Book review, from Tokyo – After spying a review in a column by Ayako Oguni in the Mainichi Shimbun (morning edition, 2 March 2021), I simply had to pick up this particular picture book. Kyoko Ube’s 『リアスのうみべ さんてつがゆく』 (Riasu no umibe santetsu ga yuku; lit., the Ria coast where the Santetsu runs) tells the inspiring heart-felt story of the Sanriku Railway after the March 2011 tsunami.
Affectionately known as Santetsu, of which san comes from the name of the region and tetsu an abbreviation of tetsudo or railway, the service running along the 160km Rias Line famously ploughed on despite extensive damage to its tracks and bridges. It is no wonder that the train line has become a symbol of reconstruction. But this book offers more than just that story.
From the title page, Yukiko Saito’s illustrations threw me straight into a dark and dank room lit only by a sole candle. An old lady huddles together with two children in a blanket while a man next to them sits hunched against the wall. His head hangs dejectedly, a black rucksack stands nearby. Their backs are to the window, so I can see rooftops washing away outside. Some power poles too. This is a now familiar image I could piece together from first-hand accounts.
The next few pages surprised me, like the people who hear the train coming through the light snow. It can’t be! There is so much damage, but people work day and night to put the railway back into service. And by the fifth day, the train pulls into the station, bringing people equipped, determined, and ready to help clean up the rubble. Many survivors become ill from their prolonged stays in the evacuation shelters, but a ride together on the familiar santetsu brings tears of joy and smiles. When an old lady apologizes for not being able to paying her fare, the train conductor grips her hands appreciatively, saying “We’re in it together. Ganbaru beshi!”
As the train chugs on, over the years, the landscape outside changes from construction site brown to a grassy green covering what was once a town. Strolling the plain, those legs would recall a fish shop here, the tofu store next to it, and the barber across the street. As the sea breeze passing through the pine forest brings back kinder, fun memories, a distant train whistle reminds us that we are not alone.
Written in simple Tohoku dialect, the book portrays the resilience of the region driven and made possible by the railway. Besides the dialect, illustrator Saito also hails from Tohoku, which makes it a full cast from subject matter to perspective. My particular takeaway is how resilience comes from standing in solidarity and reaching out to help your neighbours. No one is or should be left alone. As a Chinese saying goes, a faraway relative cannot stop a nearby fire. The nearby community must be the first port of call. So, this book is truly a tribute to the santetsu. A railway that connects and stays close to its people. Its rhythmic rumbling, the heartbeat of the Sanriku coast.
Title: 『リアスのうみべ さんてつがゆく』 (Riasu no umibe santetsu ga yuku; lit., the Ria coast where the Santetsu runs) text by Kyoko Ube, illustrated by Yukiko Saito
Publisher: Iwasaki Shoten, 2021