By Nick Narigon
Like many others following the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami, Tokyo resident Jay Horinouchi was compelled to take action. The artist joined a volunteer organisation, and by May 2011 he was en route to Tohoku. Upon his arrival, it was the smell that hit him first, he says. The tsunami had washed up tons of polluted sludge from the ocean floor and deposited the muck everywhere.
The stench, combined with thousands of dead fish swept in from the fish markets, was overwhelming. ‘It was foul, like sewage,’ he recalls. ‘The other thing was the rubble. All you could see were the foundations of houses. Everything was grey. It was a shocking experience.’
The California native spent his first two months shovelling up that muck in Ishinomaki and helping fishermen reclaim lost equipment, eventually branching out into different locations. When he was put in charge of a team, Horinouchi was given his choice of locations, and picked Karakuwa in Kesennuma.
He says he made an instant connection with the small oystering village during his first stint. ‘Karakuwa is a tight-knit community – the neighbours go back generations,’ he says. ‘They were just very warm. They brought us in like family, fed us, and threw us a party at the end. I immediately felt I wanted to take care of Karakuwa.’
During the tsunami, six of Kesennuma’s 12 ports were destroyed. Out of a population of 6,000, over 100 were killed by the waves. ‘Karakuwa used to be a big tourist hotspot 30 or 40 years ago,’ says Horinouchi. ‘There is no beach: there are just cliffs and rocks jutting out, and the woods creeping over into the ocean. It’s a very beautiful location.’ As an artist, he knew he wanted to bring colour back to Karakuwa.
While fundraising for a return trip, he met TokyoDex director Daniel Rosen, a kindred spirit seeking a way to use his creativity to do some good in Tohoku. In April 2013, they founded the Tohoku Artist Caravan project. ‘The timing was good,’ says Rosen. ‘There was still some awareness about Tohoku and people were thinking about how to help out in a different way. Basically what we do here at TokyoDex is all about art and music and ideas. I was looking for a way we can give back to that community. Then, we basically pulled in every favour.’
Over Golden Week in 2013, they loaded up seven donated Mini Coopers with 30 artists and musicians and spent six days in Karakuwa painting murals on three existing, highly visible structures, including an oyster processing plant. They dubbed the initiative ‘Kesennuma Artscape’. Participating artists also conducted workshops with local children and the taiko group Kodo, and other bands played a concert in the newly rebuilt Jifukuji Temple. ‘It was really magic,’ says Rosen. ‘It was an incredible trip in a lot of ways. We had a lot of help that was quite cosmic. Everything just fell together.’
One of the main goals of the Tohoku Artist Caravan is to maintain continuity. Rosen says it is important that the residents know they are coming back, and that they leave a lasting impact on Karakuwa. The caravan returned in spring 2014 with 10 more artists to paint Gigi Cafe, a local fixture and a meeting point for community leaders. They chose a famous local landmark called Broken Stone as the motif. The top two metres of the towering rock pillar had broken off during a tsunami in the 1940s, but it remained intact during 3.11.
Rosen and Horinouchi are planning another caravan for Golden Week in 2015, departing April 24. ‘Our hope is to change the narrative of the caravan,’ says Rosen. ‘The story is no longer about a response to a tragedy, it is about the power of art to rebuild communities.’
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Tohoku Artist Caravan.