Photo and text from The Japan News, 7/15/13Hundreds of thousands of photographs were recovered from areas hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, yet most of them still have not been claimed by their owners.
Because many disaster victims are far from having resumed their former lives, the photographs have largely gone unclaimed despite being put on public display. But while the victims have been struggling to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, the visual records of their predisaster memories have been slowly deteriorating.
A team of volunteers has been tasked with holding such treasured belongings until their owners reclaim them. The team has been actively preserving the photos, such as by cleaning and digitizing them.
Yutaro Hashimoto, a 65-year-old tuna fisherman who visited a photo storage center in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, was overjoyed when he found a photo of his grandchild. Clutching the photo in his hand, he said, “I never dreamed that I would ever see this again. I’ll take good care of it.”
All his family members survived the disaster, but his house, which was located in a coastal area, was washed away by the tsunami, leaving behind only its foundation.
His 63-year-old wife, Kazuko, smiled and said, “It’s a blessing that even a single item from our house still remains.”
Self-Defense Forces personnel and volunteers delivered about 100,000 photos recovered from the debris to the storage center, which opened in January last year.
The center also stores other personal items, including trophies, medals, certificates of awards, school bags and professional certificates.
Four full-time staffers have been cleaning the items with ink brushes and other tools. So far, they have taken close-up shots of about 95,000 recovered photos as part of the digitization project. Of them, about 28,000 photos have been returned to their owners.
However, the center sees only one or two visitors a day. Though the volunteers visit meeting places at temporary housing complexes to return photos, only a small number of disaster victims actually visit the storage center.
One of the staffers said: “More than two years after the disaster, there are still many people who can’t think about things like photos yet. There are also people who can’t make it to our center because they are elderly or they live elsewhere.”
On Wednesday, the staffers launched a website where people can search the unclaimed photos.
In Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, about 850,000 photos were recovered. But only about 120,000 of them have been returned to owners.
In many cases, the photos were buried under debris. The city government began a photo restoration project in July last year.
The cleaning and restoration work has been taking place at Omoide no Shashin Dejitaru Kokai Center, located inside a disposal site for disaster waste.
But only 10 to 20 people a month have visited the center.
In Sendai, about 90,000 of more than 250,000 recovered photos were returned.
Omoide-kaeru, a volunteer organization entrusted with the task by the city government, held an exhibition in March at a local facility, putting its collection of photos on display.
The volunteers inserted leaflets about the exhibition in brochures for disaster victims. At the center, volunteers used face recognition software to search for photos containing faces that resemble those of the visitors making inquiries.
During the 11-day exhibition, the volunteers succeeded in finding the owners of about 37,000 photos.
As the organization cannot operate an ongoing exhibition with the subsidies and donations which it receives, the next exhibition has been scheduled for August.
About 500 cardboard boxes containing about 160,000 photos have been stored inside a greenhouse lent free of charge by a farmer.
But the volunteers said the photos have been deteriorating, since the temperature inside the greenhouse tends to be high.
Kaori Nose, 38, the head of the organization, said, “Many disaster victims are still struggling to rebuild their daily lives. Sometime in the future, when it's the right time for them to recall old memories, people will want the photos back. Because of that, we plan to continue our activities.”
Photos soaked in seawater can easily deteriorate with time.
According to Tokyo-based Fujifilm Corp., which has been helping with photo cleaning and preservation in disaster-hit areas, the surface of lab-printed photos is coated with a layer of industrial-strength gelatin.
The main component of the gelatin is collagen, which is extracted from the bones of cattle and pigs. As bacteria in seawater can break down the gelatin, printed photos may begin to degrade in as little as three to four days.
A company official said, “If a photo has been accidentally soaked in seawater, the best treatment is to wash it in warm water at 20 C to 30 C as soon as possible, and then let it dry in a cool place.”
The company provides detailed instructions on the process on its website.