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Fading Memories

Rikuzentakata's seafront was once regarded as one of the most scenic in Japan, with the golden sands of its two kilometer-long beach separating the clear blue waters of the Pacific Ocean from its famous forest of an estimated seventy thousand pine trees. Originally planted in 1667, local merchants had funded the planting of the forest as a barrier to prevent flooding of the town from high tides, or from tsunamis. However, when a colossal earthquake struck off the coast of northeast Japan on March 11th 2011, the forest afforded little protection. Facing southwards in the direction of the epicenter, Rikuzentakata's plight was compounded by the city's elevation above sea level dropping by 84 centimeters. The gigantic tsunami that 'wiped Rikuzentakata off the map' is calculated to have been 18.3 metres in height; it obliterated the forest, leaving a solitary tree standing after the waters receded. The unimaginable inundation that reached and stormed through the fourth floors of apartment blocks facing the sea, claimed the lives of 1,656 people of Rikuzentakata. Of the city's neighbourhoods, over 70% of homes were damaged or destroyed.

Walking the deserted, dusty streets of Rikuzentakata almost eight months after the devastation, it's only the steel-structured buildings that have been left standing, empty and haunting, some with personal memorials set up where bodies were found, or with shrines of remembrance for the living to pay their respects to those who perished.

The debris churned up and mangled by the waters has mostly been cleared away for processing and recycling. Salvaged personal items have been set aside, placed in woven plastic baskets, boxes or random drawers, and left on street corners or next to public buildings for collection. There are dirtied children's soft toys, mobile phones personalised with stickers, spectacles, faded Japanese dolls, broken sports trophies and family photo albums: dozens and dozens of lifetimes and memories waiting to be collected.

The weather is gradually working its destruction on the histories of families and communities: from the snows that fell shortly after the catastrophe to the searing heat and blinding sunshine of the Japanese summer and through successive deadly typhoons.

Some albums were deposited in plastic trays that had no drainage, so are now submerged in water. Other solitary albums are found abandoned on street corners, blowing in the wind, coated in dust and grit. There are some older black and white photographs in the albums, but most of the images are in colour, dating from the early 1970s to the dawn of the digital era. From their edges, when rain begins to spread, the dyes of the prints run and mingle sometimes creating vivid, swirling patterns of colour; and gradually the small, personal details of everyday life in Rikuzentakata are lost forever.
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