Personal Project: Brave Return: A Nation Recovers, A Photographer Comes Back To His Roots

“Earlier this year, I was invited by JIB TV in Tokyo and Olympus, Japan to help document the recovery taking place after the terrible earthquake and tsunami that hit the northeast part of the country in March 2011. I agreed to do it even though I knew it would be a traumatic experience.


All Photos © John Isaac

“After many years at the United Nations photographing tragedies and war around the globe, I vowed never to do it again and turned my attention to nature and wildlife photography after I retired in 1999. But I recalled my prior trips to Japan when I enjoyed the hospitality of so many people who took me around to visit the various temples and shrines in Kyoto and Ise. I had heard about the resilience of the Japanese people after the earthquake and wanted to see for myself.

“So off to Tokyo I went in August (2011) to meet with the TV people and to get started on my assignment. After a few days of briefing in Tokyo, we set off for Rikuzentakata in the Tohoku region of the country. Rikuzentakata was reported to have been ‘wiped off the map’ following the March earthquake. Hundreds of homes were washed away, roads collapsed, and many people lost their lives. No one in the town was unaffected.

“Now, after five months, I witnessed firsthand the valiant effort the people of the town were making to try and carry on with their lives. Just as I arrived, there was much work going on to prepare for the Tanabata Star Festival that is celebrated in many parts of Japan. At first the people of Rikuzentakata thought they shouldn’t celebrate the occasion: it was too soon after the earthquake, too many people were still homeless, plus most of their elaborate floats that had been built for the festival had been swept away and carried out to sea. But one lonely float survived and washed up on shore.

“Fukuda-san, one of the organizers of the Star Festival, told me, ‘The float coming back is very symbolic. Many of my friends who used to take part in this festival were victims of the tsunami. They were the ones who brought the surviving float to me and requested that we celebrate the festival as usual.’ Everyone agreed and so they worked day and night to build new floats with all the elaborate decorations. They managed to finish by the day of the festival and brought them out for everyone to see. I was so fortunate to witness this moving celebration by local people who were determined to carry on as normally as possible.

“As I walked around and talked to people, I heard many sad stories about the loss of a beloved family member and friends. I spent time with the children of the Yonesaki Primary School, watching them play in the swimming pool. Kyoko, one of the schoolgirls who was a great swimmer, was very curious to know where I came from and asked me all sorts of questions. When she saw me at the Star Festival the next day, she gave me a bracelet that she had made herself for good luck. Many of her friends were gone.

“A man who was busy planting sunflowers told me he plans to give the flowers to all the families in the town once they have grown a bit. He has even collected the uprooted trees and plans to have a famous sculptor in Kyoto make wooden statues for donations to various temples. The sunflowers brought back memories for me of how I was re-inspired to get back into photography after I had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1994.

“Back-to-back coverage for the UN of the horrors of the Rwandan genocide and the Bosnian war took its toll and I vowed never to do photography again, until I saw a sunflower with a butterfly on it in my neighbor’s house in New York.

“I went to the fishing docks to watch the fishermen bring in their catch of the day from the very same area that caused so much destruction. One man named Jyuniti Komatu, who was sitting under his broken fishing boat, told me, ‘Many people say that I should leave town and go start a new life elsewhere, but my heart says I should stay here. I have to rebuild my house first and then fix my boat.’

“In the middle of all the devastation, one lonely pine tree stood alone in all its glory. Of the 4000 pine trees that used to line the shore, only this one remains. Everyone marvels at this tree’s survival. How did it happen? What could it mean? Yoshihiro Oyama-san, who was a gardener for 40 years, has taken it upon himself to protect and nurture the tree as a symbol of remarkable survival. He comes every day in his pickup truck with a huge plastic container filled with water and nutrients for the tree. He has even taken DNA from this lone survivor and has started growing two new pine trees with great success. Many people from all over Japan come to see this amazing symbol of survival.

“I came away from this trip with admiration for the people of Japan who are fighting hard to rebuild their lives and carry on as normally as possible.”

The documentary that was produced by JIB TV was aired on September 9th to commemorate the six-month anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami. It can still be viewed on their website at:

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Photos in black and white really plays a great effect in a particular photo for me. - Mallory Fleming