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On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and a tsunami struck coastal Japan, killing 200 residents of Kesen, a centuries-old village. Only two of the 550 homes were not destroyed, and most of the survivors moved away. But 15 residents vowed to stay and rebuild the village, and Hiroko Masuike, a New York Times photographer and Japanese native, traveled twice a year from New York over the past decade to chronicle their efforts.
Last month, a photo essay and article told the story of their determination during the past 10 years. In an interview, Ms. Masuike discussed the evolution of her project.
Many cities and villages were devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. Why did you decide to focus on Kesen?
When the tsunami happened, I had to be there because my home country was going through a major disaster. Rikuzentakata, the city where Kesen is, was one of the hardest hit. I had a vacation planned, but 12 days after the tsunami, I landed at the nearest airport. I started to photograph the debris and people at an evacuation center in Rikuzentakata, but I was still numb.
One day, I was driving in Kesen and saw a small temple on higher ground. Ten people were living there, and across the town, there were other people living among the debris. They were very different from any other people living in evacuation centers — they were so energetic. The second day when I visited the people in the temple, they told me, “If you want to stay with us, you can.” I started photographing how they lived: They built a small shack where we ate; they made a bonfire every day; they would try to clean up the place. They were hoping to reunite their community.
How did this go from photographing the aftermath of a major disaster to a long-term project?
When I first went there, everyone opened up to me and put their trust in me. I didn’t want to be someone who goes to a disaster zone and then, when the news fades, leaves and never returns. So I just kept going back, photographing everybody each time and catching up on how they were doing. During the 10 years, I was able to spend plenty of time with survivors and capture the right moment. I tried to be a good listener — I think they wanted to tell someone their stories, feelings and frustrations. So they opened to me even more when I kept returning.
What were you hoping to capture at the outset of the piece?
I was hoping this community was going to rebuild. My first trip back was in October 2011, and the government had started building prefabricated houses, so people were living there — except this guy, Naoshi, who lost his son, a volunteer firefighter, to the quake. He thought that because his son’s spirit might come back, he had to be at the same location, so he rebuilt his house in August 2012. And I was hoping to capture when the temple would be rebuilt, because it had been the center of the community for centuries.
Were there any challenges you faced with this project over the past decade?
Most of the time when I went back, there were no changes in the community. The temple was rebuilt in 2017, but Rikuzentakata told survivors that they couldn’t rebuild their homes where their houses once stood. Authorities worked on raising the level of the land for residential use. But construction took a lot longer than they thought, and many people couldn’t wait that long and moved elsewhere, and the land remained empty. When I went back this year for the 10th anniversary, the construction was complete, and seeing the vacant area was stunning: The village was once full of people and houses, but 10 years later, there was nothing.
Will you continue to photograph Kesen?
I probably don’t need to go back twice a year. But the people I’ve been photographing are making some progress. One person is going to open a dog-friendly cafe this summer. So I would like to keep visiting and photographing their lives. I’ve been seeing them for 10 years. It’s hard to stop.