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After 2011 Japan tsunami, Hawaii photographer captured images of loss and resilience

Updated: Mar. 10, 2021 at 6:04 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Ten years ago, a massive earthquake rocked Japan.

The magnitude-9.0 quake triggered a deadly tsunami that ravaged coastal communities, including Mei Ito’s home town of Onagawa.

“The wave washed out almost 80% of the houses,” she said.

Nearly 20,000 people were killed. Huge areas lay in ruins.

“It really hits you when you see it for yourself,” Hawaii photographer Ray Tabata said.

One year after the natural disaster, he began what would become annual visits to Japan’s hardest hit areas.

“By then a lot of the debris was already cleaned up. But even then, you look at the devastation. These whole areas were just wiped out,” he said.

With his camera, he documented what he saw.

“I have a picture of a busted up bicycle in the foreground, and in the background is this ship. It shows you that the tsunami carried these ships pretty far inland,” he said.

After the tsunami, the Japan-America Society of Hawaii partnered with other organizations to raise about $4 million in disaster relief funds for Japan.

JASH president Reyna Kaneko said donations poured in from all over the state and from the mainland.

“I think everybody around the world felt the pain that the Japanese in the Tohoku region were experiencing,” she said.

JASH also coordinated the “Rainbow for Japan Kids” program that brought hundreds of middle school and high school students from Japan’s devastated areas to Hawaii to rest and recuperate.

Ito was one of the youngsters who made the trip.

“We did camping and we visited a beautiful beach,” she said.

It was the first time she touched the ocean after witnessing the destruction of the Japan tsunami.

Over the years, Tabata has taken thousands of photographs on his yearly trips to Japan to commemorate the anniversary of the disaster.

“I’ve always enjoyed photojournalism,” he said.

His photographs show areas that have not been rebuilt and areas that have improved. But it’s the people he has met and photographed that have made the biggest impression.

“These are the survivors,” he said. “Many of them lost families and friends because whole communities were destroyed.”

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