Pomeroy-studioA memoir bearing witness to disaster

Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, entombing in ashes the Roman town of Pompeii and preserving a moment in time for almost two millennia now.

The obliterating power of a tsunami leaves no such historical traces, save for the stone markers placed along coastlines warning future generations that a tsunami struck here – at this point, to this height, at the heart of this town. We can know little else of past disasters.

The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 occurred in the modern world, and so we have ample documentation of what the affected towns looked like, the view from above during the disaster, what happened during the initial onslaught, the churning of the waves, the aftermath. The images exist, and they are difficult and gut-wrenching to watch.

But what was it actually like to live in one of those towns? Who was lost, and what ways of life, were lost?  These are questions that cannot be addressed by satellite photos.

In his memoir Tsunami Reflections (Telemachus Press, 2014), Charles Pomeroy has written a heartbreaking obituary for his own adopted city, Otsuchi, a coastal town in the northeast Iwate Prefecture on the main island of Honshū. Otsuchi sits in an inlet formed by river valleys – a geographical feature which funneled and amplified the power of the 2011 tsunami, destroying the town.

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Pomeroy is a long-time member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan and the general editor of the FCCJ’s official published history, Foreign Correspondents in Japan (Tuttle, 1999), a book documenting the first 50 years of the club.

In December 1999. I was Japan-obsessed and in Tokyo looking unsuccessfully for a job. I had an introduction to meet Pomeroy at the club. He suggested that I try freelance journalism.

“How do you become a freelance journalist?” I asked.

“Raise your right hand and say, ‘I am a freelance journalist,’” he replied.

I am a freelance journalist.

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Tsunami Reflections strikes me as a memoir by someone who had no intention to write a memoir.

After a successful career as a business writer, Pomeroy built his dream home in his wife’s hometown of Otsuchi, a fishing village where he had intended to spend a pleasant retirement making woodblock prints in an upstairs studio from which he could see the neighbors’ children taking a shortcut through his garden to school, watch seagulls feeding on dragonflies over the river, and spot the occasional raccoon-dog tanuki.

For Japanophiles, this is the very picture of living the dream, and the house porn heightens the poignancy of the tragedies to follow. The incongruous juxtaposition is also consequential to the narrative. Even a small decision about garden design can have life-or-death implications – the shortcut through the yard offered a quicker path to refuge for a 70-year-old neighbor and her grandson.

And this: A neighbor discovers that Pomeroy’s new house was intruding three centimeters upon his property. “Mr. Fujieda demanded a letter from us acknowledging this intrusion, but at least he did not ask that we tear down the house.” This is a vivid detail only in a tsunami-haunted memoir.

Tsunami Reflections came from a compulsion to bear witness to the town that was, and to pay his respects to those who were lost. Pomeroy moves gracefully between first-person narrative, details of the town and its traditions, and comprehensive research on the impact of the tsunami. He closes with a cogent analysis of the possibilities for Otsuchi’s future as an upscale retirement community, an ecotourism center, or a fishing village once again.

We are fortunate to have an English-language guide to the town as it existed, and a depiction of a Japanese community as it responds to tragedy. Moreover, Otsuchi is fortunate to have a son-in-law with such dedication and love for his adopted home.