Earthquake and Tsunami

Published : 10:14 am  March 11, 2015 | No comments so far |  | 


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March 11, 2011 started as any other day for most people in Japan. But it did not end that way, the ocean had other plans.

Shaking up the peaceful daily lives of the Japanese at 2.46 pm, an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude rattled the Eastern part of Japan. While the residents of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures and the neighbouring prefectures were still reeling from the shock of the sudden, strong earthquake; the Eastern part of Japan was hit by a great tsunami that was created by the earthquake. As angry waves, reaching as high as 20 metres in some areas, rushed inland, the island was thrown into absolute and utter chaos. In moments, the Eastern coast of Japan, which was buzzing with life, was swallowed by the sea.

The Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami that followed took nearly 16,000 lives while more than 2,500 more still remain missing to this day. Overall, nearly 20,000 lives were lost during the tragedy, while 274,000 people had to be evacuated.

The disaster also left a trail of destruction in its wake. More than one million buildings were damaged with 126,576 buildings completely destroyed. Not only the lives but the livelihoods, homes and schools of hundreds of thousands of people were buried in the rubble. The economic loss was estimated to be a staggering 16.9 trillion yen (140 billion US Dollars approx).

However, the greatest strength of Japan is said to be the resilient nature, courage and the hard work of its people. With these strengths combined with international relief efforts and donations, Japan was able to raise its head again. The survivors did not just survive, they started rebuilding their homes, their towns and their country.
And among the many stories of death, destruction and tears; appeared stories of courage, bravery and hope. Among the thousands of victims who were buried in a watery grave, rose unlikely and unsung heroes.

With Japan nearing the fourth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami, Daily Mirror paid a visit to the Miyagi prefecture, one of the worst hit areas, to speak to the survivors and witness the progress the country has made since the disaster.

A quiet heroine



Maki Sato

“I felt like a tiny doll in a box that was being shaken and turned upside down. I was so scared that I couldn’t even scream”

Maki Sato, 43, does not want to be recognized as a heroine but it cannot be denied that it was her quick thinking that saved the lives of 107 children during the disaster.  Ms. Sato lived in the Ogatsu area with her husband, two children, her parents and her in-laws. On that fateful day, she was attending to her work at the local supermarket while her children were at school and her husband was at work. She was caught by surprise when suddenly the walls around her and the floor beneath started shaking violently. As she dove for cover behind the cash registry, she could see items falling off the shelves.

“I felt like a tiny doll in a box that was being shaken and turned upside down. I was so scared that I couldn’t even scream,” she said, recounting the first moments of terror she felt during the earthquake.
As soon as the tremours had subsided, Sato rushed out of the shop. Here she was faced with a choice. In one direction was the elementary school where her children were studying. In the other direction was her home where her parents were living and the hospital where her grandmother was a resident-patient.

“At first, I could not decide which way to go. My children were supposed to be picked up by their paternal grandfather in case of an emergency. But I did not know if he had been able to take them to safety. On the other hand, I was sure that my mother would go to the hospital to save her mother. As I was sitting in the car debating with myself on which way to go, I heard my mother’s voice telling me ‘you are a mother, go to your children.’ At once I turned in the direction of the school and did not look back.”

When she arrived at the Ogatsu Elementary School, the scene that greeted her was one of utter panic and helplessness. The bewildered children were looking to their teachers for help but they too were at a loss for what to do.

Sato desperately scanned the crowd for her children and was relieved to learn that they had been picked up by her father-in-law already. Even though she wanted to rush back to her children, she simply did not have the heart to leave behind the other innocent children who were still stranded in the school.

She asked a teacher what they planned to do and was horrified to learn that their plan was to stay behind until the tremours stopped. Sato remembered the lessons she had learnt about earthquakes during her own schooldays and realized that a tsunami would be imminent after an earthquake of this magnitude.

‘Take the children to the hills,’ she at once shouted at the teachers. Even without the consent of the headmaster of the school, she took the initiative to evacuate the children to high grounds in the mountains. It was only after helping the teachers to evacuate all the children that she went back to her own family.  Even though they did not realize it at that time, for those at the elementary school Sato was a guardian angel in disguise. In a matter of minutes, the entire school and the area surrounding it was destroyed by the massive waves that spared no one in their path. Because of Sato’s quick thinking, nobody who was at the school ground on that day lost his/her life by the tsunami. Sato herself lost her mother and grandmother to the tsunami. But she was happy that she was able to save the lives of so many others.

Now Sato and her family have relocated themselves to a more central area in the prefecture, closer to her husband’s workplace because the site of her previous home has been deemed too dangerous for them to rebuild a home in.

“The money we got for the land was barely enough to cover our moving costs. But I have learnt that we cannot depend on public assistance. If you depend on the government’s assistance, you will remain a victim for the rest of your life. You need to stand up on your own feet and rebuild your life,” Sato added with a determined look in her eyes.

Life in Temporary Shelters

Before the devastating tsunami, the Togura area in the Miyagi prefecture was a beautiful town which was bustling with life. But now, four years later, it is practically a ghost town. Most of its previous population of 17,000 residents had left the town after the tsunami. Except for a solitary piece of roof tile or a lone concrete block, there is almost no sign of the buildings that housed and sheltered the residents. A clock tower stands with the clock stopped at 2.48 pm, as if the time had stood still since the tsunami waves invaded the town.  It is among the remnants of this town that Togura Junior High School was located.

