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Coping With Tragedy: An Intimate View Of Japanese Daily Life

"The Japanese people have a strong connection with nature and the ocean and a huge respect for them," says Australian photojournalist Daniel Berehulak. "They do not blame the tsunami; they feel like it is part of nature's way of regenerating."

For more than seven years, Berehulak has circled the globe covering news events for Getty Images. And for the past two weeks he has been working in northeast Japan, traveling from one ravaged city to another, meeting survivors and listening to their stories. While we have seen a host of images coming from the island nation, Berehulak's visual reporting is uniquely intimate.

The Picture Show caught up with Berehulak, currently working in Japan, and in between assignments and traveling via small windy roads he offered further insight into his images and experience.

A Gymnasium Of Memories

When Berehulak entered a school gymnasium in Natori, he got an eerie feeling. He arrived before the organizers and recalled hearing the creaking of the floorboards inside and the howling wind outside. A local nonprofit, Omoide-Sagashi, started by a couple whose daughter is still missing, has been gathering and cataloging lost possessions such as photographs, traditional dresses and wedding portraits.

Yohei Arai, 33, a representative of Omoide-Sagashi, says that the place is full of mixed emotions. Some people cannot enter the gymnasium, citing unresolved feelings. But others leave elated when they find a piece of their family history. The tragic irony lies in the fact that the couple who founded the nonprofit still go out searching for their daughter's body, a year after losing her.

Ishinomaki's Heartbreak And Resilience

The Okawa Elementary School tragedy in Ishinomaki has become famous in Japan. According to Berehulak, many people feel it was the biggest tragedy of the tsunami: Indecision and poor disaster training led the teachers to keep their students on shallow ground as opposed to taking them up a nearby mountain.

Of 108 students at the Okawa Elementary School, 74 died and four remain missing; 10 of the school's 13 teachers were also killed.

In Ishinomaki, Berehulak met Takahiro and Sayomi Shito, who lost their 11-year-old daughter, Chisato. During the four-hour interview, the couple openly wept, still mourning their loss. They believe the education system needs to foster free thinking, because the few students who survived went against teachers' orders and ran for higher ground.

While heartbreak may describe Ishinomaki, so does resilience. A lone Oyster restaurant offers a semblance of normalcy; a piano teacher continues to inspire; and families stay intact in temporary housing. But Berehulak notes that the Okawa Elementary School has become somewhat of a shrine. "It is seen as the most tragic of events," he says, adding that people are debating whether to rebuild the school or keep it as a memorial dedicated to the victims.

Temporary Comfort In Minamisanriku

Scattered throughout the devastated region are temporary housing units with a tent set up as a community center. According to Berehulak, many people were struggling in these shelters and rarely used the community tents. But one group was different.

"We stumbled across a special community," said Berehulak. "At this shelter we found a spritely group of septuagenarians and octogenarians who didn't know one another before the tsunami and seem to be lucky to have found each other."

While Berehulak is a seasoned photojournalist, this assignment has been uniquely emotional — in particular the time he spent with Chisato's grieving parents. "Listening to all their unanswered questions about their daughter — What was she doing in her last moments? — What were her last thoughts as she saw the water coming towards her? — What if the teacher [had] led them up the hill? They live through that every day; for them it is a painful reality. The experience of meeting them will stay with me forever."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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