A 15-year-old girl, Masako Kobayashi, sat alone on a hill a few weeks after Japan was hit by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, a disaster that struck on March 11, killed almost 16,000 people and led to the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown. She gazed at the devastated land for hours. More than 200 residents of Kesen, her small community within the coastal city of Rikuzentakata, were dead. Of some 550 homes, all but two were destroyed. Most survivors left, but about 15 residents refused to abandon their town, living amid the debris for months without electricity or water.
Masako, now 22, was one of them. She had survived the disaster along with her father, Nobuo, the chief monk of the temple; her mother, Kouko; and her older brother, Takamasa. She lost her house and all of her belongings, and the most important thing for her family — the Kongoji Temple, the historic Buddhist temple according to Nobuo had been established about 1,200 years ago and had been the heart of the community for centuries — had washed away.
I was born in Tokyo and first came to the United States in 1998. I rarely travelled back to Japan, but was distraught when I saw the news of the devastating tsunami in 2011. I rushed from New York to the disaster area as quickly as I could.
When I arrived, there was so much debris in every city on the coastline, and sadly, everything started to look the same to me. Then I came across Fudoudo, a small temple building where the Kobayashis had taken refuge. A few months after the disaster, the Kobayashis moved to another nearby temple. While continuing to work as a monk there, Nobuo devised a plan to rebuild the Kongoji Temple. It would sit on higher ground above its former site, with homes nearby. But first he needed to cut through a mountain filled with trees, obtain support from the temple’s worshipers and raise funds for the project. He also had to rebuild his own house.
Masako was a shy teenager at that time, following her mother, Kouko, who cooked every day for refugees. Takamasa spent days and days looking for Kongojis statues and documents. Nobuo held many funerals for tsunami victims and was a mentor for many villagers who had lost loved ones.
The family eventually returned to pursuing plans for the future. Although Takamasa was supposed to succeed his father as the monk at their temple, he entered medical school. Masako decided that she would fill the religious role. She once had no interest in succeeding her father. In high school, she had been interested in cosmetics, and then she majored in chemistry at college in a nearby city.
But after seeing her parents work hard to rebuild the temple, Masako decided she wanted to become an ama, or female monk. She wrote her parents a three-page explanation of her desire to study Buddhism. Her mother tried to dissuade her, but she was determined.
To begin training to become a monk, or tokudo, Masako travelled with Nobuo to Chishakuin Temple in Kyoto, the head temple of a Buddhist sect, for a tokudo ceremony in March 2017. Her parents had selected her monk name, Eishin. The students marched through a sacred room in the darkness and then emerged where we could see them — Masako with her monk robes, a white hood and a huge smile. She was one of a few women among the students and requires more training to officially become a monk.
Months later, I attended another ceremony, the Rakkei-shiki. It celebrated the completion of the new Kongoji Temple, whose reconstruction had begun five years after the tsunami. Tied to a tall post outside were five-coloured ribbons once attached to a gohonzon, the principal statue of the old temple, and colourful curtains adorned the building. Statues that had been rescued from the debris and restored were on display. Hundreds of people, including about 50 monks from across Japan, gathered to celebrate. Masako, who had shaved her head, led a march of monks in colourful robes. The atmosphere was blissful.
Although Kesen transformed from a faded village into a joyful place that day, progress is slow. Only 10 new houses had been built in the vicinity of the temple. The debris has long been cleared away, but a scarred emotional landscape remains. Many villagers are settled into their new homes in other neighbourhoods and rarely come back.
The Kobayashis hope that the rebuilt Kongoji Temple will help villagers reclaim the lives they had before the tsunami. “Many temple members left Kesen,” Nobuo said. “Even though they are scattered, it’s important to have a place that will provide spiritual support. I believe the temple will be the heart of the community, a place that people will believe in.”
When I moved to the United States to work as a photojournalist, I tried not to think about my home or my family. I did not return to my homeland for 10 years because as an immigrant, I was afraid of losing my ambition if I relaxed. I felt I had to keep pushing myself to accomplish my goals, even though I felt shame for rarely thinking about my family in Japan.
Sometimes the stress and pressure made me want to disappear, even after many years of living and working here. But people like Masako, and the refugees I met in this destroyed community — people who had survived extraordinary sadness yet had strong spirits — gave me the energy to push forward in my own life. I have even been returning to visit my parents twice a year since I started documenting this remarkable community.
The work Masako and her family and neighbours put into their small village, the place they love, has been remarkable to witness. They know it may take a while to restore their community. I know that’s not the only thing they are able to restore.