Saturday, July 09, 2011

"When I see it, I feel our city can revive"

Inspiration and faith comes in many different shapes and sizes. (GW)

Hope of the Lone Pine: As Tree Clings to Life, So Does Japanese City

By Gordon Fairclough
Wall Street Journal
JULY 9, 2011

Officials believe the Lone Pine survived the tsunami because it was partially shielded by a youth hostel, now destroyed. "If we can save this tree, it will show we have the power, the strength to come back," one resident said.

RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan—In the quiet hours just after dawn, Yasumori Matsuzaka drives through the ruins of his hometown, past the gutted hospital and the mounds of splintered wood and shattered concrete.

The object of his pilgrimage: a tree. The solitary pine, which towers 100 feet above this pulverized city's waterfront, is all that's left of a grove of roughly 70,000 trees that once lined the beach here, and which his ancestors helped plant more than two centuries ago.

It has become a national symbol of Japan's tenacity, clinging to life amid the destruction of the March 11 tsunami, which killed more than 20,000 people and laid waste to entire communities along the country's northeast coast.

"When I see it, I feel our city can revive," said the 67-year-old Mr. Matsuzaka, a retired teacher, who makes the trek from his temporary house in the hills several times a week.

Lately, however, his visits have turned ominous. More than three months after the tree—known by locals simply as the Lone Pine—escaped the devastation of that terrible day, its once-green needles are turning a reddish-brown as saltwater envelopes its roots.

The Lone Pine may be dying.

A team of volunteer specialists has put the tree on the arboreal equivalent of life support, swathing its trunk in bandages and constructing a caisson around its base in an effort to keep the infiltrating sea at bay.

"If we can save this tree, it will show we have the power, the strength to come back," Mr. Matsuzaka said.

In Rikuzentakata, volunteers are collecting historical documents and books to be restored. The papers are relics of their common past. WSJ's Gordon Fairclough reports from northeastern Japan.

If residents fail, it will be yet another reminder of the hard road ahead for a part of Japan that was already fading before the tsunami struck. Rikuzentakata was one of the worst-hit cities in the country. Towering waves carried away nearly a tenth of its 23,000 residents and all but obliterated its downtown. Survivors are struggling to find new homes and jobs, restart businesses and rebuild shattered lives.

But as they cope with the urgent worries of the present, Mr. Matsuzaka and others are also fighting to salvage relics from their common past and save the cultural touchstones that gave their community character—and, in the eyes of many, make it worth saving. The desire to preserve such anchors is a fundamental human impulse in the face of uncertainty and loss.

"It's the identity of the city that's at stake," said Masaru Kumagai, a 44-year-old museum curator overseeing reclamation of many of the city's artifacts, including the contents of a destroyed museum that range from a trio of ancient swords and prehistoric bone tools to comic books from the 1960s. "This is what makes us who we are."

Some of Rikuzentakata's treasures were parts of daily life: a local soy sauce brand made in a factory by the river for centuries; the sake whose dark-green bottles were known throughout Japan to the pride of people here; and shops where traditional Japanese sweets were made with recipes handed down for generations.

Others, like a set of official diaries of the feudal governors of Rikuzentakata, preserve memories of a time when this now-shrinking coastal city was in its heyday, with gold mines and abundant timber and fish. The Yoshida Papers, which span more than 100 years of history starting in the 1750s, detail everything from local salt production to famines and the fiery landing of a meteor in Rikuzentakata in 1850. A group of amateur historians, who had been working for decades to translate the diaries, saw most of its work destroyed in the tsunami and is now starting over again.

Yasumori Matsuzaka, whose ancestors helped plant the city's vast pine grove in the 18th century, is fighting to save the lone survivor.

The Lone Pine, with its gracefully curved trunk and spray of needled branches at the top, has been adopted as Rikuzentakata's unofficial emblem, and its image adorns everything from towels and T-shirts to the helmets of soldiers conducting relief operations. Posters hanging around town feature a photograph of the tree and an exhortation: "Join our hearts together, and let's bring our hometown back to life."

When Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan toured the city after the disaster, the mayor, Futoshi Toba, made a point of taking him by the tree, which stands behind a smashed youth hostel, surrounded by the shorn-off stumps of trees that couldn't withstand the waves.

City officials believe it survived because of its location—partially shielded on the ocean side by the youth hostel and protected inland by a raised roadway that may have muted the water's force.

"It was like a miracle," said Mr. Toba, who wears a button with a picture of the pine tree and the words "Fight On" pinned to his windbreaker. "For people to see this tree withstanding the devastation, it gives them hope" that Rikuzentakata will one day again be the way it was.

As a child, Mr. Toba went to the pine wood by the beach for summer picnics with his grandparents. As an adult, he visited the grove with his wife, Kumi, who perished in the tsunami, and his two sons, who survived. "We're going to keep doing all we can to keep it alive," he said.

