My name is Peter Mark. I am 32 years old and reside in Masset, B.C. On March 11, 2011 I, along with millions of others around the world watched in awe and horror as the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami ravaged northeastern Japan. Those images of vehicles, boats, buildings and even entire towns being swallowed up by sea will stick with all of us forever. Harder to comprehend is the cost of human life, the loss of family and community networks that are gone forever and can not be repaired or replaced. On that day more than 15,000 people died and many, many more lost family, friends, their homes, their communities and everything but the clothes on their back.
A year has passed since the horrific events of that disaster. I recently received a stark reminder of the event that quite literally shook the world. On April 18th I was beachcombing on the east coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands and came face to face with a piece of the aftermath from the wave that took so much from so many. In just 13 months an insulated container holding a Harley Davidson motorcycle, five golf clubs, tools, tent poles and other small weathered bits and pieces drifted across the Pacific Ocean some 6,500 kilometers and came ashore in an area I frequently visit.
The container washed up on a remote beach approximately 50 km south of Rose Spit. When I first arrived on the scene I was in shock. I could see the motorcycle from a distance but it wasn’t until I got closer that I could see the license plate, a bent, algae encrusted piece of metal with Japanese characters on it. We knew tsunami debris was coming but I never expected something this big this soon, never mind a Harley Davidson!
My first thought was, “What?!?”. It dawned on me that this was something that might be in my backyard, something one of my neighbors might own. These were somebody’s belongings, somebody that might have lost everything, possibly even their life.
The unit had thick styrofoam under the fiberglass exterior which allowed it to float. How the bike and other items remained in the container all the way across the Pacific is a mystery to me. The bike was not tied down and the door of the container was ripped off. It was quite an eerie feeling stepping inside. It felt as though I was trespassing on someone’s property. I also knew this might be the first known item that washed ashore from the tsunami that could be traced, both by the license plate and the VIN on the motorcycle. I took several pictures of the container and the items inside.
Being on my ATV and alone there was no way for me to move a 600 pound bike from the container to high ground. I looked through the contents of the container for anything that could be saved. Everything was in bad condition. The bike was very rusty and banged up. The other items were badly corroded and equally battered. All I could save were the golf clubs that seemed to resist the corrosive effects of the salt water better than everything else. I could see that there was a water line showing on the bike, it looked as though it was sitting in at least 8 inches of water for quite some time. I also suspect waves would have often swept through the open door.
When I returned home from the beach I told several of my fellow beachcombers and friends about the find. I also researched the Internet on how to report such a find. I found very little out. NOAA posted an e-mail address for reporting debris. I sent an e-mail to them and have yet to receive a reply. Quickly word spread. It wasn’t very long before CBC got in touch with me (April 24th). I made them a deal. I told them that I would supply the VIN number and photos of the license plate so they could confirm the bikes’ origins before posting the story. Right away they called me back. I was informed the plate was registered in the Miyagi Prefecture, one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami. We had our smoking gun.
The CBC ran the story on the evening of April 29th. I was not prepared for the amount of attention the story would receive. Immediately Ralph Tieleman from Vancouver Island contacted me. A man I have never met before. He asked if I would be able to recover the motorcycle? I had not considered it. The bike was in such bad shape I didn’t think it would be practical to do anything with. I thought it would stay on the beach, a memorial to the Tōhoku tsunami. Ralph offered with the help of his friends to restore the motorcycle and return it to its owner if they could be located. We knew this would be an expensive undertaking. The bike was virtually destroyed. They would need to strip the bike to its frame and start from almost scratch. I agreed and the next day with the help of my friends we went and recovered the motorcycle.
In the following days I did interviews with 4 or 5 major news agencies in North America and 5 in Japan! Late in the evening on April 30th a Japanese news correspondent located in California called me with good news, the owner of the bike was alive! From the moment I laid eyes on the motorcycle I wondered the fate of the owner. I had my fingers crossed and was hoping he/she would be found alive. There it was, the words I was hoping for, “They found him, he’s alive!”. I went to bed with a sense of relief. The next morning the CBC called with the news.
Twenty-nine year old Ikuo Yokoyama lost much on that day in March 2011. While I was watching on TV, Ikuo lost three family members including his father and brother. His house, the container in his backyard he used as a shop/garage for his motorcycle and everything he owned were swept away by the devastating wave. I was very happy Ikuo was alive but overwhelmed by the thought that so many others were not. Ikuo like thousands of others, is currently living in temporary housing. The man from CBC referred me to an online video interview from NHK with Ikuo. He was looking at pictures of the motorcycle that I had taken. He expressed how happy it was found and returning to him, “A miracle!” he stated. He also wanted to thank me.
Harley Davidson stepped in. They heard what Steve Drane and Ralph Tieleman were planning to do and decided to finance the restoration. They contacted Mr Yokoyama and told him about the planned restoration. Despite the desire to be reunited with his lost bike Ikuo declined the offer. He said that he was not financially capable of owning the bike nor did he have room to store it in his temporary shelter. He thought it wasn’t fair to spend so much on his bike when so many others had nothing. It is very honorable that Ikuo has put the needs of others and the needs of his community above his own hopes and desires. Harley Davidson has offered to give the money they would have spent on fixing and returning the bike to a tsunami relief fund in Ikuo’s name instead. Harley Davidson is going to stabilize and preserve the bike. It will either be put in a museum or made into a memorial for the victims of the tsunami. They have offered to pay for the salvage of the bike and the transport to Vancouver Island. Hats off to Harley Davidson, Steve Drane and Ralph Tieleman for stepping up to the plate and doing a good thing.
The story isn’t over yet. So many people have lost so much. There may be few opportunities to reunite people with their missing belongings. I feel that there still may be something I can do for Ikuo and plans are in the works.
I have been told that items like the motorcycle were not insured for events like earthquakes. A reporter from a Japanese news agency sent me an article about insurance for the tsunami victims. It states only 23% of people were insured. People that had insurance were only covered for their houses. Vehicles, cash, items worth more than $3000 and businesses were not covered. It seems that Ikuo will receive nothing for his lost belongings. When I try to put myself in Ikuo’s shoes I come to the conclusion it would be very hard to decline Harley Davidson’s offer to return a prized possession after loosing everything. Could you do it? I know many people in Canada are financially strapped, especially in the northwest but in comparison to the events unfolding in Japan we’ve got it pretty darn good.
This has been a wake up call. There are no good systems in place for reporting tsunami debris and no plans as of yet to deal with it once it’s here. Its very likely that much more debris is coming. It is very important that any items located should be treated with respect. I’m sure there will be times when personal items can be retuned to their rightful owners. Common sense is important in these cases. Not everything can be returned and there will be many cases the items would bring back bad memories for the original owner. There are many people that care about the beaches and spend a lot of time on them. I’m sure many of these people will go out of their way to clean up debris. Nowadays the world is a very small place. I hope people keep this in mind. I myself live in a coastal town on the ring of fire. One day my ATV or boat may wash up on the shore of Japan. If that ever were to happen I know I’d hope that my belongings would be treated with respect as well. I also hope that government agencies will work will local people who have been exploring the local beaches for years if not decades. Many of us have a deep understanding of ocean currents and what types of items might wash up and where. This knowledge may prove invaluable in the years to come.