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information about Fukushima published in English in Japanese media info publiée en anglais dans la presse japonaise

Returning photos to tsunami survivors

December 29, 2015

Restoring memories: Volunteers return thousands of photos to tsunami survivors


Returning photos to tsunami survivors

By YOSUKE AKAI/ Staff Writer

KOBE--It's a typical family photo, sentimental but nothing to rave about ordinarily, that was assumed lost forever in the devastation in northeastern Japan caused by the 2011 tsunami disaster.

And indeed, the photo, badly damaged, would have vanished for good were it not recovered from the mud and digitally restored by a volunteer group in Kobe.

“I didn't even look at the photo very often when I took it for granted that it was always there,” said Kumi Hoshi, 58, referring to the shot taken more than 20 years ago of her son and her niece together at her parents' home in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, which was destroyed in the disaster triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake. “I now treasure the photo. I did not expect it to be restored to this level.”

So if a picture is really worth one thousand words, then the 25,982 photos digitally restored by “Anata no Omoide Mamoritai” (Unit working to protect your memory) would fill a good-sized book.

The last batch of photos was returned to their owners on Oct. 29.

Kayoko Naito, a 57-year-old homemaker in Takahagi, Ibaraki Prefecture, who helped to restore the final photo with image editing software said she found the experience rewarding.

Even though she lives far from the epicenter of the magnitude-9.0 offshore earthquake that hit the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011, her home shook violently.

Her parents, as well as her parents in-law, live in Fukushima Prefecture, which experienced its own disaster when the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant went into triple meltdown because of the earthquake and tsunami.

Three relatives died in the tsunami or during evacuation. Overall, about 18,500 people died or remained unaccounted for in the quake and tsunami.

“(Through this project), I felt I was contributing in some small way to the relief effort,” Naito said. “Helping to restore damaged photos was a catharsis for me.”

The project to restore the damaged photos was the brainchild of Nobue Funaki, 38, an associate professor of disaster management and social services at Kobe Gakuin University. She proposed the initiative as something that could be accomplished "even at a location far from the stricken region.”

The project’s secretariat is based in her university, which does a course on preparedness for a natural disaster. The program was born out of a lesson the university learned after Kobe and surrounding areas were struck by the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, leaving 6,434 people dead.

The project kicked off in April 2011, with Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai and Kogakuin University in Tokyo joining it.

Within a year, it had received 54,000 or so photos after fliers were handed out at evacuation shelters across the Tohoku region announcing the restoration effort.

The project team accepted 25,982 photos to restore with image editing software.

Those that were too damaged to restore or which retained a decent image after mud and oil were wiped away were excluded.

Hoshi, who lives in temporary housing in Tome, Miyagi Prefecture, was impressed by the group's efforts.

All of her relatives survived the tsunami that swallowed her home and that of her parents in the coastal town of Minami-Sanriku.

After her family’s mud-covered photo album was discovered near where her home had stood, she sent it to the photo restoration group.

Volunteers downloaded the scanned images so they could work on their assignments.

Each image was assigned a six-digit number, instead of the photo owner’s name, for privacy reasons.

After completing the digital restoration, the original image data was deleted.

About 300 volunteers participated in the project, not only from across Japan, but even from overseas, in response to an online call by the project secretariat.

“I was surprised to find that so many people wanted to get involved since they could not go to the affected area due to a lack of time or money, or for health reasons,” said Yuka Madokoro, 38, at the project secretariat. “The restored photos are the fruits of their efforts, time and dedication.”

Hoshi’s photo was restored by Isao Matsumura, who is 74 and lives in Kawachinagano, Osaka Prefecture.

Watching TV footage of communities devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami reminded him of scenes he saw from his office 20 years ago.

He recalled watching helplessly as plumes of black smoke rose over Kobe across Osaka Bay after the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

“I am too old now to go and do something in the stricken area (in Tohoku),” said Matsumura. “But I have been hoping to do something this time.”


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