Three years ago, Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, lost one in 10 of its residents to the tsunami of March 11. Now, one-fourth of the population of 20,000 lives in temporary housing. Prefab construction is the norm.
Everywhere there are signs of rebuilding. Bulldozers dot the mountainsides, trucks outnumber passenger cars, and a steel conveyor belt moves earth to create elevated, flat ground as it starts to redefine the horizon and bridge the past with the future.
More than 70,000 pine trees once stood at Takata Matsubara, but only the ippon matsu, or lone "miracle pine," held its ground in the wake of the wave. It didn't long survive – now replaced by a replica. But ippon matsu lives on as a symbol of hope, and the resilience of those who lost so much to the tsunami.
It inspired "kibou no ippon matsu" or "the tree of hope," a steel miniature standing one-tenth the height of the original, wrought by the member companies of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA).
Nine technicians from Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mazda and Hino first saw and sketched ippon matsu last September. Since then, they have crafted the model through the pounding and welding of steel, from all 4,000 pieces of its bark to 1,000 pine needles and 20 pine cones – seven made from vehicle scrap metal salvaged nearby.
They demonstrated their techniques to middle school students before a ceremony to present the replica to the city.
Nissan technician Ippei Katagir from Kesennuma, 20 minutes south of Rikuzentakata, said the support Japanese car manufacturers can provide towns like his is clear. "I think we just have to build good and affordable cars," said Katagiri. "That's what we have to do."
It is also important to remember, he says. "I would like for people who haven't been here yet to visit and remember what happened here," said Katagiri.
Here, nothing is untouched by that memory: the people gathered at the ceremony, its moment of silence, and the song sung by the students "Asu toiu hi ga" ("If Tomorrow Comes"). The team who built the replica then presented it to the Mayor of Rikuzentakata Futoshi Toba, whose comments on the ceremony echoed those of Katagiri.
"It has been three years since the disaster, so everybody is starting to forget about it. In that sense, it is very meaningful to have received the pine tree this year," said Toba. "I am not willing to ask other industries for specific requests. I only ask that they don't forget that the recovery is still ongoing."
JAMA Chairman Akio Toyoda explained the "kibou no ippon matsu" was an opportunity to unite across differences. The idea originated in his company of Toyota, but only came to fruition through the cooperation of 14 Japanese carmakers.
"Among all the different industries, our mission as a car industry is to build better cars, encourage the automobile parts manufacturers, and deliver the cars all over the world," said Toyoda. "I am very proud that we could join as one to work together. I also feel more confident in the core strength of Japanese craftsmanship."
That craftsmanship has enhanced Rikuzentakata's own symbol of hope, for others to see and learn from, as the recovery continues in Tohoku.