As British Ambassador to Japan in March 2011, I was part of the first diplomatic team that was deployed to Sendai, the centre of the area affected by the earthquake and tsunami, 36 hours after the initial disaster. While the damage there was less than the initial media reports had suggested, we only had to go a few miles out of the city to see the devastation wrought by the tidal waves that had surged across the land, up the creeks and rivers, demolishing buildings and piling up mountains of earth, rubble, and debris everywhere. When we reached the coastal towns and villages that had borne the full force of the tsunami, the sheer destruction was shocking and distressing. Thriving communities had been obliterated. No one who witnessed those scenes can ever forget them.
What I also saw was enormous courage, resilience, and generosity on the part of those who had survived this unimaginable horror and who patiently turned to help those who had avoided this destructive tidal wave, as well as visitors—like us—seeking to find and help foreign residents of the area. There were several hundred Britons, and thousands from other countries, who wanted to be assisted to safety and return to their homes in due course. Over the succeeding months and years, we saw that courage and fortitude repeatedly on display as the communities affected by this awful disaster slowly began to rebuild their lives.
Lieko Shiga’s photographs evoke the elemental nature of the coastline and the forces that inflicted such destruction that day, and the haunting emptiness of the area after the waves had passed over. In my mind’s eye, I populate them with the people I saw then, responding bravely and with dignity after the waters receded and the difficult and painful process of reconstruction began.