Nov 162011

Minami Sanriku, a former fishing village, was destroyed in March of 2011 by the Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Buildings were completely demolished, cars and trucks were moved from one side of the village to another, friends and loved ones were lost, and survivors are now scarred for life by the significant trauma. How does one overcome these traumas? Perhaps, the process of recovery begins with the ability to share one’s experiences, to speak up, and be listened to. There needs to be a platform or framework developed that allows for a dialogue between speaker and listener. The conversation can be amongst members of the family unit, between friends, or even between survivors and outsiders. Whoever these characters are, there is a voice that needs to be heard, with a story that needs to be narrated, and there is a need to create a platform or an opportunity for where this conversation can take place.

As a member of a group project for the Zones of Emergency course at MIT, I participated in the design of a project that would offer that very framework deemed necessary to allow the survivors to speak up about whatever issues or non-issues they wanted to share. Our proposed framework came to be a sort of ritualistic mapping of narrative. Through the combination of object and passage, we’ve created a portal way into the former village of Minami Sanriku. For one day each year, the people of the village, those who have left and those who remained, will gather at the highest point of the village. At this point, each person will be given a large balloon attached to a string, and at the bottom of the string is a bag filled with a mixture of flower seeds and fertilizer. The bag offers two opportunities: 1. to hold the balloon down as a weight; and, 2. to serve as a tangible marker that gets spread on significant points of memory by the hands of the speaker or survivor.

The process of planting the flower is a mechanical recalling of the person’s individual memories. As the plants begin to grow over the years, these memories become a permanent part of Minami Sanriku’s landscape, giving life to the former landscape that the people of Minami Sanriku cherished and remember fondly.  And each year, as the survivors return to these sites and visit their planted flowers, they are able to reflect on the past, while at the same time create a vision for the future. The flowers simultaneously allow for a reflective healing and a resilient hope.

As day turns to night, lights inside the balloons begin to brighten and the large balloons glow. The people of the village continue from point to point, with glowing balloon in one hand, and seeds in the other. They pass from one memory to another – memories from their past, memories of their family’s past, memories of their friends’ pasts. Paths intersect, memories cross, and a collective identity is formed. Through this ritual with objects in hand, a map is produced of Minami Sanriku’s former life and of the collective identity of the village’s inhabitants. Throughout this entire process, a camera overhead captures the creation of this map: streets and paths between new plants are actually strings of thought retracing the steps between memories and newly planted open areas actually represent cherished moments in a person’s life.

At the end of the day’s event, the participants meet at the water front – with bags empty and light-filled balloons in hand. The final product is a moving memory map – a video of the ritual. The map holds in it mobile objects that tell the story of Minami Sanriku as narrated by its own people.

This is our proposed gift to the people of Minami Sanriku – the memory of place, the memory of a past time, and the memory of an identity.