The ship’s foghorn then blared over the ocean for a full 60 seconds, a long, haunting note that in its oddness seemed all the more mournful. The silence when it finished was close to unbearable. Eventually, two women in front of me tossed red hibiscus flowers over the railings and onto the waves.
The ferry, plying its weekly 600-mile route between Japan’s remote Ogasawara Islands and Tokyo, had been making the very same journey when the earthquake struck precisely a year earlier. Those on board at the time, being far from the epicentre, had felt nothing. Only when they reached the capital city some 20 hours later did passengers and crew become aware of the tragedy that was unfolding further north, of the catastrophe that would go on to claim some 28,000 lives. It was, I was told, like arriving into a bad dream.
In Japan, a scattered nation of around 6,800 islands, there remains a collective sense of hurt. The 30 subtropical islands that make up the Ogasawara archipelago are almost the furthest-flung of all the country’s outposts. Two hours before the ship left dock on Sunday, I watched a local steel band played a set of melancholy tunes at a memorial concert in the park of the main township. A year ago no tremors had been felt here either, although hours after the earthquake the resulting tsunami had sent a delayed metre-high swell rolling silently into the bay, as if bearing tidings from the mainland. The wave put pay to one or two cars, they say, but lasting damage was avoided.
“We were in complete shock when we saw the pictures from Honshu,” local resident Rance Ohira told me. “It was just numbness. I can’t explain it. People here had relatives involved.” Two weeks after the earthquake he gathered together a few island musicians for a benefit performance, raising £1,200 for the relief effort. The Ogasawara Islands fell under US control immediately after World War II but have long been technically part of Tokyo, lying by a quirk of bureaucracy within that city’s municipal limits. The ties which seemingly bind the country together make the islands unequivocally Japanese. A handful of displaced families from the Fukushima region have resettled here, taking comfort in the isolation.
At the small Ogasawara information centre, where the islands’ freshly awarded UNESCO World Heritage List certificate now occupies pride of place, the mood on Sunday morning was subdued. “Please pray for the dead people,” I was asked, in English, by the worker on duty. She smiled and held her palms together to illustrate her point. Visitors who make the 26-hour crossing from Tokyo come here to experience an ecosystem rich in endemic species and a plunging landscape of forests and beaches. But if its gnarled cliffs and sun-struck bays seem removed from the Japan of popular imagination, it serves as further proof that any hit the country suffers is shared widely, and among many.