Living in Japan: Ground zero in Tohoku after the tsunami

For a story to come full circle as it did put all the destruction and devastation into perspective…

One of the things I remember the most is the helicopters. Every morning, we’d be woken by one, or two, of them as it whirred overhead, off to look for its daily scout for bodies. And this was three weeks after the disaster had happened.

Each morning, after this grim wake-up call, we’d clamber off the floor of our tent (on which we had but a flimsy mattress roll separating us from the cold, damp ground) and rip open some army rations for breakfast. Jase and Sam had brought a stack of them open; they weren’t all Spam and weird shit either. I had a penchant for the ‘burger’, and the pork rib wasn’t bad either. After a calorific breakfast, we’d unzip the tent and stumble out into the grounds of a local high school, where hundreds of other volunteers had pitched a tent and taken up residence too. Surreal? No. An out-of-body experience of which one never expects to even envisage doesn’t even begin to explain it.

I still remember where I was when I saw the news of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011. I was in Krabi, Thailand, having just got off a boat from Koh Puh, where I’d spent a week of bliss without electricity, or a ohone signal. Me and a traveling companion were wandering through a dusty street when we saw a group of Thai men crowding around a tiny TV in a souvenir shop. We craned our necks for a glimpse as they murmured to each other in a language we had no concept of, and then stopped dead mid-step. I still remember the image of the seemingly harmless wave coming to shore, but instead of stopping at the beach, crashing over the Tohoku coastline and taking cars, trees, houses and anything else in its path with it. Reporters kept saying the word ‘yesterday’. We almost dumped our bags to run to the nearest internet cafe.

At the time, Tokyo was my home. I’d moved there six months earlier after being selected for an exchange at Waseda University, in Takadanobaba. It meant I’d missed the Christchurch (my New Zealand home) earthquake that killed near 200 people three weeks earlier. I missed the first Christchurch earthquake -the forewarning that just brought down buildings – by 12 hours after I went to Timaru for the weekend. I’d missed this natural disaster by several days because I’d agreed to an impromptu trip to Thailand with a friend during our break from classes.

After assuring my mother that she needn’t have called my university, and the New Zealand embassy in Japan, and the New Zealand embassy in Thailand, and a random selection of hotels in southern Thailand, and that yes, the Tohoku tsunami had actually only hit Tohoku and whether I was in Tokyo or Thailand, I would have been unlikely to have been adversely affected, we set about replying to the dozens of social media messages we’d missed by being offline in the aftermath of the disaster. Once that was sorted, we set about figuring out exactly what our options were. America had ordered all their nationals home, England too – so my friend scheduled a flight back to London for the coming days. France had chartered planes to pick up their nationals. No one even emailed me from New Zealand. I was stranded.

A boat’s new resting place

A call to the embassy reassured me I needed to stay put in Thailand until more was known about the nuclear situation. Reports were coming in of a nuclear disaster. Someone said there was radioactive meat being shipped into Tokyo. My university postponed its semester start date. Most of my friends told me they probably wouldn’t be returning – some because their home universities wouldn’t allow it, some because they were just so scared.

I headed back south to the islands (with electricity) where I could afford to pay for cheap accommodation while the situation unfolded. It was the first time I’d traveled alone, and as a 20-year-old female I was apprehensive. Things only worsened when, on my first mini bus ride from Krabi to Koh Lanta, a Thai man decided to try it on. Worse still, this Thai man was the shuttle driver I was forcibly wedged in beside for several hours.  The entire drive, he proceeded to stroke my leg, and repeatedly attempted to look up my skirt, making suggestive faces, when we were sitting idle. As he dropped everyone off before me, I was convinced he was going to kill me in the back of the van. When I finally got out of the car, I ran sobbing to the nearest internet cafe and spent wads of cash attempting to call my parents, not knowing what else to do. The internet cafe owner thought I was batshit crazy.  After the hard word from Dad telling me to go to the police, I spent two days mostly in and out of police stations, being driven around the streets of Koh Lanta attempting to find the man who had made me so upset. I suddenly felt embarrassed, like this was a huge amount of fuss for a small act. Eventually, they found him. They actually sat us both down in the same room and asked me if it was him. The policemen said I’d need to stay in the country if I wanted to bring charges against him. I refused, desperate to leave, and conscious of my mother having already been in touch with my insurance company and getting me a flight to England to stay with my uncle, which was at that point closer and easier to get to than New Zealand. Plus, at that point I’d felt like I’d made a huge over-exaggeration. I wasn’t hurt, I was alive, and there was much worse shit going down in Thailand anyway. I guess I never considered the fact this is what sexual assault felt like.

But, I digress. After three weeks waiting out the situation in the comfort of my uncle’s High Wycombe home, I was back on a plane to Tokyo. Not one of my other friends were allowed to return at that point. Many of them were still traumatised from feeling the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that preceded the tsunami, so I couldn’t really blame them.

