing. Still, along the 600 km total extension of the disaster area, there are towns with dwindling populations. Some areas are unable to produce their own recovery force without the help of outside volunteers. The longer the recovery takes, the more young people will leave their towns to seek new jobs in different parts of Japan.
When I look up the word “shikataganai” in a dictionary, it means “can’t do anything/can’t be helped/can’t stand.” However, the true meaning of the word changes depending on what comes after the word. While Japanese Americans have accepted a situation that could not have been helped, they still made their best efforts to turn around their future. Buddhist priest Rev. Nakamura, who has supported various recovery efforts after the disaster, said he wanted to tell people that “the disaster is still ongoing.” I feel the same way while taking photographs of the disaster areas. The Tokyo Olympics of 1964 became a symbol of recovery for Japan that faced national crises following the loss of the Pacific War. In 2020, 9 years after the disaster, the second Olympics are scheduled again in Tokyo. There are concerns that the construction for the Olympics may stall the recovery efforts. But I feel it depends on the people’s effort, including mine, to make the Olympics a symbol of recovery once again. Looking just at Sendai’s situation, the distance between the coastal and inland areas is becoming greater. For those who live outside of the affected area, the disaster might already be an event from the past. However, the people who currently live there are still struggling to rebuild their lives in a situation they call “shikataganai.” If the people around the world will remember this in the back of their minds, the new bud grown out of the disaster-stricken land will lay down its roots in the ground and survive, even stronger than before.
– Kiyotaka Shishido