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Regional Feature 6 / Iwate, Morioka City, Rikuzentakata City

Ten Years Later, Prayers from Rikuzentakata
Visiting the studio of Asuka Tazaki, an artist who continues to paint after the earthquake disaster

Driving north on the Sanriku Expressway from Miyagi Prefecture to Iwate Prefecture. On a clear autumn morning, the sparkling sea is beautiful. In Kesennuma, after crossing the Kanae Ohashi Bridge, which opened in March 2021, and soon traversing the prefectural border into Rikuzentakata City. The gentle morning light illuminates the city, which is replete with flat and well-maintained vacant lots.

Ten years ago, the city of Rikuzentakata was hit by waves over 15 meters high, and houses were filled with rubble. As a result, 1,559 people died in Rikuzentakata as of March 1, 2021, and 202 people are still missing.

After the debris was removed, Rikuzentakata underwent a large-scale construction (embankment) project. The work will finally be completed, and the land will be reborn 10 meters above sea level. Currently, commercial facilities are opening one after another, and a new liveliness is beginning to emerge.

Artist Asuka Tazaki has been living in Rikuzentakata since he and his family moved there from Saitama Prefecture when he was in junior high school. His works often depict people close to him and nature and creatures that are part of his memory. His post-disaster works are said to contain his prayers for what was lost and for the future.

For the "Art Brut CREATION Nippon in IWATE," Asuka Tazaki and his family made a film about Rikuzentakata, which will be shown at Aiina Odajima-gumi Hall on Saturday, October 23.
On a certain day in September, a recording session was held, and I accompanied the filmmakers. Here, I would like to introduce Asuka himself, the background of his work, and the current appeal of Rikuzentakata, as revealed through the interview.

Asuka concentrates on painting on weekends in a quiet atelier surrounded by rice paddies.

Asuka and his father, Minoru, create their works in a remote cabin behind their house. The workspace also serves as a workshop for Minoru, a metal engraver, and the room is filled with various tools and materials.

Asuka sits down in front of a partially painted canvas, selects a color from one of the numerous tubes of paint, and hands it to Minoru. Minoru pours the paint onto a plate, loosens it with water, and returns it to Asuka. After receiving the plate, Asuka picks up a brush and spreads the color on the canvas without hesitation. Minoru supports Asuka as he paints since the excessive loosening of the paint will cause it to drip on the canvas.

After the earthquake disaster, Asuka and his family moved their home and studio near the sea to the mountains. The studio is very quiet, as the area is surrounded by rice paddies with only a handful of houses. The only sounds one hears are the clashing of plates, the sound of rice harvesting machines in the distance, the wind rustling the leaves, and the occasional purr of Leo, the cat.

From Monday to Friday, Asuka works as a wakame seaweed processor at "Asunaro Home," a support center for disabled people based in Rikuzentakata City. On weekends, he paints as such. During his longer stretches, he paints intensively from 9:00 to 16:00. In addition to acrylic paintings, he sometimes creates drawings.

Much was lost from the earthquake disaster The Changes in Asuka's paintings seen by his father, Minoru

Asuka says that he has been interested in exhibition catalogs since he was a child. Minoru, his father, said, "There is absolutely no obstacle to sensitivity. I want him to use his senses to express himself," and he suggested that Asuka draw pictures.

He lived in Niiza City in Saitama Prefecture until his elementary school days. After inviting a painting teacher to a group for disabled people he began creating artworks in the early grades of elementary school. Even after moving to his mother Miyoko’s hometown of Rikuzentakata City in his first year of middle school, he continued to study under a painting teacher and created works. In 2000, he received the Excellence Award at the Third Iwate Kirara Art Collection and an Honorable Mention at the "Eighth Iwate Prefecture Culture and Art Festival for Disabled People." However, all of his works created prior to the earthquake were washed away by the tsunami.

Before the disaster, Asuka lived in the Imaizumi area of Kesen-cho, near the sea. Near his house, the Kesen River flows into the sea. Upon the earthquake strike, his and other homes in the neighborhood were all washed away. All that was left was a pile of rubble where his home used to be.

After the disaster, Asuka did not pick up his brush for a while, but he started painting again when an acquaintance asked if he would paint for an exhibition. However, when Minoru saw Asuka's new paintings, he felt that they were "wild and violent, different from his previous paintings.”
The first painting he did after the disaster was called "People Who Became Stars.” The six people in the painting were members of the same group as Asuka's family in the neighborhood association where they lived before the earthquake. They died in the earthquake.

What surprised Minoru were the intense colors, which were not used in his previous works. Lips were purple, and clothes were all blue, which he found bizarre.
For a while after the earthquake disaster, Asuka painted many of these intense paintings, but after five or six paintings, he returned to his previous style. “I think painting is a way for Asuka to sort out his feelings," said Minoru. He apparently drew the flowers as a prayer, with the hope that "everyone is having a good time in heaven."