My university dorm room was a mess. But after I’d spent those first couple of hours upon return cleaning, I grew listless. The streets were empty. Nobody was around. A tentative date for the start of university had been set, but it was still weeks away. I remembered reading an article about the Student Volunteer Army prepping for a trip to Japan to see if they could help Tohoku, and in a moment of brazen naivety, messaged them on Facebook to see if I could be of any help. A reply came through from both Sam and Jason almost immediately. They couldn’t cover any of my expenses, they said, but if I’d like to tag along they’d welcome a translator.

Not the bus we traveled on

Days later, the three of us were on a bus heading north. Sam, fresh off three weeks of constant attention and backbreaking work surrounding the success of the Student Volunteer Army in the wake of the Christchurch quakes, was already fielding endless phone calls from media. The calls didn’t stop over the next week. At one point, TV3 came to tail us for a few days. I’d never pictured my first turn in front of a camera as the week I’d spent without shower facilities, wearing a hand-me-down pair of grubby oversized men’s overalls.

The first glimpse we got into the destruction came on that first day after we’d got off the bus. A reporter for a local paper wanted a story about the three random New Zealanders here to do something, somewhere. As he drove us through Ishinomaki, I remember so vividly the mounds of debris stacked on the side of the road; the cars stacked on each other, much like a Japanese parking system but without the instruments; the houses toppled sideways on each other like a real-life incarnation of the Three Little Pigs. Describing something as ‘eerily quiet’ is such a cliche, but I couldn’t imagine a more unnatural silence ever existing.

Jase really loved the vege patty MRE

Each day began the same way. A ration of MRE in the tent, crawling outside to greet our neighbours, then back to the registration point to be assigned to an area – all of which I crudely stumbled through with my toddler-level Japanese. I imagine Sam and Jason probably thought they were at least getting high school-level when they invited me. One day, I think we’d actually got on to a company bus and were just happily chilling out at the back when one of the workers finally rose to speak to me (probably telling me to get off the damn bus). We to-ed and fro-ed several times before another white, actual-Japanese person, got on the bus to tell us to come with them instead. Nonetheless, we muddled our way through.

One of the first days we were there, we spent inside a historic soy sauce factory. It was completely filled with silt, debris, and stink, and for a situation so dire, I’ve never met a more pragmatic victim. As we worked, the cheery Japanese owner brought us snacks and patted us on the back. I remember one of us finding one of his wedding photos in the muck. He simply thanked us unemotionally and packed it away. I can only imagine he’d had enough time to process the loss of his business, his home and livelihood, and now just wanted to get on and salvage what he could.

Front and centre of soy sauce factory. Rock star can be found to the very right.

It was that same day that we inadvertently ended up party to a documentary being made by a national celebrity. Blaise Plant, frontman of Japan/ international rock success story Monkey Majik, was in the area to lend a hand, complete with video cameras and rock star-attentive crew. There were a lot of photos taken that day. A lot of videos too. But when the camera stopped rolling, you can’t knock the man’s enthusiasm. He got just as stuck in, and just as muddy as the rest of us. No one could say he was only there for the PR.

Each day was different, but the destruction was largely the same. Houses ripped from foundations, huge cargo ships plonked high on top of what once were towns, barely a way forward through the debris. Eventually we linked up with a group of Canadians and set about helping households who desperately needed it. We cleaned rancid seawater from under people’s floorboards, we met locals who needed desperate help, we cooked huge buckets of ramen for victims, we set Sam and Jason up with some keen local women. Each day, I felt this overwhelming sense of passion and caring about what I was doing. And I remember questioning why I never felt this way about my actual work in New Zealand. That feeling of not doing something for payment is one I’d encourage everyone to do at some point in their lives. It completely changes the way you view how you prioritise your life, and how you pursue selflessness.

And through and through, the Japanese people were upstanding, polite and overwhelmingly thankful. At one point, Jason found a cashed up till in the debris. We tried to turn it in to police, but after it was essentially rejected, we dried it on metal racks and used it to buy barbecue goods for the neighbourhood we’d been helping. That night, full of eating and connecting and singing and dancing, was one of the best memories I have of Japan.

Their pragmatism in dealing with what must have been the greatest disaster to have ever befallen them was astounding.

The other was meeting Toshihiko Fujita. I still remember him seeing him on his bicycle as we walked the streets of Ishinomaki one afternoon, after I approached him to ask for directions. Conversation soon turned to how he’d lost his mother and aunty in the tsunami. He was in the house with them when it hit, on the second storey, yelling at them to climb the stairs. They never responded. Four days later he was rescued from the roof of his house. For 96 hours, he could see his mother’s lifeless body in the water below. He asked if I could share his story with New Zealand, and to get the word out about how bad it was here. The next day, without a cellphone or really a landmark of debris to guide them with, I sent the TV3 crew back to the same spot to interview Toshihiko. They found him, too.

