The fire that came from the sea

The fire that came from the sea

A journey through the tsunami hit region of Japan March 2013. The images shown were part of a larger photographic project concerning Love & Loss (The Day After This Night : Love and Loss in the Orient - Further information, including exhibition review and book link under the gallery below)

The fire that came from the sea

A journey through the tsunami hit region of Japan March 2013. A brief extract from the book:


Amongst the wasteland that once was the city centre sits a lone ship. Vast and immoveable. Well, immoveable now – but previously lifted by the tsunami wave as if of no consequence and placed in the heart of the city. A shrine sits at its base. Underneath a car flattened as the retreating wave deposited the ship. A power cable reconnected to a house that is no longer there, serves a vending machine offering drinks and snacks to the workers.

The footprints of homes are everywhere. Row after row; full of reeds strangled by the frozen water. Strangely, elegant tiled steps rise up to these little frozen swimming pools. Mosaic tiled entrances leading to homes that no longer exist.

The People are busy. Reconstruction. Piles of debris created. These piles are removed day after day, by truck after truck load. Another year they say and it will be cleared. Where does this detritus go to, I wonder. Maybe where memories live.

Oshima Island

I meet a man on the island of Oshima. A beautiful, picturesque island outcrop that shelters Kesennuma City. It is a holiday resort – pine forests, pristine beaches and offers a chance to escape the city.

Marc is in his early forties, two children and works on the island at the Government run hostel resort. He had been a tuna fisherman, but gave up twenty years ago as the market was dying.

The tsunami struck in the afternoon. It was his day off.

The wave is 50ft high and rips across the shoreline – but unbeknownst to the islanders the wave, having circled the island and torn through Kesennuma city on the mainland starts to withdraw at huge speed. On the top of the retreating wave now sits 100s of houses with their roofs on fire. 50 ft up they collide with the north of the island and due to the increased water level height, the debris hits the pine forest and set fire to it. As the locals fight the damage at shore level, they send everyone to high ground, but suddenly the forest above them is on fire – there is no where to go. Now they have to fight the fire above and ignore the tsunami damage below. I say “the fire that came from the sea”. The man nods and agrees.

Kitakaki School

We take a road inland following the river line. At Kitakaki sits an infant school. It was gutted by the tsunami.

On hearing that the wave was approaching, the teachers gathered the little ones and took them to the third floor classrooms for safety. Then the wave came round the river bend – now so tall and powerful it dwarfs the school in height, and rips through this concrete structure as if it was made of paper. 74 of the 108 children, and 10 of 11 teachers are swept to their death.

I walk around the building on my own.

Lessons are on the boards, an incidental small chair, a toy, an entrance hall with a giant ‘mobile’ of all the planets suspended from the ceiling – now stripped of all but a few ‘globes’ that have survived. They hang in a silent restructured universe of their own.

It is almost more than I can cope with. I am quite speechless as I return
to the car.

Ghost Town

Continuing South, we head through Shiogama City, then Tagajo City and then the mood changes. You can’t immediately perceive what is different, but there is less traffic suddenly. It is becoming quieter, less busy.

In Natori we see the distant shoreline with the tall trees – a moving image hauntingly captured on YouTube as the wave advanced. Further south, and into the Iwanuma City region. You instinctively know that something is just not right.

Then we enter the ghost towns. These are real ghost towns – noodle bars with cigarette butts in ashtrays, plates on tables, garages selling tyres in racks…rows and rows of homes just frozen in time. The poor people having escaped the earthquake, and then the tsunami were then hit by the Fukushima nuclear disaster struck. They left – never to return. I am standing in a street of relatively undamaged homes, driveways intact, doors locked, hedgerows looking a bit shabby and a helpful sign states “No Ball Games’; a cartoon child figure looks alarmed having realised the perils of playing near a busy road supports the text. There are no cars, no traffic and no children to heed the sign’s well-intentioned advice.

Elsewhere, cars sit up turned in fields, vast concrete buildings (the size of my home) literally sitting on their side. It is at times like surveying a war zone. I am overwhelmed.

I wander into homes (ones hit by the waves) and entire walls are missing, but the beds or chairs are just sitting there – curtains blowing in the wind where the wall, below the curtain rail is no more. For no reason at all, one house remains; and yet surrounding it for a mile in every direction there is nothing – just geese eating the grass.

The dark dark side however is Fukushima. We drive up to the exclusion zone. Men in white suits and masks tell us we can go no further. “Get out and take their picture” says Everett. I am hesitant and make excuses to myself…In the end I get out and wander up. I speak no Japanese. These are but boys in uniform. I show them my camera and say I’m a journalist. Suddenly I believe, possibly I am one. They tell me to wait and radio to HQ. We wait. Yes you can take photos – they are beaming smiles behind their masks. They’re stars today and its the best thing that has happened in days.

Inescapable and invisible the real menace lingers. There can be no regeneration here – this will last 1000 years. Whereas everywhere else, there is hope; man and nature can get back to a new normal. But not here – man has truly screwed the natural order, and this is never going to go away; not for an inconceivable amount of generations.

The affects are still felt daily.


The images shown were part of a larger, three year photographic project:

The Day After This Night: Love and Loss in the Orient

Further information:

Exhibition Review – Please Visit>

To view extracts from the book – Please Visit>


All images & text Copyright Michael C Hughes