"Five Years On" No. 2 Returning Lost Documents to their Owners

"Five Years On" No. 2

Miyagi Rekishi Shiryou Network in 2016

2) Returning Lost Documents to their Owners and New Discoveries in Kitakami and Ogatsu Towns, Ishinomaki Municipality

This is the second installment in a series of articles by Satō Daisuke on the activities of Miyagi Rekishi Shiryou Hozon Network, 5 years after the disaster of March 2011. Today I write about our experiences when we presented the former owners of collections of documents recording the history of the former towns of Kitakami and Ogatsu, now incorporated into the City of Ishinomaki. These collections of documents were lost in the tsunami of 11th March, 2011, but members of our Network had digitally photographed the originals when they participated in writing the official history of these towns before their incorporation. We were able to prepare colour printouts of the originals which we put together in bound volumes to present to the original owners on the 20th and 22nd of December, 2015.

The reactions of the former owners were various, but very positive. Some people broke down in tears. One person said 'my greatest personal loss after the tsunami was to lose the documents that had been passed on down from my ancestors. Today is my happiest day.' Another person asked us to try to find some way to pass on the history of their towns, since not only the original documents but all copies of the official local history written just some years ago and held in both private and public hands had been lost in the tsunami. During these two days, I came to feel the depth of appreciation of our work, and the high hope and anticipation that people held for our work to preserve the history of their predecessors and their locality.

Furthermore, one family that we visited on the 20th said that they had recovered some of the original documents after the tsunami. Their house was washed away, but when they returned to the former site of their house to clean, they found the documents lying amongst the debris. 
Newly discovered documents (Photo 24th Dec. 2015)

The family did not know who to contact in order to seek advice, and the documents were as they were found.  The documents were sorted and tucked into neutral paper envelopes, and had already dried out naturally. The pages of ledger books had become congealed together. We borrowed the documents from their owners, and took them with us to Sendai for repairing.

Later I discovered that these were documents that I had photographed and catalogued on 3rd July, 2002, when I was working part-time as a student helper for the local official history project. I could discern my own handwriting of the catalogue numbers on the envelopes. When I learnt  in April 2011that these documents that I myself had photographed and catalogued had been lost, I wrote at the time that it felt as if I had had a part of my own life taken from me (News No. 100, 6th April 2011. Recovering even just a part of the original collection made me feel as if I had won back part of my lost life.


We do not know yet whether the documents that we discovered this time can be restored or not. Irrespective of this, the owners say that they want the documents to be preserved and passed on as a testimony to the effects of natural disasters on cultural heritage. 

However, most of the former owners that we visited this time five years after the event, had only just managed to move into new houses and start new lives. To put it another way, even if these people still had their original collections of documents, it had taken them five years to achieve some stability in their lives so that they could  actually take time to think about what to do with their collections. I think that this tells us that we still have a lot of unsolved problems that we have to think about when we set about doing salvage operations, especially for collections in private hands. 
If anyone reading this report should be engaged personally in salvage operations for cultural and historical heritage, I want to pass on the message that  even documents and objects which appear to have been damaged beyond repair and restoration can often actually be saved, and that even if they cannot be restored, these objects can still serve a role as a testimony to the extent of the disaster itself.

Satō Daisuke
23rd Feb. 2016

(All Japanese personal names are given in Japanese order, family name first)

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