Me with Toshi in 2011

Another excursion was spent at an ancient artefacts museum, if I recall correctly, trying to salvage historic artefacts out of the filth. TV3 were there by that stage, and I remember a lot of walking through debris, pretending not to notice the camera, holding up light reflectors for interviews with Sam and Jase, and sitting in hallways attempting to write scripts. Another Waseda alum, an actual Japanese person this time who could translate 100 times better than I could, had joined us, too.

Nights were either spent in said hallways, or meeting with the other volunteers. One evening, a guy wandering past our tent invited us, some of the only white people in the sea of tents, to come and join them. They offered us food and drink, and we sang random Japanese songs we barely learned the words to until the early hours of the morning. Sure, it made the next day decidedly hard to get through, picking through much semi hungover and feeling like you might keel over, but I can’t imagine many better instances of camaraderie in times of turmoil.

We may not have been able to understand most of what they were saying, but they did a good instant noodle

By the time we had to go our separate ways, I was in a state of devastation. I’d expected to put myself through back-breaking labour and muddle through my time here, not enjoy and thrive off every minute of it. But TV3 were still around, and they intended to prolong my trip. They were headed south, nearish to Fukushima, to interview another couple of Kiwis around there and were keen on having someone to translate. At that point, not much was known about the nuclear situation still. However, when I saw the GPS heading us directly towards the power plant, we made a hasty call to do a U-turn and find another direction. It was astonishing to see that Fukushima, the largest city of the prefecture, still bustling with life despite being in the evacuation zone. That might’ve been the point Jess asked me how many iodine tablets we’d taken. I replied that we hadn’t been on any, the thought of radiation poisoning hadn’t even entered my mind.

In the weeks that followed, a trickle of my original group of friends returned from their home countries where they’d been waiting the disaster out. However, Waseda, and Tokyo, was never the same. It was quieter than usual, and there was a lot more uncertainty. Stories ran about contaminated food, plumes of radiation over Tokyo, and the death toll continued to climb. The Waseda alum who had traveled to Tohoku to help us and I started up a ‘Waseda Student Volunteer Army’ with the aim of sending students to help in the volunteer efforts. It failed. I think Japanese students had tough enough lives as it is, and at one point it seemed the region was overwhelmed with people wanting to help and nowhere to put them.

Even after August, when I returned to New Zealand, Japan never left my mind.

Playing baseball with the locals, Ishinomaki.

In 2016, I got an Asia New Zealand grant to return to Tohoku and retrace my steps, to see how things had gone. I’d initially had this outrageous vision of somehow being able to link up with Toshihiko, as if he might somewhere had been wandering the streets with his bike. I sent what seemed like hundreds of emails to try and find his whereabouts, or track him down, but to no avail. I accepted the fact I’d return and try to find him, but after numerous fellow volunteers replied saying they had no idea what he was doing now, I wasn’t holding out much hope.

As expected, the recovery efforts in Tohoku were well underway, at the point where they were well done with demolition and clearing and already on to rebuilding – and miles ahead of Christchurch. In Minamisanriku, they were slicing away at nearby hillsides and bringing the dirt down to build the land level up. It was the day I’d first arrived in Ishinomaki, I think, when I uploaded a photo to Facebook showing the state of recovery, when a volunteer I’d forgotten I connected with on social media commented on it. I frantically sent him a message, and asked about Toshihiko, or anyone that might know his whereabouts. He gave me a contact, who offered to pick me up from the train station in Ishinomaki and take me to a temporary housing shelter where volunteers would be cooking for people who were still homeless after the disaster. I still remember clasping Toshihiko’s hands that day, noticing how young he still looked and how time had actually been rather kind to him.

Toshi and I, five years apart

Much had changed since 2011. He ran a soup kitchen in the area for a while, and founded a small organisation co-ordinating teams of volunteers. ​He even rebuilt the kindergarten he owned that had been swept away by the tsunami. His house has been rebuilt too, but he is overcome with laughter when I ask about it.

“It’s not perfect,” he laughs. “It’s – how do you call it – DIY.”

And today, exactly five years on from the day it all changed, he was volunteering again.

Almost 9000 people still live in Ishinomaki’s temporary housing shelters, a large slice of the 57,667 evacuees across three prefectures.  That anniversary, like every one before it, a group from Japan’s southernmost island arrived at one shelter to dole out homemade ramen. Refugees, mostly elderly, stream from the prison camp-like rows of makeshift housing. Tears fall as hands are clasped for a minute of silence.

Barbecue with the locals with till money washed up in the tsunami

Upon spotting a foreigner in their midst, residents muster every English word in their arsenal to wish them well. Since the disaster, tourists are few and far between, they say, and they’re desperate to have them back.

One of the most poignant pictures in my mind of that time will always be the sight of the beautiful cherry blossoms, a spring-time celebration people come from around the world to see, hanging over mangled cars and upended houses. A lasting tribute to the beauty that can be born from disaster if I’ve ever seen one.

Read my full report on the 5-year anniversary of the tsunami here.

Cherry blossoms overseeing the disaster

Toshi showing us around his town in 2011.
We love MREs
The soy sauce factory couple’s wedding photo, found in the silt.
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