The stand of 70,000 pines, known as the Takata Matsubara, or pine forest, lined Rikuzentakata's long, white-sand beach. It was the city's main tourist attraction. Its beauty drew visitors from across Japan, providing vital income for the local economy. But its most important role was as a city commons.

Athletes jogged, teenagers courted, old friends took walks along the hushed and shaded paths of the woods. "It's always been a big part of life in this city," said Mr. Matsuzaka, a member of Preserve the Takata Matsubara, a conservation group set up three years ago to help maintain the grove.

Mr. Matsuzaka's ancestors, prominent local officials, ordered the planting of part of the grove in the 18th century in an effort to cope with an earlier upheaval in the city: the exhaustion of the mountainous area's gold mines and a subsequent shift to more reliance on agriculture.

The trees were meant to screen rice fields from sand and salt spray. In the lean years after World War II, Mr. Matsuzaka remembers fishing in the shallows off the beach with nets, hauling in sardines and sea perch. Timber from the wood was used to build a local middle school.

"The whole country was so poor," Mr. Matsuzaka said. "We needed the beach and the pine grove to survive."

In more recent years, Mr. Matsuzaka took daily afternoon walks in the woods, where he found inspiration for traditional Japanese song verses he composed. He would jot down his thoughts in a small notebook that he kept in his breast pocket.

He visited the pine grove the day before the tsunami. Its stolid trees, many more than 100 years old, seemed as eternal as the mountains ringing the city and the ocean that stretched away from the shore.

Disasters had hit the pines before. A tsunami spawned by an earthquake across the Pacific Ocean off Chile in 1960 ripped out a large part of the grove. Residents replanted.

The task now is far more complicated. The quake and tsunami have radically changed Rikuzentakata's topography. Land along the waterfront has sunk by nearly three feet in places, and much of the beach is submerged. It is unclear whether the area can be reclaimed.

Some in the city question the wisdom of investing so much emotional energy in a quest to save such a fragile link to the past. Matsuo Sasaki, a local businessman, who also belongs to Preserve the Takata Matsubara, said he hopes the pine will survive. But he is trying to be philosophical about its fate.

"Some people see the tree as a symbol of their hard situation and are trying to hang on. They might be disappointed if it dies," said Mr. Sasaki. "I try not to look at it that way. The pine tree is a tree, and we are different. We are people, and we can recover."

For many in the town, however, the Lone Pine's fate is critical.

On the frigid fifth day after the waves tore through Rikuzentakata, Mr. Matsuzaka made his way back downtown. Although he lost his house and his car, none of his family members were killed, and he was eager to help with salvage operations.

"When I saw only one tree was left, I couldn't believe my eyes," he said.

He and others quickly identified the tree as a priority. When soldiers arriving in Rikuzentakata to help asked Mr. Toba, the mayor, to pick a name for their relief mission, his choice was "The Hope of the Takata Matsubara."

The tree itself seemed fine, at least at first. "It was very green. It seemed healthy," Mr. Matsuzaka said.

But a month after the tsunami, the amount of salt in the water surrounding the tree's roots remained stubbornly high. Local officials began to worry and sought expert help.

Tree surgeons volunteering their time built a sandbag-and-timber barricade to protect the pine against the ocean. Gashes in the tree's bark, from floating debris, were treated with antibiotic salve, and its trunk was wound with straw and green plastic. Straw mats were staked to the ground to protect the tree's shallow roots.

By early May, though, the salt level was roughly three times the survivable limit for the tree, a local hybrid of Japanese red and black pines. Specialists called in from across Japan decided more drastic steps were required. The city sought help to build a caisson around the tree so that its roots could be bathed in fresh water.

In mid-June, construction workers used a pile driver to slam interlocking steel plates 16 feet deep into the earth around the tree. Equipment began pumping out salt water, while tons of fresh water, brought in by truck, have been poured in.

"The tree is in very critical condition," said Kichiei Yonai, a landscape contractor deputized by the city to oversee efforts to keep the tree alive.

If the tree survives until February or March of next year, Mr. Yonai and others think it may need to be moved. During those months, trees here are in a state akin to hibernation, making it less dangerous to move them. Still, the pine is extremely heavy and has widespread roots, making relocation difficult.

"It's in the hands of the specialists now," said Mr. Matsuzaka. "All I can do is pray."

There have been hopeful signs that the pine may survive. A specialist who climbed to the top of the tree in late May reported seeing flowing sap and new shoots sprouting from branches.

Still, Rikuzentakata's leaders are preparing for the worst.

To preserve the Lone Pine's DNA in case it perishes, researchers have taken cuttings of branches and grafted them onto the trunks of similar pines. Four of 100 attempted grafts have succeeded. It will be several years before the new trees, now in a nursery, can be transplanted.

"Even if it takes 10 or 20 years, I want to recreate the Takata Matsubara and leave that for the generations to come," Mr. Matsuzaka said. "If you could have gone there, you would understand."

—Hitoshi Koreeda contributed to this article.

Write to Gordon Fairclough at


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