Ishinomaki: Then And Now


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  • The small town of Ishinomaki was one of the hardest hit from the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami. The tsunami traveled up to 8 kilometers inland and destroyed over 40% of the buildings, leaving the small town devastated.
  • Eight months after the tsunami, documentary filmmaker Paul Johannessen visited Ishinomaki and interviewed several residents to hear their stories of survival.
  • There, he found was a strong community working hard to rebuild their lives and their town.

The Makings of Ishinomaki

Documentary filmmaker Paul Johannessen previously joined a global project called One Day on Earth. A crowdsourced project which asked people to go out and film on a particular day, the footage would then be edited into a documentary. Wanting to do it again for 2011, Paul was living in Tokyo when he decided to do something related to the Tohoku disaster. Through a friend Jeffrey involved in the community aides, they ended up with Ishinomaki where the residents were very active in rebuilding their town.

With so many powerful footage 8 months after the tragedy, they decided to turn it into a full documentary film. The people who were featured in the film talked candidly about their experiences. Despite people leaving, many still want to stay in their town and rebuild it. These people were generations of families working together. If somebody wants to go somewhere else, it must be talked together with the family. People have a deep connection with their land, nature, and Japan.

The Community on the Ground

Paul and Anthony also talked about interesting characters in the film. Everyone had rallied together in a kaikan and turned it into a center where they organized their resources and looked after people. People seem to have gained an entrepreneurial spirit to continue with their lives. Some have opened temporary shops and even held a concert a year after the catastrophe. A man called Fujita-san had earlier redirected a truck full of aid to their town when it had not received help several days after tragedy struck. His story of survival and loss redirected his dreams of becoming a doctor in Okinawa to helping his town instead.

While many people died and others were still mourning over their loss, it was noted that some people started to go back to their old ways in politics. Going back to traditional channels and Japanese ways did not make the recovery easier and faster. The place had already been dealing with the loss of people growing old and moving into the big cities before the tragedy. Some decisions need to be made by the government first, thus the town will take a long time to rebuild.

Releasing the film online made it a huge hit with over 30,000 views. It generated a lot of interest and discussion from both Japan and abroad. People even reached out to Paul to have the film translated to other languages. It also generated a lot of interest to help and some even moved back to Japan!

Viewers can watch this inspiring film on Vimeo and also see Paul’s second documentary on the Women of Fukushima who offered their opinion on the state of the clean-up and the lies told to them by authorities after the disaster struck.

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