The site was a designated evacuation site and on the day of the tsunami, many people flocked to the Togura Junior High School with hopes of saving their lives. However, they had not banked on the waves reaching even the land that was as high as the school building, that was located twenty metres above sea-level. However, it was a relatively safe location and it served as a shelter for those who had lost their habitats in the tsunami.

Now, the Junior High School no longer functions as a school but has been transformed into a shelter where a temporary housing scheme for the tsunami victims was built. It is designated for those who still have not found the means to rebuild their homes in a safer location.  “The areas we lived in have been red-lined, meaning the city has deemed the areas as high-risk for tsunamis so we cannot rebuild our homes in the lands we previously owned. However, we have not been able to purchase new land to rebuild our homes, so we are living in temporary houses,” one of the residents explained.

At the site of the Junior High School there are sixty temporary houses with nearly 200 residents. Each matchbox house contains one or two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. The walls are thin and the foundation is not solid as they are not meant to be permanent homes. They are also not suitable for the harsh winters in the Miyagi prefecture and tend to get extremely cold even with heaters and blankets.



Morocao Chiyako

“My son was a construction worker and after the disaster I waited for him to come and pick me up but he never came. It was only days later that I learnt that he had died in the tsunami

Yasuya Sato, 92, is the oldest resident in the temporary housing complex. She lives in her temporary home with her son and daughter-in-law who are both working. To pass the time, she participates in morning exercises and other activities with other retired senior citizens in the housing complex.  She explained that she had been assigned to the Togura Junior High School site by lottery.

Morocao Chiyako, a retired special education teacher, is another elderly resident in this site. During the tsunami, she was rescued by her niece.

“My son was a construction worker and after the disaster I waited for him to come and pick me up but he never came. It was only days later that I learnt that he had died in the tsunami. Now I live in Togura with my daughter-in-law and my three grandchildren,” she recalled with tears glistening in her eyes.  “The temporary house that we were given is too small. We are used to a much bigger house. But all the same, we are grateful to get a roof over our heads. We have gotten accustomed to living here now and we appreciate the shelter,” she added.

As with all the other residents, Chiyako’s only wish is to get her own permanent home to live in; even though she is not sure whether she would live to see that happy day.


Impact on local businesses

The tsunami did not just disrupt the daily lives of the residents but it also ruined most of the local businesses, forcing them to either shut down or relocate.

Hotel Kanyo is one such local business which took a hit from the ruthless waves. The beautiful Japanese inn, which is located right by the Pacific Ocean in Minamisanriku town, was once teeming with tourists who were scrambling to get a chance to witness the hotel’s picturesque view and enjoy its authentic Japanese hospitality. But after the tsunami, Minamisanriku town and its iconic hotel have been forgotten by most. Because of the population drain, now the town and the inn have been all but abandoned.

However, what most people do not know is that the story of Hotel Kanyo is even more beautiful than the view it has to offer.

It is a few who know that Hotel Kanyo was a sanctuary for those who were fleeing the waves during the tsunami. Noriko Abe, the proprietress of Hotel Kanyo, transformed the hotel into a safe haven for the tsunami refugees during the five months that followed after the disaster.


Noriko Abe

“It is important to stop the population leaving and rebuild the town. I hope one day, this town can be full of laughter and people as it once was”

Recounting her experience, Abe explained the hotel somehow miraculously survived the tsunami waves. Because of this many people gathered at the hotel even though it was not a designated evacuation site.

“From my window, I saw the sea turning into dark, inky blue. I watched the powerful waves destroying the town that I had always loved. Then I saw people rushing towards the hotel. What could I do? I could not turn them away. I gathered my staff and told them we would have to prepare in advance to accommodate the victims. Then I apologized in advance to all my guests who would have to go through many inconveniences in the days to come. Then without a moment of hesitation, I opened my hotel to anyone who needed shelter,” Abe said.

As more and more people gathered at the hotel, she foresaw many challenges ahead. The shortage of food, water and medicine posed serious problems. It was a cold, snowy day and to top it off, the power supply to the town had been disrupted. As the sun set, the hotel plunged into darkness and cold.

However, Abe was not discouraged, together with her remaining staff, she lit candles, distributed rice and blankets among the people, urging them to share and try to fetch water from the river.
She also asked the panicked victims to stay strong and calm.

“I told my employees to go back to their families but most of them chose to remain with me. I am forever grateful to them for their dedication, commitment and their assistance to me.”

The first few days were the hardest. Gradually, temporary water supply was restored even though it was, by no means, enough to fulfil the needs of those who had taken refuge in the hotel. However, as the power and food supply was restored, the condition of the hotel too improved. It was far better than the state of some of the other shelters.

Gradually, as time went on, Abe wanted to return a sense of normalcy to the lives of those who were living in her hotel. She started lessons for the children and started organizing fun and other motivational activities for the residents. For five months, Abe sheltered and entertained over a thousand people in her hotel, without anything in return except for grateful smiles and words of thanks.  Those days might be behind her now, but even after four years, the hotel is still struggling to survive. 70 percent of the local businesses have closed down and 80 percent of the Minamisanriku town has been emptied.

“The biggest problem we have is the people leaving the town. It is important to stop the population leaving and rebuild the town. I hope one day, this town can be full of laughter and people as it once was. We should tell everyone, especially, the future generations the story of this beautiful town. We should never let them forget about this town or our stories,” said Abe.