There is an extraordinary account by Richard Lloyd Parry in LRB about the experiences of a man in the north of Japan who lived near the area affected by the tsunami of 2011.
Ten days after the disaster, Ono, his wife and his widowed mother drove over the mountains to see for themselves. They left in the morning in good spirits, stopped on the way to go shopping, and reached the coast in time for lunch. For most of the journey, the scene was familiar: brown rice fields, villages of wood and tile, bridges over wide slow rivers. Once they had climbed into the hills, they passed more and more emergency vehicles, not only those of the police and fire services, but military trucks of the Japan Self-Defence Forces. As the road descended towards the coast, their jaunty mood began to evaporate. Suddenly, before they understood where they were, they had entered the tsunami zone.
There was no advance warning, no marginal area of incremental damage. The wave had come in with full force, spent itself and stopped at a point as clearly defined as the reach of a high tide. Above it, nothing had been touched; below it, everything was changed.
No still photograph was capable of describing it. Even television images failed to encompass the panoramic quality of the disaster, the sense within the plain of destruction, of being surrounded by it on all sides. In describing the landscapes of war, we often speak of ‘total’ devastation. But even the most intense aerial bombing leaves walls and foundations of burned-out buildings, as well as parks and woods, roads and tracks, fields and cemeteries. The tsunami spared nothing, and achieved feats of surreal juxtaposition that no mere explosion could match. It plucked forests up by their roots and scattered them miles inland. It peeled the macadam off the roads and cast it hither and thither in buckled ribbons. It stripped houses to their foundations, and lifted cars, lorries, ships and corpses onto the tops of tall buildings.
At this point in Ono’s narrative, he became reluctant to describe in detail what he did or where he went. ‘I saw the rubble, I saw the sea,’ he said. ‘I saw buildings damaged by the tsunami. It wasn’t just the things themselves, but the atmosphere. It was a place I used to go so often. It was such a shock to see it. And all the police and soldiers there. It’s difficult to describe. It felt dangerous. My first feeling was that this is terrible. My next thought was: “Is it real?”’