The transformed sacred tree (Goshinboku) and the safeguarded "Fighting (Kenka) Tanabata"


There are more works related to the area before the earthquake. A large tree fills the vertical canvas. This is the sacred tree of Imaizumi Tenmangu Shrine, which was located near the old house. It was a magnificent cedar tree, estimated to be 800 to 1,000 years old, but due to the damage caused by the tsunami, the decision was made to cut it down soon after the earthquake.

In the process of painting a single picture, Asuka sometimes adds layers with entirely different colors, and as for the sacred tree painting, "At first, the colors were so intense that you could feel the grudge of the cedar," says Minoru. Gradually, however, they became more colorful, and in the end, lush leaves were added. Many people who appreciate the paintings say that they feel the life force of the trees.

I also visited the Imaizumi area where Asuka and his family used to live. At Imaizumi Tenmangu Shrine stands the trunk of the sacred tree after it was cut down and the new shrine building, just completed in June 2021. Minoru mentioned, "The land around the shrine has been raised, but it used to be on higher ground than the town."

Imaizumi Tenmangu Shrine is very well known to the people of this area. The summer festivals in Rikuzentakata are the "Fighting Tanabata" festival in Kesen-cho, where Asuka and his friends lived, and the "Moving (Ugoku) Tanabata" festival in Takada-cho. Both are major summer events, and the local people are passionate about their festivals.

In the "Kenka Tanabata," held every year on August 7, four neighborhood associations in Kesen-machi parade mountain carts (yama-guruma) decorated with poems on paper strips and wind streamers and go around the town. A competition is held by colliding the mountain carts together.

The mountain cart of the neighborhood association to which Asuka's family belongs joins three other carts of neighboring associations and depart. Asuka also went to view the floats on the day of the festival.

From the earthquake disaster, the tools used for the festival, the floats, and the friends who made the festival so exciting were lost. That could have been the end of the festival, but they held the festival again in 2011 with the one remaining cart. The following year, a new cart was built, and the "kenka" (fighting), in which two floats collide, was revived.

Asuka puts his heart in his work: Kesen Junior High School and a lone pine tree

After touring the Imaizumi area, I visited Kesen Junior High School, where Asuka and his mother Miyoko once attended. The area where Kesen Junior High School is located is developed as the "Takada Matsubara Tsunami Reconstruction Memorial Park”. In addition to Kesen Junior High School, the "Miracle Lone Pine Tree" and the "Rikuzentakata Youth Hostel" have been preserved as the remains of the earthquake disaster and are open to the public. (The interior of the school building can only be visited on tours.)
On March 11, 2011, the tsunami reached further than the roof of the three-story school building at Kesen Junior High School. Windows were broken, and classrooms were destroyed. It was fortunate that no one was killed at Kesen Junior High School. This was because they had been practicing evacuation drills to escape to nearby high ground.

The "Miracle Lone Pine Tree" is the sole survivor of "Takada Matsubara," a beautiful pine forest that was once one of Japan's top 100 scenic spots. However, the damage caused by the seawater was so severe that it was eventually confirmed to be dying, and a preservation project was launched to save it before it collapsed and decayed. We can see the "Miracle Lone Pine Tree" today because the foundation was replaced with concrete, and other repairs were made.
There is a work by Asuka related to Kesen Junior High School and the lone pine tree. It is a picture of four black-tailed gulls staring at the sea and a pine tree with an impressive pink background.

Kesen Junior High School, built near the mouth of the river, was a school where black-tailed gulls came to play on the balcony every day. When Asuka was in junior high school, there was only one black-tailed gulls that came to visit, and it was missing one leg. Minoru explains the connection between the black-tailed gulls and Asuka. "A girl who was his classmate at the time told me about the one-legged petrel at an oratorical contest. Afterward, she recounted about Asuka, saying, 'Some of my friends have disabilities, too’. It was an important memory for Asuka that everyone accepted him."

The painting of the lone pine tree has a slightly darker tone than the other paintings displayed in the studio. A lone pine tree stands straight up against the blue sea. The background is black and purple, with red, yellow, and orange painted over it. The green leaves and the pink bordering the leaves stand out against the overall heavy impression of the background.

This work was painted relatively early after the earthquake. For a while after the disaster, Asuka was afraid to go near the sea, but every time he passed by the lone pine tree, he kept looking in that direction, so Minoru suggested, "Why don't you paint it?"

There is one part of the intensely colored work that is attention-drawing. On the left side of the painting, the pink color extends downward from the pine leaves. Visitors to his studio seem to feel the same way, and one of them told Minoru, "It looks like the pine tree is saying 'goodbye' and shedding tears."

