there are many others worse off than us

A report from Welsh-born writer Jon Mitchell, originally published on Jon Mitchell in Japan. http://www.jonmitchellinjapan.com/survivors.html

A month ago, not many people had heard of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture. Like other small cities in Japan, the local council had tried to put it on the tourist trail by establishing a quirky museum and promoting the area’s seafood businesses. But – by and large – Ishinomaki’s 160,000 residents went about their daily lives away from the public gaze.

All that changed on March 11th, 2011, when a ten-foot tsunami obliterated large swathes of the city and swept away approximately 5,000 local people. Three weeks on, the survivors are still struggling to find food, fuel and shelter – not to mention a way to come to terms with the trauma they’ve experienced.

Last week, I accompanied NGO Peace Boat and video-maker Richard Grehan on a relief operation to Ishinomaki City. As the volunteers shoveled mud, cooked meals and distributed supplies, I conducted a far less grueling task – I talked to some of the residents about their experiences, needs and worries for the future.

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Tohoku people are renowned for their taciturn manners, and at first, people were reluctant to speak. Ten or fifteen minutes into the interviews, however, when they realized I wasn’t searching for a 5-second sound bite, something in them seemed to give way. Their stories came out in a flow of pain, guilt and disbelief at what they had experienced. Time and time again, they described the Hollywood-like disconnect of racing before the massive tsunami. “It was as though we were in a movie.”

There was another phrase that was just as common in these survivors’ testimonies. No matter how bad their homes had been damaged or how many of their friends and relatives were missing, Ishinomaki’s residents assured us that their losses were negligible. “There are other people far worse off than us.”

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This town used to be famous for its fisheries and the paper pulp factory. We had a population of 160,000.

We’ve had earthquakes in the past – but never anything like this. And never a tsunami this large. One part of the town was washed away entirely. We still haven’t started to count our dead.
Dewa Takahashi


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When the tsunami hit this part of town, it was three meters high and full of cars and broken houses. I fled to the high land at the top of the temple – but many other weren’t quick enough. We stayed there overnight until the waters started to recede.

For the first ten days after the quake, nobody came to help. We set up an outdoor takidashi to feed ourselves and our neighbors.

We’ve lost our homes and our family members. There’s no gas, water or electricity. But there are many others worse off than us. This is not the worst place by any means.

Now, the most important thing we need is gasoline for the cars that survived the tsunami. Without it, we’re trapped here and can’t go anywhere.

Masakatsu Kusaka


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I was at home when the earthquake hit. I ran up the hill and sheltered there with a thousand others as the tsunami destroyed our town below us. We stayed there overnight.

When I went back to my house, it was still standing but the tsunami had washed away all the furniture. Now I stay in this evacuation center. I sleep on the floor of the same classroom where I studied as a boy.

It’s cold and there’s not enough food. But there are many places that are worse than this.

Hideaki Aonuma


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I was working in my office when the earthquake struck. It came in three distinct waves. As soon as it was over, I put on the radio and heard the tsunami warning. I jumped on my bicycle and went door to door warning people to flee to high ground. Hundreds of people were running from the port area, screaming that the tsunami was coming. I heard the roar of the water and cycled as hard as I could towards this school. I ran up to the second floor and when I looked down, the whole of the grounds were two meters deep in water.

Now, two weeks on, there are 500 people taking shelter here in Minato Elementary School. We need food and water, blankets – it gets so cold that we wake up in the middle of the night in pain. A lot of the older evacuees are traumatized. In the daytime we have doctors, but when people grow sick at night, it’s impossible to do anything for them until the next day.

Yoshiaki Shoji


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When the tsunami hit, I’d run back to my house to get some warm clothes. My house is a little old and I was worried that, as the waters rose, it wouldn’t be able to survive. So I jumped onto my neighbor’s veranda – their house is newer. I stayed on their balcony all night.

One day later, the waters were still waist deep. But after a couple of days, they’d receded to my knees.

Now, we stay here in this school classroom with 40 other people. We have no way to leave. Our cars have been washed away. But even if we had them, there’s no gas available. We don’t know what to do. Should we try to relocate? Should we stay? The government isn’t telling us anything.

Tadahiro Haga


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