Photos from disaster show Japan’s people ‘don’t live for the past’

A collection of images currently displayed in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel tells two stories—a story of devastation and another about the resiliency of the people of Japan. One image shows two women walking away from a city in ruins, one with nothing but a pocketbook and a walking stick, the other carrying an elderly woman on her back. Another photo records a simple word of thanks, arigato, written on the sandy beach near Sendai airport.

From now until Feb. 7, a traveling photography installation documenting the aftermath and recovery from the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan on March 11, 2011—which left more than 19,000 people either dead or missing—is on view in Rockefeller Chapel. “Moving Forward:  Life After the Great East Japan Earthquake” is hosted by the UCLA Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies and The Kahoku Shimpo newspaper of Sendai.

At the opening reception on campus Jan. 18, the Consul General of Japan at Chicago, Okamura Yoshifumi, recalled where he was when he heard the news. Visiting the Ivory Coast as an ambassador, Yoshifumi was overwhelmed by the power of nature and the fragility of life. Nevertheless, he emphasized that the photos on display also show the strength and resilience of the Japanese people in their efforts to rebuild their lives. “[In Japan] people don’t live for the past. They only look to the future. They overcame their distress and took immediate and steady action to recover.”

Michael Bourdaghs, associate professor of modern Japanese literature in East Asian Languages & Civilizations, was awake when it happened, and watched the news unfold on television. Bourdaghs, who met his wife while living in Sendai in 1984, has grown to think of this city—one of the hardest hit by the earthquake—as his Japanese home. “We didn’t sleep that night,” he recalled. He was struck not only by the magnitude of the disaster and how close it all felt, even from the other side of the globe, but also by “how forward-moving [the Japanese] are.” 

Hitoshi Abe, director of the University of California, Los Angeles Terasaki Center, knows that his hometown of Sendai lost more than “countless beautiful landscapes. The scope of what has been lost, of what will be lost, is immeasurable.”

Yet, as both Yoshifumi and Bourdaghs stressed, the photographs are not intended as documents recording the disaster itself. “This is about the people, the life of the people trying to survive and move forward.” 

For more information about the exhibition, which is co-sponsored by the Center for East Asian Studies and Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, contact Sarah Arehart, Associate Director for the Center for East Asian Studies, at or (773) 702-2715.