The exhibition at the new Rikuzentakata City Hall and its connection with Singapore

Asuka is currently working on a piece for an exhibition at the new Rikuzentakata City Hall building. The old city hall building was completely destroyed by the tsunami, and many people died. After the earthquake, a temporary government building was used for a long time, but the new government building opened on May 6, 2021. The seven-story building is a modern building constructed with a lot of wood. The citizen exchange space is on the first floor, and an observation lobby on the seventh floor is open to everyone. From the observation lobby on the seventh floor, one can view the city of Rikuzentakata and Hirota Bay and compare aerial photographs taken before and after the earthquake on the panels displayed near the windows.

A decision was made to display Asuka's works in the exhibition space on the first floor. Minoru said, "We would like the public to see his work, as it incorporates prayers for those who died."

A project that transcends national borders is also underway. Asuka and the users of Asunaro Home, the people of Rikuzentakata City, and the disabled people of Singapore will collaborate to create a single work. Using tablet devices, the students of Takata High School will compile the data from each person's drawings into a single workpiece.

Blessings of the Mountains, the Sea, and Unique Architecture

During our interviews with Asuka and his family, the subject of food in Rikuzentakata came up. In fact, Asuka's studio also serves as his mother Miyoko's bakery, "Gaganiko”. The bread at Gaganiko is made with mugworts from the area around their home, vegetables from Rikuzentakata, and fruits.

Although Rikuzentakata is often associated with seafood, it also produces apples and Japanese citrons (yuzu). Rikuzentakata, with its relatively mild climate, is well suited for citrus production and is the northernmost yuzu-producing area in Japan. The yuzu produced there is called "Yuzu from the northern limit (Hokugen no Yuzu)". The chiffon cakes made at Asunaro Home, where Asuka works, are made with "Yuzu from the northern limit" and emanates the elegant aroma of fresh yuzu.

As for seafood, wakame seaweed, scallops, oysters, and Ezo ishikage clams are local specialties. The aquaculture industry in Hirota Bay is also undergoing reconstruction.

The "Cardium californiense" clams (Ezoishikaze-kai or Ishigaki-gai) are large double-shelled clams used for sushi, but those from Rikuzentakata are the only ones available in Japan. Clams from Hirota Bay fetch the highest price in the Toyosu market. This is because Hirota Bay is a large, quiet bay and is not easily affected by typhoons. Normally, clams are cultivated over two years, but in Hirota Bay, they can be grown over three years, which allows them to grow bigger. These seafood blessings of Rikuzentakata can be enjoyed at restaurants in the city.

While many old restaurants remain in the inland areas, new restaurants and facilities are opening in the coastal areas where the elevation work has been completed.

From time to time, I come across unique buildings that make me think, "Whoa." For example, Kengo Kuma's "Town Edge" (tourist information center) and Toyo Ito's "Exchange Facility Honmaru House."

In the Kesen area of Iwate, which includes Rikuzentakata, there has been a group of carpenters called "Kesen carpenters" since the Edo period. They were craftsmen who built houses and temples, fittings, and anything else that could be conjured. They were also active in the reconstruction of Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake.

Against such a backdrop, the "architecture" has become a part of Rikuzentakata's identity. Many new masterpieces of architecture have been built in Rikuzentakata, perhaps because the area has a high sensitivity to architecture. By the way, the architecture and materials related to Kesen carpenters can be seen at the Kesen Carpenter's Left Bank Tradition Museum.

Continuing to express in this place, "Retaining in memory for a long time"

With the reconstruction of Rikuzentakata progressing, the tourist facilities and the remains of the disaster are now set up. Observing the area through Asuka's works and his background, we can see it not within the larger framework of the "disaster-stricken area," but rather within Asuka's personal scope and surroundings.

At the end of the interview, Minoru shared his present thoughts. "A lot of things were lost in the earthquake. Thanks to everyone's support, we were able to get back on our feet, but there are still people who are badly affected, and there are still people who are missing. Ten years have passed since the disaster, and the city is recovering. I feel that the city is gradually being forgotten, but I hope that people will remember it for a long time. As for disabled people, he left the following message: "Disabled people tend to be isolated. I hope we can all connect with each other before we become isolated."

During the interview, I was impressed by the intense and affectionate eyes of Minoru and Miyoko and Asuka’s trust towards his family and surrounding friends. When asked if he liked painting at the end of the interview, Asuka answered without hesitation, "I love it."

Interviewer author: Furaido Erika Nagumo,
Photo: Furaido (http://furaido.net) / Rikuzentakata City Tourism and Product Association
Interview collaboration: Iwate Social Welfare Organization
Asunaro Home in Rikuzentakata City