It is the incomprehensible scale of the tragedy that silences you. There's the physical scale: A car perched on the roof of a three-story building in Minami Sanriku, or the 200-ton tug Kazumaru No. 1, swept 1,500 feet inland in the port of Ofunato, smashing every house in its path to splintered pulp.
The Kazumaru No. 1 tugboat, where the March 11 tsunami left it. Image courtesy WGBH.
But there's also the scale of the human tragedy. Rikuzentakata must once have been a stunningly beautiful coastal town. If you stand in the bay and look up at the mountains, the view is lovely, the mountains still and peaceful. But lower your eyes and the scene is of awful devastation. Where once there was a town of over 20,000, now there is a blasted mudflat.
I followed a group of perhaps 50 soldiers from the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, armed with bamboo canes, onto the mud. They formed a long line, waiting for the order, then set off on a careful yard-by-yard search.
Slowly and methodically they advanced, pulling and tugging at every piece of cloth or material they found, partially submerged in the clinging mud. Was this just wasted detritus, or was it a sleeve, a skirt, or a jacket? Was it empty, or did it contain an arm, a limb, a snuffed-out life? You could sense the relief every time it came away in their hand empty. And their pain every time it was a body--a child perhaps, or a mother or grandfather.
Somebody shouted. It was another body. Six men were assigned to dig it out. The rest continued the search. The body was extracted and wrapped in bright blue polyethylene sheeting. The men set off, leaving just two soldiers behind.
They crouched by the body. I thought they must be filling in paperwork, or taking a photograph for the record. Then they stood up, removed their helmets, and bowed. They left the body in its tarpaulin, marked with a fluttering cloth on a bamboo pole, ready for the recovery team that would follow.
When they left I walked closer. The soldiers had not been filling in forms or doing anything bureaucratic; they had been lighting incense. They were just paying their respects.
It has been difficult in this horror to be anything but impressed by something in the character of Japanese people. Sometimes, as a Westerner, you feel annoyed: "How," you chide, "can you seem to accept so easily your government's assurance that things will be fine at the nuclear plant!" Other times you look at the discipline, the self-control, and the sense of responsibility and responsiveness to the needs of the community, and you are truly awed.
Callum Macrae in Ofunatu. Image courtesy WGBH.
At one point we went off to talk to some people and, slightly phased by the situation, I left my camera in the car. Almost immediately I started panicking. Leaving your camera when on assignment is just something you never do. Someone might steal it, and without it there is no point in you being there.
My driver Nickie Matsumoto looked at me as though I was mad. "You think that in this situation someone will break into the car and steal your camera?" he asked incredulously.
You know what: Looting in a disaster? In America, in the U.K.--yes, that is exactly what might happen.
But not here. Not in northern Japan.
Correction: March 28, 2001
This post has been revised to correct the spelling of "Ofunato" and "Minami Sanriku."